Socially Relevant Film Festival Features Armenian Themes

By Florence Avakian

Special to the Mirror-Spectator

NEW YORK — The first-ever Rated SR Socially Relevant Film Festival debuted at the Quad Cinema March 14 to 20, featuring more than 55 films from 18 countries, including six Armenian-themed works. “This festival is an alternative to the violence-fueled films which glamorize crime that are flooding the popular market,” said actress and filmmaker Nora Armani who founded this unique festival. She added that it was also in memory of her cousin and uncle who 10 years ago were victims of hate crimes. “Our goal is to provide a platform, and raise awareness about important social issues, which will hopefully make a change.”

Three of the Armenian-themed documentaries and features were shown on Sunday, March 16 for maximum Armenian attendance. For this writer, the most powerful of the Armenian films was “Orphans of the Genocide,” a searing one and a half hour expose of secret documents and archival material on the fate of the Armenian orphans after the Genocide. The material was meticulously researched for three and a half years by Florida four-time Emmy Award winning filmmaker Bared Maronian, and his Armenoid Productions in Coconut Creek, Fla.

It relates the tragic experiences of a sizeable number of the more than 150,000 surviving Armenian orphans who were subjected to kidnappings, rape, torture, and were forced to become laborers and concubines at the hands of their Ottoman and Kurdish abductors. It also relates the herculean efforts of many non-Armenian missionaries and relief workers who risked their lives to rescue and help these innocent victims in orphanages in the Middle East and Greece.

In one unforgettable scene, it shows a young Armenian woman who had been tattooed on her head, chin and mouth by her captors, and she, later in life with great pains has these marks of her slavery removed. In another scene, the unveiling of commemoration stones are finally placed at the Antoura cemetary near Beirut, Lebanon where 300 young orphans were killed and are buried. The Antoura orphanage was operated by Ahmad Jemal Pasha, and was a Turkification center where 1,000 young orphan boys were systematically deprived of their Armenian identity, given new Turkish names, forced to become Muslims, and severely beaten if they spoke Armenian.

Among the notable people featured in the film are Turkish historian and sociologist Taner Akçam, and pathologist Dr. Jack Kevorkian whose parents’ tragic experiences are brought to life in grotesque paintings. Following the screening, Bared Maronian mentioned that the film had been inspired by an article, titled “Living Proof of the Armenian Genocide” by The Independent’s celebrated columnist Robert Fisk. He noted it has been distributed by PBS-TV in Fresno, Troy, Miami and Toronto, with plans for further venues.

“Hamshen Community at the Crossroads of Past and Present,” a one-hour documentary by Lucine Sahakyan who went to Turkey and filmed the descendants of Hamshen Armenians from 2010 to 2012. The film received the Armin T. Wegner Humanitarian Award. These Hamshens, today numbering more than 100,000, were forced to convert to Islam in the 18th century by the Ottoman authorities, and today live mostly in the provinces of Rizeh, Artvin, Erzerum as well as Istanbul.

A valuable insight into the Hamshens’ way of life, these unaffected people are seen singing, dancing, eating their traditional foods and speaking in their unique dialect. They say that they consider themselves neither Turkish nor Armenian. They are integrated in the Turkish world, and many of the younger Hamshens are gravitating to the urban areas of Turkey.

As the viewer was reading the English captions, the emotional impact of the film was diluted by the filmmaker’s very loud narration in Armenian. And there were definite mixed feelings as one saw these Armenians ostracized from their ethnic roots and history. However, the openness and honesty of the people, their own local identity, and yes, their joyous way of life in the mountains, pastures and the natural world were inescapable.

The film “If Only Everyone…” by Natalia Belyauskene, and produced by Michael Pogosian, received its New York premiere at this festival. It is a poignant story of a young woman who travels to Armenia to find the grave of her father who was killed in the Nagorno-Karabagh war, and plant a shrub at his gravesite. She befriends an older Armenian veteran of this devastating conflict and together, with many humorous adventures, they travel together. At the end of the trip they encounter an Azeri father who has also lost his son in the war, and their meeting results in powerful feelings of emotion and understanding between people who have experienced the tragedy of war.

Also included in the festival was the short film, “Bavakan” by Adrineh Gregorian, which tells the heartbreaking story of aborting female fetuses in Armenia, a harrowing fact which former President Jimmy Carter has included in his most recent book, A Call to Action: Women, Religion, Violence and Power. Also screened were two other Armenian-themed films — “Armenian Activists Now” by Robert Davidian and “Later Than Usual” by David Hovan. Both shorts brought to light controversial events that Armenia is facing currently.

Several prizes were awarded at the conclusion of the festival. The Grand Prize, the highest honor, was given to the award-winning documentary “Small Small Thing” by Jessica Vale, which focused on the harrowing case of a 7-year-old Liberian child, Olivia Zinnah, who was raped and died of her injuries despite heroic attempts by the Liberian government and the medical establishment to save her.

Included among the 25 partners and sponsors of the Rated SR Socially Relevant Film Festival were Cinema Libre Studio, the Village Voice, indieflix, the French Embassy in the US, french institute:alliance francaise, Michael Aram, uniFrancefilms, cineuropa, Center for Remembering & Sharing, and the School of Visual Arts.