By Aram Arkun
WATERTOWN – Alec Mouhibian is a producer and co-writer and co-director of the movie “1915,” which is premiering in the Boston area on August 27 and September 10. The Mirror-Spectator and the Tekeyan Cultural Association, sponsors of the September 10 showing, had the opportunity to speak with Mouhibian about his role in the film.
Mouhibian became friends with “1915” co-writer and co-director Garin Hovannisian at Paul Revere Middle School in Los Angeles, and the friendship continued over the years, developing into a professional working relationship. The two came up with the story and outline for “1915” together and after writing separate sections of the script, worked them over until they melded into one seamless piece. Their goal was to have a film ready for the symbolically important April 1915 centenary of the Genocide, and one that could be made for very little money if necessary.
Fortunately, several investors were found, primarily Armenian, and the film was shot in 20 days. Among the investors were the Armenian Center for National and International Studies, founded in 1994 by Raffi Hovannisian (Garin’s father), and RVVZ and Initiatives for Development of Armenia (Idea) foundations, established by Ruben Vardanyan and Veronika Zonabend.
Two American firms were hired to handle marketing and media. The digital branding and marketing agency iNexxus, run by Raffi Keuhnelian and Anthony Katz, took care of online marketing — Facebook, search engines and exposure, while Prodigy sent the film to reviewers and convinced them that it was important to cover. Mouhibian said that reviews in papers like the Los Angeles Times or the New York Times only occur when films are released in the home cities of these newspapers, so serious premieres had to be arranged.
The film was not a typical Hollywood venture and so a distribution partner was utilized who helped plan its release. With a tight schedule in order to premiere in April, there was no time to introduce the film first through international festivals and then take it to the broader public. Unexpectedly, a surprisingly large number of American theaters were interested in showing it, so that a traditional release took place in 10 theaters in Southern California, one in New York City, one in Fresno and one in Davis, Calif.
Even more impressively, on its opening weekend, “1915” was ranked as the number two performing independent film debut in the US. This led to the film being extended to a second week in all theaters, and in Los Angeles it played for six weeks. Mouhibian said, “By indie standards, this is a major theatrical success. Everyone who worked on it from the distribution and production side was shocked.”
Yet Mouhibian said it could have been much greater, but for the attitude among some Armenians that such a film primarily should be seen by odars (non-Armenians). He pointed out that “If only a slightly higher percentage of Armenians went to see the film, it could have been a historic indie success, one of the big movie stories of the year — the kind that would have led to the greenlighting of many more Armenian-themed films in the future…And of course the resultant publicity would have expanded its non-Armenian audience exponentially, as it does with any film that takes off.” In other words, Armenian-Americans do not fully understand what their own influence in the entertainment field could be, if only they would be more disciplined and take such opportunities more seriously.
While traditional releases took place in 13 American theaters, with investment in public relations and the involvement of the cast and directors, for all other US cities, an Internet-based platform, tugg.com, was used. A certain number of tickets have to be sold in advance for theaters to agree to show the movie. This is the approach used in the two Boston area showings, for example. The initial cost is minimized by using Tugg.
The movie has also been shown internationally, so far in Berlin, Australia, Russia, and Yerevan. The Armenian version is entirely dubbed in Armenian with actors from Armenia, and the version shown at the Armenian Golden Apricot Film Festival had Armenian subtitles, while the version distributed by Paradise Ent. in Russia is dubbed in Russian. In Russia the movie received a great deal of attention, and was shown in 50 theaters nationwide. The Romanian premiere will have taken place by the time this article is printed, and there is even going to be a Turkish premiere, at the Lake Van International Film Festival, this September 2-7. Turkish subtitles are being prepared for this occasion.
Downloading off the Internet is another way to distribute the film. Download sales were apparently not that successful for three reasons. In Russia, the film was wildly pirated, and the same is true in Armenia, where many Armenian news sites and blogs posted the pirated Russian YouTube link, and 50,000 people watched it. In addition to pirated editions, another problem is that older Armenians are not used to downloading films. Finally, Mouhibian admits that the promotion of the legitimate sites for download, such as iTunes, was not effectively carried out by the “1915” team.
The film has faced what Mouhibian calls “a very detrimental campaign” on April 24 of this year to plummet its score on the Internet Movie Data Base (IMDB.com), a popular website providing information on movies and television programs. Russell Crowe was the “guest editor” of IMDB on April 24. He directed a movie called the “Water Diviner” about Gallipoli. Mouhibian and Hovannisian publicly criticized Crowe and Warner Brothers for releasing a “denialist film,” depicting the Turks as the “noble victims” of World War I, on April 24.
Thus, it could not have been much of a coincidence when on April 24, within a few hours, 400 Turks gave “1915” a 1 out of 10 rating, which cut its IMDB score in half. Mouhibian points out that unlike on IMDB, the film’s score on another popular website, Rotten Tomatoes, is 85 percent — much higher. Mouhibian points out that it is not too late for people who like “1915” to rate it on IMBD.
When asked about the difficulties of making a movie about a genocide, Mouhibian replied that art can be made concerning horrific events, but “not if it has to contend with anti-artistic burdens and restrictions, not if it has to be educational.” In the Armenian case, much of the general public is not aware of the basic history, unlike other major tragedies. Furthermore, Mouhibian stated, “those who do know about it do not desire an interesting film — what they want is a blockbuster advertisement for the world that will reverse 100 years of denial with blood and guts and Brad Pitt. Of course that kind of movie invites the audience to be entertained by the slaughter of Armenians — no way around it — and this creates its own moral problem.”
Thus, he continued, “these problems have created expectations that are impossible for any one film to meet.” Mouhibian said they “tried to avoid as much as possible the burden of informing the audience [directly about the history of the events], hoping naively that by [the movie release in] April enough publicity would have been generated for a base of familiarity. But we still operated under these restrictions.”
They also tried to avoid some of these problems by presenting the film as a mystery, taking place in a theater during one day. Mouhibian explained that “the burdens and dilemmas and problems and ignorance are all part of the maze, part of the scenery of this haunted and fantastic theater. It won’t make sense right away. Our goal is that by the end of the film it might cohere into something undeniable.”
Mouhibian was attracted to films from a young age, and made a 45-minute detective farce in tenth grade. At the age of 16, he and Hovannisian wrote their first feature script together, an adaptation of an Agatha Christie novel. This was rejected by a reader at MGM as too intellectual, and Mouhibian did not write scripts again for years. He graduated with a bachelor’s degree in English from the University of California, Los Angeles in 2007. He never took any filmmaking class, and did not go on to graduate school, but regularly continued to watch films while working as a journalist, writing for cultural-political magazines like the Weekly Standard, Slate, the New Criterion and the Washington City Paper. He also held fellowships at the Hoover Institute at Stanford University and the Moving Picture Institute. However, as he put it, “soon it became clear that the road leads back to Hollywood.”
He wrote a few more feature scripts, including one with Hovannisian, helped friends with their film projects, and took part in a documentary by Yervand Kochar. He and Hovannisian produced ads and events between 2012 and 2013 for Raffi Hovannisian’s presidential campaign on a shoestring budget. All this work, even if not connected directly to making a fiction film, “gave us the practical confidence to get our hands dirty,” Mouhibian stated.
He did not have direct contact with Armenian Genocide survivors, unlike his partner Hovannisian, and as a youngster, did not participate in an organized manner in the life of the Armenian community. He only attended one April 24 march, when he was seven years old, about which he remembers the following: “That’s where I first learned that the thing Armenians wanted was justice, and the time in which they wanted it, was now. I also heard this chant: “1915 never again.” But the strongest impressions from that afternoon were the record heat, the plastic jugs of water being passed from one wrinkled mouth to the other, and a man who shouted “Justice!” after everyone else had stopped.”
Mouhibian said, “I took my Armenian background for granted. I wasn’t ashamed of it, I never denied it, but it didn’t amount to any passions, interests or desires. It was a background, and nothing more…The fact is that nobody who knew me at 15, or even 25, would ever suspect that I’d make something called ‘1915.’”
Yet as a result of his continuing friendship with Hovannisian, he visited Yerevan and kept going back, until he got involved in Raffi Hovannisian’s recent campaign for president. And then came this movie. As Mouhibian concludes, “the forces of Armenia live on in mysterious ways, and that is partly what ‘1915’ is about.”
Tickets may be purchased for the September 10 Cambridge, showing of “1915” at the Landmark Theater at www.tugg.com/events/25686. The deadline for purchase is August 30. The August 27 showing at the Landmark Theater in Waltham has sold out. If you have any difficulties in purchasing your tickets online, or have further questions, contact Aram Arkun at [email protected], or call the Mirror-Spectator at 617-924-4420.