Germany & Armenia / 1992 / Armenian

Directed by Don Askarian

With Alik Asatryan, Mikhail Stepanyan, Karen Dzhanibekyan

Still from 'Avetik'How can one, upon viewing Don Askarian’s film Avetik, know precisely what one has been through, and on whose inner journey one has been privileged to ride? Is it Avetik Isahakyan, 20th Century Armenian poet’s? Or is it Askarian, the 20th Century Armenian filmmaker’s? The parallels between the two quickly cease to matter. They are one – and, as we discover, also a multitude of others. History, identity, awakening, are refracted as through quartz crystals – present, magnified, and abstract all at once. An Armenian king of yore dismounts his horse in the protagonist’s Berlin apartment, stopping to light up a cigarette and listen to some modern verse. An old man trudges a snow-covered waste, where metal objects skip past him toward a giant magnet, and he takes shelter against an ice flow. The spaces we see have been purged of their physical evidence (in the form of gas-masked soldiers taking torches to an old villa), or are empty of it, bearing only appearance.

It would be impossible to condense or somehow recount the sublime images, both intense and oneiric, that are to be found in Avetik, since the film is entirely composed of them, one after the next. The camera’s gliding view, before which anarchic and beautiful tableau fall into place, no more adapts the eponymous poet’s words than do medieval monks’ gold-leafed manuscripts represent a clear rendering of the gospels. Rather, it reconstitutes emotions from its subject’s life and work to stand as a frame through which beauty, in its most distilled, transcendent form, shines through.

Still from 'Avetik'Are we skimming the pages of a dream? Doubtful. What we see in Avetik is too outside the moment, too purposeful, to be an attempt to depict dreams. The film is agog with layers, as a trawling of memory must be. The layers form a concert of recollections, neither biographical nor autobiographical, but drawn from some subterranean river beneath all of it. Two young boys move through war wreckage in the countryside, examining, through the fading sunset, found frames of celluloid – Kiwako Taichi, Monica Vitti, before those images burn as well. And the boy’s gaze also finds the form of a female body beneath a tree. That discovery is the product of sensuality without eroticism, of taste and the texture of light that coaxes the boy back to the infantile state he has just recently left behind.

In the long stillness, the icy postscripts to devastation, there always appears the image of renewal, but they two forces are not necessarily related. The frozen bodies of sheep protrude from the ground, as though littered about the landscape by some celestial impact event. Meanwhile a woman nurses a starving sheep (literally, suckling it to her breast) back to life. But how many of those animals have made the attempt to cross the barren mountain pass? How many of them has the man attempted to carry with him, only to be lost beneath the ice of the river? The presence of life is countered by that of loss, birth by depletion. They move and disperse one another, but both leave their markings on the land.

Since Askarian has arrived at his predecessor through his own subconscious, the central figure of the story remains elusive, possibly providing framing words and images. But they are always uncertain, slightly anonymous, without attribution. It is a first-person narrative of a type, but one that is continually meshed with the life of another, a past which tunnels through to the present, clear as day but awash with a hot, golden glow from an ancient time. The filmmaker’s space, an apartment where the air is frequently disrupted by a train whooshing past, is a place of witnessing – murder, betrayal, forgetting – and one that shields him from experience. Lengths of film hang down to the floor like the strands of a weeping willow; a page from an ancient manuscript is projected on the wall, overlapping the windows. He likens his art to the hobby of a concentration camp guard, merely a way to pass the time before taking up the true instrument of his calling.The calamities of the outside world appear on evaporating screens.

Still from 'Avetik'It is unfavorable but inevitable that Askarian’s film sits in the shadow of Sergei Parajanov’s celebration of 16th Century poet Sayat-Nova, The Color of Pomegranates (1968). Avetik is as much a paean to that film as it is an extension of that artistic culture where an ancient surrealism has lingered and endured up to and beyond its modern parallels. That both Parajanov and Askarian chose to use as their sounding-vessels two poets (rather than two painters), shows that the lineage is divergent, and not as obvious as a succession of visual artforms. If cinema is an extension of poetry into the visual world, then the intersection of words and images, that initial meeting of the two, is the starting point for both filmmakers. And from there they both build higher, or dig deeper, depending on which direction is up.

By invoking Isahakyan – and he is invoking him more than outwardly representing him – Askarian is equally channeling Parajanov, thereby placing himself in a continuum of poets and image-makers. He doesn’t have much of a choice; it is destiny, inescapable like the earthquake whose victims we see in cutting-room afterburn. Isahakyan becomes a modern-day Sayat-Nova, his words an expression of transience overlaid with sensual feelings and soulful longing. The pages of books that we see, windblown but stationary, in The Color of Pomegranates, now sit, blasted chaotically around the room, all debased in the confusion of exile.

Still from 'Avetik'Without a deep understanding of his cultural background, it would be difficult to pinpoint or sort out the meaning that Sayat-Nova held for Parajanov, so deeply-rooted was the inspiration the filmmaker derived from the poet, so culturally-specific his thrall. The identification that Askarian draws to his subject, however, is much closer, more immediate, so that the two men represent a sort of mirror in time. But their closeness is only a launching port. Askarian applies the poet’s words as though they had tumbled from his own mouth. They form the foundation of the imagery but do not dictate it. Instead, the images reside, like the priest suspended beneath an iced-over pond, just beneath the surface. The experience of being Armenian, of being exiled, and of searching for non-existent words to express it all, are alive in the poet’s work, and continue to be embodied in it long after his passing. Isahakyan’s words form the ruins among which Avetik‘s wild garden of imagery twists and climbs.

The Armenians know that nothing is for certain, that happiness and comfort are illusions, and that both can disappear without a moment’s notice. And yet they continue to illuminate beauty, to hew it from rock, to recite it without end. They pass it down through centuries. That pain, mitigated by a certitude with beauty, is what Askarian chooses to extract from his and the poet’s experience. The camera is used like a dowsing wand, to seek out the waters of pure imagery that flow beneath a scorched and denuded landscape, permafrost, or the sedimentary layers of human indifference deposited over the years.


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