Along the ruined Nagorno-Karabakh border, survivors of the Armenian Genocide wander aimlessly through the snowy landscape. A profound and contagious grief has settled over this forgotten people. They must remain vigilant to the constant fighting along the trenches at the border. This piece of land has been under dispute between Armenia and Azerbaijan since the fall of the USSR that continues today.
Belgian documentarist Pierre-Yves Vandeweerd captures the empty and melancholy lives of the survivors of the Armenian Genocide and the fall of the USSR (1988 – Present). In his avant-garde style, Vandeweerd focuses the film on silence and repetitive actions. The men and women his camera follows circle the snowy tundra as if they have nowhere to go.
Open City Documentary Festival: A Story in Faded Photographs
Trapped in their history, the population of this ruined area cannot move forward with their lives. The constant conflict, poverty, and bitter cold have destroyed their prospects for happiness. Depression seems to ooze from the very landscape. Vandeweerd has made the brilliant choice to present this film in faded color. The very army uniforms of the soldiers – easily the most vibrantly colored items in the entire film – are washed out like they belong to a different era. The very trenches in which these soldiers live their lives are something out of the First World War – though the current conflict only began in 1994.
Some shots in this film leave you wondering if you are seeing in black and white, until you see a peek of blue sky through thick clouds or the slight green of fir trees.
The Man That Jesus Made Eternal
The survivors are not identified by name, but you come to know their faces. One of the main two men, who will hereafter be called The Horseman (as this is how he identifies himself), tells us the local myth of a man that Jesus Christ made eternal, whom they call The Last Man. The Horseman tells us this immortal sufferer was a porter of Pontius Pilate who urged Jesus to hurry up and carry the cross to Golgotha. Jesus turned to him and replied “I am leaving, but you will wait until I return.”
They say The Last Man lived somewhere in this devastated region of Armenia. He has lived 29 lives, and every time he reached 100 years old he contracts an incurable disease and is reverted back to the age he was when Christ was crucified. We are told this story in a whisper, voiced over the wanderings of The Horseman and other survivors through the nowhere place in which they live.
It becomes painfully clear to us that this myth is how they have come to view their own lives. Except it is not Jesus’ return they are waiting for. Through the wanderings of the characters we come to the church where Armenian refugees came to find sanctuary and shelter at the height of the conflict. The shocking horrors are recounted for us – women and children murdered, men destroyed, a burning piano playing itself.
But the true trauma comes in the eternal wait for the war to end.
This brilliant and sophisticated documentary is not for the faint of heart. The film touches on some very heavy topics and fully immerses us in the thick melancholy felt by the inhabitants.
Perfect for anyone with a keen interest in the Cold War and its socio-political aftermath, this documentary features the great humanitarian cost of war. It is not focused on the noise and chaos of the war itself, but rather the stillness of those left behind. If you have a short attention span this film might not be for you.
*Note: This film is in Armenian with English subtitles.
September 6, 2017 at 8:30pm BST
The Institute of Contemporary Arts
The Mall, St. James's, London SW1Y 5AH, UK
Photos courtesy of Open City Documentary Festival