Cinema as a Means of Cross-Cultural dialogue

The first basic thesis is:
Europe has become bigger. There are fewer borders.
More countries, more cultures under the political roof of Europe. The Iron
Curtain, that old dividing line, has finally disappeared (at least physically).
Does this offer the chance to become better acquainted with our new neighbors,
their language, culture and history, their people (with all their needs and
desires and dreams and problems), with the tragic history they have passed
through? What’s the role of cinema, in this context? What kind of stories should
the filmmakers tell? And is there any role at all?

The second basic thesis is:
The cinema as a cultural phenomenon is
creating and functioning within a common cultural space that does not admit any
political, ideological, religious and racial borders. That’s why cinema must be
treated as an effective instrument of cross-cultural dialogue and mutual
understanding in the contemporary world. We should use the unlimited resources
of cinema in the attempt to strengthen the cultural cooperation not only in the
region (Caucasus), but also within the context of “the New Expanded

Before accepting or denying these basic theses let’s, according to an eastern
saying, look back. The history of cinema presents a rich background that makes
us think and also serves as a good example for our present day politicians.

In the first years of its existence, cinema (at those times
still silent) was called international art. As it didn’t have to be translated
and could be equally understood by the audiences in different countries. Later,
the heroes began to speak different languages, but only when the cinema obtained
speech and sound, did it became obvious that as a cultural phenomena the cinema
creates and functions within a common cultural space that does not admit any
political, ideological, religious, or racial borders.

At first sight it seems that each national cinematography
develops autonomously. Nevertheless, there were and still are some common rules
which influence the development of each and finally bring to similar results.
Except for the common rules, there also exists interference of cultures, as a
nation’s culture can develop and recognize itself only in a dialogue with other

At first sight the cinematography of each nation has been
developing autonomously, but there have been some common aspects which
influenced each of them and which finally brought about somewhat similar
results. But besides the common aspects there is also such things as
interrelation of cultures, since the culture of a nation may only develop in a
dialogue with other cultures. We would like the films and their creators, while
observing closely the life of strangers, to be imbued with common human
problems, troubles, joys and adversities. We would like the films to be
reflected in one another and support in solving jointly the difficult
social-political problems of the region as it is true that getting to know the
other means becoming more tolerant, getting to know the other means seeing
yourself in another human being. These are the criteria based on which the films
are selected for screenings within the scope of the seminar.

Pioneer and founder of the Armenian cinema, Hamo
Bek-Nazarov, shot the first Armenian film in 1925 in Hayfilm first state studio,
which began his cinematographic career as a star of the Russian
pre-revolutionary cinema. At the same time he shot one of the first Georgian
feature films in Tbilisi, worked and shot films in Baku. One after another he
produced masterpieces of South Caucasus cinematography (Armenian, Georgian, and
Azerbaijani), which entered the history of World Cinema.

Another example: film director Serguey Parajanov- Armenian,
who was born in Tbilisi, shot his wonderful pictures in Armenia, Georgia, and
Azerbaijan. In his films we see the multilingual dialogic space of pure culture,
which allowed for Parajanov to be suitable for heights of an artist even in
Soviet times; it let him be upon the ideological and political structure.

Much was written about Parajanov’s conflict with the soviet
system. Here I would like to remind the reader of a rare known episode from
Parajanov’s life, which happened in 1988-89 as he was about to finish his work
on his last film “Ashik Kerib”. The story of the film is based on an old Turkish
legend, which inspired Russian poet Lermontov to write a wonderful poetical tale
about love. The film, which was being shot by an Armenian director and Armenian
camera man in Azerbaijan, in mountains in Baku and Sheki, and was financed by
“Georgian film” studio and Georgian crew, was to symbolize the unity of three
cultures in Transcaucasia.

These three cultures equally existed in Parajanov’s poetical
world. They all came from the same syncretic roots which nourished also
Parajanov. But if we take into consideration the stormy events, which took place
in 1988 in Armenia and Azerbaijan (it’s the beginning of the conflict in Nagorno
Kharabakh, which turned into war between Armenia and Azerbaijan), we can see
that the great director, who had undertaken screening a Turkish tale in
Azerbaijani appeared in an ambiguous situation. For the musical and plastic
score of the film Azerbaijani folklore and language were irreplaceable, but how
would it be grasped in Armenia in that period?

At first Parajanov was in a state of panic. He decided to
dub the picture in Persian. But how could he do that then? The Soviet Union
still existed and the borders were closed. Parajanov went to Tajikistan, for
Tajik resembled Persian. But this version was unacceptable. And at last
Parajanov decided to go to Baku, even as a hostage, for the political situation
was extremely serious.  Parajanov recorded all the dialogues and music-
mughams in Baku. The film was finished. Triumphal premieres took place in
Tbilisi and Moscow. Then followed triumphal participation in international
festivals in Rotterdam, Venice, Berlin, New York, and everywhere, however
surprising, the film was accepted as Armenian.

But in Armenia the premiere of the film took place only 8
years later, in 1996. Maybe Parajanov was right. If “Ashik Kerib” was shown in
Armenia at the end of the 80s at the height of the political and military
opposition, the meaning would be completely lost on the Armenian audience.
“Ashik Kerib” returned to Armenia much later and they saw the sad ashugh
(vagabond poet, singer) before whom the doors of the mosque were closed. He is
standing alone on the bare mountain slope with a saz wrapped into a violet silk
surrounded by Christian children who saved him. But “God is unique,” exclaims
Ashik Kerib in despair. Maybe this is the cry of Parajanov himself? God is
unique and all the people are brothers. Here is the commandment with which
Parajanov, the great Humanist, turned to people at the dawn of his life on the

Let’s go back from these examples to today’s reality and ask
ourselves whether we can be higher than the momentary political situation. What
can and must be done? How could the scopes of the cinema be used for
strengthening the cross-cultural dialogue and mutual understanding not only in a
certain region but in the context of very constructive concept of “a new
expanded Europe” or “a new European neighborhood”.

I will give examples of concrete initiatives, programs which
at the moment are being realized by the Association of Film Critics and Cinema
Journalists of Armenia. All the activities of the Association from the moment of
its establishment in 1996 was aimed at restoration and development of
professional partner relations in the region in the sphere of the cinema, and
also at organizing international festivals and implementing international
regional programs.
For example, there is a project “South Caucasus
Audio-Visual Network”(in progress), supported by the Synergy South Caucasus
Cooperation Program of The Eurasia Foundation. Our partners in that project are
Georgian Independent Filmmakers Union, and Azerbaijan Film Directors Guild.

As a result soon “South Caucasus Film Professionals’ Guide” will be
published and a new website will be opened in the Internet for attracting
investments in the film industries of South Caucasus countries.

Another regional project (Russia-North Caucasus, Armenia,
Azerbaijan, Georgia) is also in the state of being realized as the “Caucasus
Documentary Net”. Its slogan explains everything: “Promoting conciliation and
inter-ethnic tolerance in the Caucasus through the development of a cross-border
documentary filmmaking and broadcasting initiative” (supported by the Dutch Film
Institute and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Denmark) – see web-site: href="">

Here are two interesting extracts from the project
“The peoples of Caucasus are being challenged in many ways in
the new Millennium. Regional wars are creating divides and hostility between
ethnic groups and emergent states and hundred of thousands of people have been
displaced. At the same time global politics of fighting against terrorism,
securing oil supplies and maintaining political stability are having an impact
on everyday-life in the region…
While mass media in the Caucasus are
dominated by discourses of ethnic antagonisms, this project will be a much
needed contribution to support and establish interregional links between
documentary filmmakers and related players who are committed to visions of peace
building, ethnic tolerance and democratic values…”

Another interesting and very prospective project which
started this year is the Yerevan Annual International Film Festival “Golden
Apricot”. The first festival successfully took place from June, 30 to July, 4,
2004 and gathered more than 70 participants from 20 countries of the world. The
festival had wide echoes in local and foreign press. The aim of the Second
Yerevan International Film Festival “Golden Apricot” which will take place July
12-17, 2005, is to present in a common cultural context films which reflect the
traditions, customs, rituals, and everyday life of the inhabitants of different
countries that surround Armenia and influence its cultural development. This aim
best corresponds to the motto of the festival “Crossroads of cultures and

This aim should be considered very pressing for the regional
problem of re-establishing the lost relations of the cultures of the region’s
people, which once actively influenced one another and developed in a common
cultural field. Nowadays, the general public in Armenia has a very vague idea
about the processes taking place in the cinematography and wider – in the
cultures and societies of neighbor nations. This leads not only to cultural
isolation but also to undesirable social and political consequences.

To know the neighbor is the first step of understanding him.
The cinema in this sense has inexhaustible possibilities for getting acquainted
and sympathizing with people of other nationalities and religions. Looking at
the screen into another, sometimes even strange life, the audience penetrates
into the community of human problems, troubles, joys, and adversities. We want
the films to be reflected in one another and help solve difficult social and
political problems of the region together, as to know somebody else means to be
more patient towards his viewpoint; his way of life. This will finally
contribute to the development of the cross-cultural dialogue and mutual
understanding; while at the same time strengthen the peaceful co-existence in
the region. To know somebody else means to see oneself in him.

Susanna Harutyunyan,

Genoa, 3-5 December, 2005

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