Zareh Tjeknavorian Delves into Mystical, Historical Armenia


Mamikon Vardanian: In “Enemy of the People,” Mamikon Vardanian, a paralyzed gulag survivor said, “My mirror is my window to the world, and my world appears shattered.”

By Aram Arkun
Mirror-Spectator Staff

NEW YORK — Zareh Shahan Tjeknavorian is a filmmaker in the prime of his career. His work, largely documentary in nature, has been a process of self-exploration. As he said recently, “I have these interests and passions which guide me, and the film work helps me explore them.” Armenian history, society and folk culture lie at the heart of his interests, and have led him to create a number of unusual films and videos which today are shown in universities, museums and festivals throughout the world.

Tjeknavorian’s aesthetic sensibilities are greatly influenced by his family and his peripatetic childhood. His father is the Iranian-Armenian composer and conductor Loris Tjeknavorian, and his mother, Linda Pierce Hunter, is a native Californian also with musical talent and many years of teaching experience.

Tjeknavorian was born in Fargo, ND, where his father had established residence in order to teach at a nearby university in Minnesota. He did not remain there long, but moved in turn to San Francisco, Iran for some five years, London, Germany, Paris, London again, and then finally New York City in 1986. He graduated from a performing arts high school called the Professional Children’s School in Manhattan, and then New York University in 1992, with a bachelor’s degree in film and television production.

Tjeknavorian grew up in a very cosmopolitan international environment, with most of his friends the children of diplomats and businessmen attending international American schools. He only had occasional exposure to Armenians through special events, but it was his family that provided his opening to the Armenian world. He said, “For me, Armenia was unreal — a sort of secret society. During the Cold War, Armenia didn’t even exist on the map. Somebody would ask me about my name and I’d tell them. Then they would ask about Armenia but I couldn’t show it to them on a map. I felt it was like a millennial cult existing in the midst of other people when I went to church gatherings or recitals or events. You’d be in London, Paris or some other part of the world, and then suddenly in a room you saw a painting of Ararat or a bust of Komitas.”

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It was his American side that initially had a greater pull on him. Tjeknavorian said, “During late adolescence, when you look for an identity that is greater than you, I still wanted to see myself as a real American and got into a gung-ho American phase.”

However, by the time Tjeknavorian was in high school, he became interested in the supernatural and the occult, and this led him to Armenia via Iran. He remembered, “I became very interested in Zoroastrianism when I was in high school. The mythology and the ideas, its antiquity, appealed to me greatly. I remember things from my childhood growing up in Iran that were very powerful.” He also was attracted to the work of the British occultist Aleister Crowley.

Eventually Tjeknavorian became interested in Armenian antiquity and his ancestral connection to this ancient culture. When he was 17 years old, he was baptized at St. Vartan Armenian Cathedral in New York. His father had wanted him to decide when he was ready, and the time had come.

A trip to Soviet Armenia with his father in 1989 after the earthquake was another significant turning point. When his father moved there as conductor of the Armenian Philharmonic Orchestra, that opened the way for Tjeknavorian to join him in 1993. He felt that “this was the best time to understand Armenia. It was a time of challenge and hardship, like much of Armenian history.” In Yerevan, he learned for the first time to speak the Armenian language and stayed there for three years.

His interest in occultism and G. I. Gurdjieff drew him to the Yezidis and their unique religion. He did a lot of research on them and shot footage, including informal oral histories. He met, among others, a Yezidi sheikh in a village in Aragatsotn province. These sheikhs were the keepers of many secret traditions of their community, so his interviews were particularly revealing.

He did some film work for USAID on programs like weatherproofing houses for the elderly, as well as a few other small projects to earn money, but he relied on teaching English in a school for the majority of his income. This helped him meet many types of Armenians.

Tjeknavorian witnessed many visually unusual scenes: “I will never forget, walking home on a night with a full moon from the Hotel Armenia to where I was living, near Sourp Sarkis Church. It was in the middle of winter and the streets were packed with snow and ice. With no light but from the moon, the streets were luminous, as if they were lit from beneath. It was incredibly otherworldly, with packs of stray dogs wandering the streets.”

Tjeknavorian made a short film on the activities of the Araratian Diocese called “Veradardz [Return],” commissioned by Louise Simone of the Armenian General Benevolent Union (AGBU). It was about the attempt to bring people back into the fold of the Armenian Church after the Soviet years.

This led to a second commission from Simone for “Enemy of the People,” a documentary film on Stalinist oppression in Armenia, which was narrated by Eric Bogosian. It became Tjeknavorian’s most widely-known film. The shooting was done in 1995, and he returned to New York in 1996 in order to edit more than 100 hours of material. It took him until 1998 to finish the film. With his team, Tjeknavorian interviewed more than 200 people, including some former NKVD officials (Soviet secret police). The Armenian branch of Andrei Sakharov’s Memorial association helped locate surviving Armenian victims. Tjeknavorian even went to the farthest corners of the Soviet Union to film places to which Armenians had been exiled.

The film team worked with the successors of the Armenian KGB to find mass graves from the Stalinist period, but in the end found them through other leads, and filmed the dig in which human remains were found. Tjeknavorian pointed out that “very few of the people we interviewed in the film are alive now. Those stories would have been lost forever if we did not record them.”

“Enemy of the People” was prepared in both Armenian- and English-language versions. It was chosen by Alexandra Avakian in 2004 for National Geographic readers as one of three films to shed light on Armenia’s history and spirit. Tjeknavorian said, “it was the first film I had made on that scale, and I learned a great deal from the experience.”

Another important film Tjeknavorian worked on, this time as associate producer, is the feature-length documentary, “Khachaturian,” which presented the life and work of composer Aram Khachaturian. It took five years to complete. Tjeknavorian shot all the Armenian and Georgian interviews (Khachaturian was born in Georgia) and spent half a year researching and assembling archival materials. Among other items, he discovered a film of a performance of Mstislav Rostopovich performing the Khachaturian Cello Concerto, which had been secretly saved by an Armenian from destruction in the period after Rostopovich defected.

During the filming in Tbilisi, Georgia, Tjeknavorian was almost arrested. He and Vahakn Ter Hakobyan, and the latter’s assistant, were seeking a good panorama of the city without cars, so as to represent the city in Khachaturian’s boyhood. One day they found a good place, but then… “We noticed a weird silence in the city. Then I noticed a soldier in a bush. We crossed the bridge and saw a view of Tbilisi, which was amazing. There were no cars, unlike other times. We set up the tripod for the camera and started to shoot. The driver seemed nervous, but we paid no attention. Just as we filmed, a motorcade blew by, with a big limousine. We stopped for it to pass, and no cars followed, so we filmed for several more minutes and finished. We were preparing to leave when a car came and cut us off. It was the local secret police, who took us to their headquarters. Under a portrait of Shevardnadze, we were grilled about what we were doing. It turns out that the spot we were filming was on the route Shevardnadze took every morning to work, and the same spot at which two previous attempts on his life had taken place. We tried to explain the coincidence.” Luckily, in the end they were released. Tjeknavorian later found out that the police had even called someone close to Armenia’s president, and there had been snipers trained on them. As the limousine that went by them was merely a decoy for Shevardnadze, they were not shot, but the story could have had a more tragic ending.

Tjeknavorian continued to explore the continuity between antiquity and living Armenian culture.

He made a short lyrical film exploring his interests in prehistoric Armenian monuments, Embers of the Sun” (2001), which is just under 12 minutes long. It was the first project on which he collaborated with his wife, Alina. In 2006, he finished “Tigranakert: An Armenian Odyssey,” about the discovery of an ancient city in Artsakh. Tjeknavorian filmed the second summer of the excavations there.

He also has delved into more modern aspects of Armenian history. He made a student film, “Verabrogh,” on a woman survivor of the Armenian Genocide, which was a black-and-white study of her face. As a mature filmmaker he prepared “Credo” (2005), which sets fragments of the silent film “Ravished Armenia” (1919), a dramatized account of the odyssey of Aurora Mardiganian, along with additional material provided from Yerevan, to Loris Tjeknavorian’s Symphony No. 2. He also filmed a commemorative event in 2005 on the Genocide as “The Value of Sorrow,” raising the question of whether something positive may emerge from sorrow and pain.

More recently, he prepared a short introduction to the philanthropic work of the Near East Relief and its archives, held by its successor organization, the Near East Foundation. This film is called, “Lest They Perish” (2009). He is at present preparing a full-length feature documentary on the work of the Near East Relief and welcomes any visual or documentary material and personal stories that individuals might be willing to provide. Shant Mardirossian, the chairman of the Near East Foundation, is coproducing this film as an individual.

Finances have always been problematic for the type of projects Tjeknavorian works on. In particular, it is difficult to get funding from Armenians for film projects, but Tjeknavorian and his wife, Alina, have adapted to these conditions.

He declared, “we do it because it is inseparable from our own lives. I don’t see it as a profession or a career. It is just something that I am. In certain periods I did other work. It turned me into a guerrilla filmmaker and jack of all trades. I have become a proficient cameraman. Alina does sound. So we are like a two-person small production company.” She also does the editing for their films now.

The young couple has a number of long-term ongoing projects, of which a 10-year effort to document Armenian folk traditions is the most significant. Among the large mass of material collected, Tjeknavorian said, “I found a few of the last Sasountsi Davit epic tellers, the oral story tellers. Though illiterate, they knew the story. I interviewed them and filmed some of their versions of the epic.” They will be incorporated into “East of Turkey, North of Iran,” a project treating spirituality, archaic tradition and archeology in rural Armenia. Another major project documents the disappearing traditions of Zoroastrians in Yazd and Tehran (in Iran). Tjeknavorian also hopes to use his father’s music more in future works, as his artistic influence on his son is great.

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