Shoah Foundation To Add Armenian Genocide Survivor Testimonies



LOS ANGELES — In honor of the upcoming 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide, the University of Southern California (USC) Shoah Foundation — The Institute for Visual History and Education, is readying at least 40 of the nearly 400 Armenian testimonies it has secured from the Armenian Film Foundation for inclusion in the Visual History Archive. It is anticipated the entire collection will be integrated by fall 2015.

USC Shoah Foundation and the Armenian Film Foundation signed an agreement in April of 2010 to digitize the interviews the late Dr. J. Michael Hagopian recorded on 16-mm film between 1972 and 2005. Hagopian was an Emmy-nominated filmmaker who made 70 educational films and documentaries during his career, including 17 films about Armenians and the Armenian Genocide, winning more than 160 awards for his work.

“This project will unveil a trove of film testimony about of a horrific chapter of human history that remains woefully under-examined,” said Karen Jungblut, director of research and documentation at the Institute. “It also brings a new viewing experience to the Visual History Archive in that these interviews — most of which predate our 1994 founding — were conducted mainly for the purpose of creating documentaries, not necessarily standalone life histories.”

The Armenian collection contains a broad range of interviewee categories, including not only survivors of the Armenian Genocide, but also of other groups targeted by the Ottoman Turks, such as the Greeks, Assyrians and Yezidis. Also included are non-victim witnesses to the atrocities — such as Christian missionaries and Arab villagers — as well as descendants of the survivors and several renowned scholars.

The institute is integrating the testimonies into the archive with the help of Richard G. Hovannisian, a professor emeritus at UCLA and a leading expert in Armenian studies.

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“The addition of these interviews to the Visual History Archive will provide broad access to a multilingual collection of material,” said Hovannisian, now an adjunct professor of history at USC and the project’s scholarly adviser. “It will help to bring sorely needed attention — and study — to this dark corner of human understanding.”

Because these interviews were conducted by a documentary filmmaker, this collection brings diversity to the Visual History Archive when it comes to the style and format of the testimonies, as well as the methodology used to collect them.

The most immediately noticeable distinction is that all of the interviews were recorded on film — so a clapboard kicks off every take to synchronize sound and picture. The testimonies themselves are generally much shorter – averaging 15 minutes in length, while the other testimonies in the Visual History Archive run more than two hours on average. Some survivors are also interviewed more than once, over a period of time.

Unlike the other existing collections in the Visual History Archive, the Armenian testimonies — with a few exceptions — are not chronologies. Filmmaker Hagopian intended the interviews to be filmed depositions — limited only to the eyewitness account of the survivor during the genocide — and not beyond. Interviewees in the Archive to date have given their life stories before, during and after the genocide in question.

The filmmaker also relied on pre-interviewing the subjects, to be certain they were actually eyewitnesses to the events. The camera was only turned on when he was satisfied they were indeed eyewitnesses, and not speaking from hearsay. The interviewee would then be asked to tell Hagopian his or her story – the same story relayed in the pre-interview process.

On occasion, the Armenian interviews were conducted in groups, such as in churches or old-age homes.

Unlike existing collections in the Visual History Archive, this is a documentary film collection, containing the complete unedited interviews, including behind-the-scenes footage. While the camera positioning on all testimonies currently contained in the Visual History Archive are fixed, the camera in the Armenian collection zooms in and out, and pans left and right. The purpose of moving the camera was for establishing and editing shots — standard practice for documentary filmmakers.

Unlike video interviews, where the sound and picture are combined on one tape, 16-mm film interviews include separately recorded sound and picture. Each interview includes both the “synched up” sound and picture, as well as any additional sound the filmmaker recorded (labeled as “audio only” sections).

To save production costs associated with shooting in 16-mm film, Hagopian only turned the camera on when the survivor or eyewitness was speaking about a relevant issue (based on the pre-interview). If he thought they were wandering off track, he would only record their sound. If he thought the anecdote was worthy of recording on film, he would turn the camera on. All of the extra sound for every interview is included in the collection (in “audio only” sections).

In every testimony, Hagopian can be heard giving direction, either to his crew or the interviewees. Himself a child survivor of the Armenian Genocide, Hagopian — who died in 2010 at age 97 — asks his subjects to retell certain stories, sometimes over and over, in an effort to say, in the most succinct way, what they actually saw with their own eyes. Similar to a lawyer obtaining factual detail for a legal deposition, he wanted to know the “who, what, when, where and how” of the survivor’s eyewitness experience. If a survivor said, “They did it,” Hagopian would ask, “Who? Who did it?”

“Michael Hagopian generously gave us full access to his film dailies, which is akin to a diary in that they normally wouldn’t be seen by the public,” said Hrag Yedalian, a program coordinator with the Institute. “This lends a certain candor to these interviews, which are at times unsettling to watch, but poignant.”

Like all the testimonies in the Visual History Archive, these will be searchable to the minute thanks to a team of indexers who tag specially created indexing terms to a digital time code. The distinctive nature of this collection has raised some indexing challenges.

For instance, all too often, Armenians were rescued from the death marches by self-interested parties who wanted to use them for slave labor. This raised a question: Should this type of situation be tied to the indexing term “rescue” — which is widely used in the Visual History Archive’s Holocaust and other genocide testimonies – or something else?

Similarly, in a tragic theme that played out during the Armenian atrocities, desperate mothers often tried to give away their children in a last-ditch attempt to ensure their survival. The families that took them in could be abusive or exploitive. What term should be used to describe a phenomenon that falls in the gray zone between adoption and kidnapping?

Working closely with Hovannisian, indexers expect this collection will necessitate adding as many as 300 new search terms to the 62,000 already in the Archive.

“While the patterns of mass violence during this period are sadly familiar, there are certain characteristics unique to this history that can be captured and brought to light with the creation of new terms,” said Crispin Brooks, curator of the Institute’s Archive.

To highlight the distinctness of the Armenian testimonies, USC Shoah Foundation is releasing two advance clips on its website at One features Mihran Andonian, who was just a boy when his family was deported from Isparta in western Turkey in 1916. By his telling, in a matter of days, a death march of Armenians led by Turks would reduce his extended family of 11 to three: his mother, his sister, himself. The others died.

The other features Haroutune Aivazian, who said that his family’s vineyard was confiscated by the authorities at the time. Aivazian survived because his mother dropped him off at a German orphanage built by missionaries to shelter kids whose parents perished in the Hamidian and Adana massacres of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, respectively, killing between 100,000 and 350,000 people.

“Even those of us who did survive, we lost something very precious,” Aivazian said. “Something which is the birthright of every person: childhood. We lost our childhood.”

The testimonies have served as primary source material for Hagopian’s documentaries about the Armenian Genocide, including “The Forgotten Genocide” — recipient of two Emmy nominations in 1976 — and the Witnesses Trilogy (“Voices from the Lake;” “Germany and the Secret Genocide;” and “The River Ran Red”).

“He understood the importance of recording the testimonies of aging eyewitnesses before their accounts were lost forever,” said Carla Garapedian of the Armenian Film Foundation. “We are gratified to see this collection included in one of the world’s most extensive and respected video archives. The voices of the people haunted by these atrocities will now be accessible to teachers, students, scholars and the general public on a global scale.”


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