A scene from "Those from the Shore"

Exile and Waiting Transformed into Film through the Work of Tamara Stepanyan


By Aram Arkun

Mirror-Spectator Staff

PARIS – Filmmaker Tamara Stepanyan is a true representative of the new generation of diasporan Armenians. Born in Soviet Armenia, and speaking Eastern Armenian and Russian, she moved with her family to Beirut, Lebanon when 11 years old after the breakup of the Soviet Union. She grew up and lived there for 20 years, learning Arabic, Western Armenian, and English. Then she moved to France and learned French. Naturally her experiences shaped her worldview and films.

Filmmaker Tamara Stepanyan

Stepanyan said, “I think exile takes a lot from us, but at the same time it gives a lot. It is a richness. I think I am very rich for having lived all this pain of living in exile.” She left her grandparents, school and friends in Armenia to adapt to a very different environment. She went to an Armenian school called the Yeghishe Manougian College, in Dbayyeh (Metn district) to the east of Beirut.

In the beginning, it was quite difficult. Aside from the issue of languages, she said, “All my friends were asking, are you Tashnag [adherent of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation]? Are you Hnchag [adherent of the Social Democratic Hnchagian Party]? I said, what the hell is that? I am just Armenian. They asked me, are you Homenetmen or Homenmen [Armenian sport associations affiliated respectively with the two aforementioned political parties]? I answered, I don’t know. They said, oh, you are Homenmen then; you are a traitor…I remember I went home crying.”

It was not all bad. She said, “There were also nice kids who were supportive and helpful…This kind of openness to other cultures, religion, race made me somebody who I am. I gained a lot. My trips, my searching [for] homes, because something that is important for me is to establish home where I am. I realize that I was 11-years-old when I lost my home. Since then, I am searching for a new one. I guess I can say I found it here.”

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Stepanyan grew up surrounded by art, as her parents were both artists, and her mother a cellist. Her mother’s cousin or “uncle,” Edgar Baghdasaryan, himself a filmmaker, provided her first introduction to cinema. Stepanyan said, “I was six years old when he made a film called “Khagher” [Games]. I acted in it. We were all children and it was a war film. We were all warriors, prisoners. …  I was really fascinated by the ambience—the light, the darkness, the mysterious world that cinema could create. The moment that he would say silence, and action, he was entering into another dimension, another world. I did not want him to say cut, because it would become so dull.”

By coincidence, a museum dedicated to film director and artist Sergei Parajanov was next door to Stepanyan’s house, and she grew up playing in this museum with all the dolls and other objects he had created. At the time, Stepanyan admitted, she did not know who he was or his cinema. She went to his funeral at the age of six because her parents were great admirers of his. However, Stepanyan said, “In some unconscious way, it had a great effect on me.”

She studied communication arts at the Lebanese American University, with an emphasis on radio, television and film, and made several films there, including “The Needle” and “The Last Station.” Trips to participate in the Busan International Film Festival in South Korea in 2007, and in the Den Danske Filmskole exchange program in Denmark in 2012 had an important effect on her.

In Beirut Stepanyan was studying fiction narrative in the classic sense, but friends persuaded her to go to the documentary film program in Denmark because it was an extraordinary program. She said, “It is true that it changed my life… it really changed me because there I understood that cinema is cinema…What is important is to say is that it is something that comes from inside…Look at what is inside you and then think of how you want to express it. The form will come later.”

Her new film, “Those from the Shore” [in French titled “Ceux de Rivage”] which will be shown soon in the Boston area, can be considered one of its fruits. Stepanyan said that though it is a documentary, there are fictional elements in it. She said, “I like to explore this thin line between the two. It is about issues that bother me, that want to get out. My language of exploring is cinema.” It is an 84-minute black and white film in French and Armenian, which she co-wrote with her husband, Jean-Christophe Ferrari. “Those from the Shore” is a slow moving and melancholy documentary portraying the travails of a group of Armenian immigrants to France. Tellingly, the only use of color in this dark film is in a brief section of reverie about the native villages of some of the immigrants.

When asked about the tempo and length, she responded, “Of course I could have cut this film down to 60 minutes, but then it would have been massacred…Some people have said that it is long and slow, but that is the voyage to which I am inviting you. It is as if I give you my hand and say, come, do you want to accompany me on the street. Every film has its own rhythm. I also follow my own interior rhythm because I am a very instinctual person.”

Topics: film

She said that though this film was about Armenians, it was not only about Armenians, but about what is happening in the world today. And it is not only about the refugee crisis, but, she said, “really to approach from the interior the human feeling of what it means to wait. How do we wait? In this waiting, what do we lose? What do we gain?”

She said that she does not intent to explain, but rather to give an opening to create some civility about what is happening in the world. She said that it is not so much about giving a message to the world, but rather about sensitivity. In other words, though there is a political element in her work, it is not in a direct way.

Stepanyan first became aware of Armenian refugees in France when she happened to see tent dwellers in Lyon near the train station. She said, “I was very affected. I did not know that people lived in the streets. In France there are a lot of people who are homeless.” And when she heard the children speaking Armenian, she said, it was so painful. She said, “I needed to find out why these people were there. Then, as the subject grew deeper in me, I needed to know how they endure it.”

She went to Marseille to shoot the film, and some organizations there helped connect her with Armenian refugee families. For her, she said, “The beauty of documentary filmmaking is a kind of dialogue created between me and these people. It is something we share for life. These relations are constructed and they stay. They invited me into their lives and I invited them into my life.”

She filmed for over a year and a half, because she said that to understand waiting, she needed time to observe these people. Her filmmaking process is based on a lot of improvisation. She said that she writes a film three times. “First I write the film on paper, then I write the film through shooting, taking in all the improvisations, and then I write in editing,” she said. She developed this method of working on her own.

The film has many visual references to the sea and to waves. Stepanyan said, “For me, the sea brought Armenians to Marseille hundred years ago after the Genocide. Boats brought Armenians to Marseille. For me, today, the sea is bringing a lot of immigrants from everywhere in the world.” This sea is not just blue and lovely. It can, Stepanyan said, turn black and deaf. The Armenians who go to the shore are waiting, meditating and expecting.

A visit by the Armenian refugees to the Chateau d’If resonates symbolically. In the 1844 French adventure novel The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas, the title character Edmond Dantès is framed for a crime he did not commit and unjustly sentenced to prison in the Chateau d’If, an island fortress from which no political prisoner could escape. Stepanyan explained that this visit was her idea. In the Soviet Armenian education system, it was obligatory to read this novel (in translation). So all the Armenians were interested in this prison and Stepanyan arranged the visit when she had a team of cameramen ready (normally she prefers to film alone, using digital equipment).

Armenian immigrants in Marseille in “Those from the Shore”

Much of the dialogue is in Armenian, as the refugees often remain with each other. Funding for the film came from the region around Marseille, and the region in the south where her producer comes from. Though Stepanyan works in France, she is also is still considered a filmmaker of the Arab world because of her years in Lebanon, and so she also received funding from Arab sources, including the Doha Film Institute of Qatar. In its turn, the film, she says, is an open one. She placed an Arabic poem in the film, for example, because it is universal.

Aside from Parajanov, Stepanyan’s Armenian influences include Ardavazt Peleshian. She said, “There is something very Armenian in me. At the same time, there is something very international. I moved so much and grew up in so many cultures and languages and literatures.”

However, at present, Stepanyan said, “I am very sad to say that I don’t think there is an Armenian school of filmmaking. If there is, I am very sad to say that it is very poor and mediocre, though there are some very talented filmmakers.” When people start to do films, they leave the country, and there are so few professionals left to teach in Armenia, largely because of the low incomes.

Stepanyan explained further that “Arts have a very tiny place in Armenia. If you are a businessman, and have a shop, then you have a good income, and even if you work as a secretary, you have a better salary than a professor in a university. It is absurd.”

Stepanyan says that Armenian themes remain close to her heart, and she continues to think much about Armenia. She said, “I cry a lot about Armenia. It is my country, my language, my literature.” Her parents, she felt, were the two biggest lovers of Armenia she has ever seen, and now she has transmitted this love of Armenia to her daughter, who is four years old, she said. “Films,” she exclaimed, “are my way of remaining in contact with my homeland. I want to fight for it in my own way. I don’t fight with arms…my arms are my films.”

Armenia, Stepanyan said, has been supportive within its means of her work. There is a cinema center fund which gave most of the money for her prior film, “February 19,” her short fiction narrative shot completely in a train. She intended it to be a meditation on lost love.

Stepanyan said that of her work so far, this film “is the most special to me, I think, because the process was so insanely interesting. It was not at all a classical way of writing a film. It was a lot of thinking, experimenting, trying, talking, doing, writing, erasing, and the process, I shot over four nights int eh train, and, I don’t know…it was a way for me to breathe. I was going through a very difficult time in my personal life.” In the end, she said, “I felt I had come out of an expedition to the North Pole, or something as unique.”

The film also opened a lot of new paths for her. She explained, “First of all, because of this film, I met my husband. And secondly, in Armenia, I won an Oscar for the best short, and in a way, it was my way to enter the cinematographic world.”

Still from “From the Other Shore”

Stepanyan is working on two new projects. “The things I see, I read, I hear…lead to documentary ideas,” she said. One is a film on a faraway village in Armenia, and the effects of seasonal emigration. The other fictional narrative, she said, “is about how much we know the person we love, and how far we can know the person we love.” It too is connected with Armenia, as a voyage film, but it is also about death. Both films are French productions, with French producers.

Though she generally works alone, she is also very loyal to her collaborators. Part of it also is, as she said, “I am a control freak.” In her first films, she worked with Cynthia Zaven, an Armenian Lebanese composer who composed music for her short film “Embers,” her first documentary. She said, “I trust the people I work with. I know what I want. I know Cynthia would do something great.” While “Those from the Shore” had previously composed music from Charles Ives that fit well, Cynthia composed for “February 19,” in which music has an important role. Stepanyan said, “I had talked with her the whole night about the film. I left in the evening, and in the morning she came to me and gave me a disk, and said, there is your music.” She had composed all through the night.

She said that she has the same relationship with her cinematographer, Tamam Hamza, a Syrian who used to live in Armenia but now is in Canada. Stepanyan said, “Sometimes I don’t even tell my cinematographer what I want—he just knows.” Her producer brought him from Canada to France to work with her, and she will ask for him again in Armenia, as well as for Cynthia and her editor. Stepanyan said, “It is a family, and this relation, this is a value for the film. It is teamwork.”

Making films is more a passion than a job for Stepanyan. Musing, she said, “For me, cinema is almost a sacred art form. I look at it as something very precious and important in my life…It takes time. It takes time, like good cooking, to slowly choose the ingredients and cook.”

Boston-area residents can see Tamara Stepanyan’s Those from the Shore” on Sunday, March 11 at 3:30 pm at the third annual Global Cinema Film Festival at the Studio Cinema (376 Trapelo Road in Belmont). Stepanyan will be present to discuss her film in person.

Award-winning documentarian Raouf Jacob explained why the festival chose to show this film: “’Those From The Shore’ is a timely and urgent piece that speaks directly to the millions of immigrants and refugees around the globe seeking asylum in places near and far. The director uses her lens to create an observational study of the human condition when we are forced to remain still, as we live between different worlds, between two lives; moreover, as we live in a hostile world. From a technical standpoint, ‘Those From The Shore’ is a cinematic contribution that showcases the ongoing evolution of the documentary form. Carefully composed and beautifully photographed, it is a piece of visual art that simply makes us care.”

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