Actress Anissa Markarian

Anissa Markarian, former Albanian Film Star

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By Artsvi Bakhchinyan

Special to the Mirror-Spectator

PARIS/YEREVAN — The name of Anissa Markarian was one familiar to me; I have mentioned her as an actress and screenwriter of Albanian cinema in my book Armenians in World Cinema (2004) and in a small study on history of Albania’s Armenian community. At that time I knew very little about her, but now, due to social networks, the boundaries are becoming more and more limited. So Anissa Markarian accepted to give an interview to the Armenian press, noting that she deeply appreciates the honor of this invitation. “It means a lot to me as the daughter of a survivor of the Armenian Genocide,” she wrote.

Anissa Markarian was born on July 4, 1962, in Albania’s capital, Tirana, to an Armenian father and Albanian mother. Despite her artistic tendencies, especially for acting and literature, she decided to study medicine. After graduation, she practiced as anesthesiologist at Tirana University Hospital. At the end of 1990 she emigrated to France where she lives and works as an emergency doctor and lecturer in physiopathology and dietetics-nutrition.

Young Anissa with her parents

Anissa Markarian landed her first movie role at the age of 16. Two years later, at the age of 18, she won the best actress award in a leading role. In her last two Albanian films (1988 and 1990) she was not only the leading actress, but also the screenwriter. After moving to France, she participated in two other films playing episodic roles: “Far from the Barbarians” (1993, a French-Belgian-Italian production) and “Lie Down with Lions” (1994, an English production).

In 2017, Markarian received from the President of the Republic of Albania, Bujar Nishani, the title of Grand Master with the following citation: “In recognition and appreciation of the peculiar and talented artist who, through her memorable cinematographic roles and interpretations, as well as her literary stories written in accurate Albanian, became one of the most prominent figures of the Albanian artistic and intellectual elite.”

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Dear Anissa, please tell our readers about your Armenian roots.

My father, Agop Markarian, was born in 1898 in Afyonkarahisar, an Armenian-populated town in Ottoman Empire. In August 1915, at the age of just 17, the Ottoman government forced him and his family (as well as millions of Armenians) out of their home and head for the Syrian desert of Deir ez-Zor. His parents and paternal grandmother died during that infamous death march. Thank God, Agop, his two sisters and the brother survived the horrors of genocide. In 1921, my father escaped from Aleppo and returned to Constantinople (present day Istanbul) where he was hired as an apprentice in the clinic of an Armenian dentist. Five years later, he moved to Marseille, France, to study odontology. Because of a strange coincidence, in March 1931, the barely graduated student who was traveling to Addis Ababa (Ethiopia), where he planned to settle down as a dentist, changed his destination and took the ferry boat to Albania. Initially he worked in Korça, a city in south-east Albania, hired by the Red Cross. In February 1932 he opened his own dental clinic in Tirana, where he worked until 1948 – the year of the nationalization of private enterprises by the Albanian Communist government. From that year until his retirement at the age of 75, he practiced dentistry at the Tirana Public Central Dental Clinic.My father married twice. First time in 1934 to an Armenian, Evgenia Goganian. After his wife passed away in 1961, he married my mother, Evdhoqia Mima, an Albanian, who gave him two children: me and my younger brother. Both of us bear the names of our paternal grandparents: Anissa and Markar.

My father passed away in Tirana, on August 15, 1980, at the age of 82.

While studying the history of Armenians in Albania, I found out that in 1938 dentist Agop Markarian and the physician/colonel Mokin Potourlian in the service of Albanian court received the Iskender Beg medal from the King of Albania Zog I on the occasion of the tenth anniversary of the monarchy. How would you describe your father’s role in the history of Albanian medicine?

Anissa Markarian

This is the very first time I hear about this medal and I thank you for letting me know. My father never mentioned it. Perhaps for fear of reprisals from the regime or because the high distinctions granted by former King Zog I were declared void by the communist government.

Regarding his role in the history of Albanian medicine, my father is considered the founder of Albanian orthodontics. In 1952, he opened the first orthodontic treatment laboratory in Albania, where thousands of patients were cared for and generations of young Albanian orthodontists were trained too.

Did your father teach you and your brother some Armenian?

I feel very lucky that my mother learned Armenian before I was born, out of love for my father. So I learned to speak and write Armenian by both my parents. It was the same for my brother.

Among the most precious memories I have with my dad are our long conversations in Armenian, one-on-one. The last years of his life, for him the time had stopped. The past and the present had merged into one. He used to tell me about his happy childhood. But strangely, while his brothers and sisters had stayed at the age they had before leaving home forced by the Turkish soldiers, Agop had grown up and started his family in Albania. All this was very painful to me. In a sense, it was as if he had brought me back to Afyonkarahisar and I was playing with my aunts and my uncle in the backyard of the house where, if I remember correctly, there was an apricot and a pomegranate tree.

The small Armenian community in Albania was mainly composed of craftsmen, merchants, and doctors. After Communist regime most of Armenians left Albania. What do you remember from Tirana’s Armenian community life?

I especially remember the endless visits to each other, the picnics at the beach or in the villages around Tirana with Armenian family friends, the very discreet celebration of Armenian Christmas and Saint Vartan’s Day and the commemoration of April 24. There has never been an official ceremony in memory of the Armenian martyrs of the genocide. Although the Albanian government had an empathic attitude toward the Armenian community, it never acknowledged or condemned the Turkish genocide of 1915. The only genocide we were talking about in Albania was that of the Jews by the Nazis during the Second World War. That’s why I was often believed to be of Jewish origin.

Anissa Markarian

You started your acting career early. How did it happen?

That’s right; I played my first movie role when I was only 16 years old. But I have been on stage since the age of 8-9 with the school’s theater troupe. I also participated in literary contests reciting poems and presented artistic spectacles.

I was spotted and discovered by the well-known Albanian film director Gëzim Erebara in March 1978. He was touring Tirana’s high schools accompanied by his cinematographer, looking for actresses for his next film, “The Girls with Red Ribbons.” One day, they came to my classroom. The film director asked me to read a text, and the cinematographer took some pictures of me. A week later, I was invited to Kinostudio for my first filmed casting which I succeeded. In the second filmed casting, three days later, I was tested for the second most important role of the movie, that of Dhurata, and I won it.

I assume you inherited your acting skills from your maternal uncle – famous stage actor Prokop Mima.

Yes, I think I inherited my artistic skills from the maternal side. The Mimas, of which Prokop was the eldest son, formed a family of artists in the true sense of the word. In her youth, my mother was part of the Albanian State Folk Ensemble as a singer and dancer. Her older sister was one of the alto voices of the Opera choir and later – a singing teacher. Of course, the most famous member of the family was my great-uncle, Prokop Mima (1920-1986). A huge theater actor and acting teacher posthumously decorated with the high distinction “Honor of the Nation.”

Albania was an isolated country for decades and the same we can say about the Albanian cinema. Unfortunately, I have not seen any Albanian film – the only exception is the Soviet-Albanian production of 1954, Luftëtari i madh i Shqipërisë Skënderbeu (Skanderbeg, the Great Albanian Warrior), by the way, with eminent Armenian stage actor Vahram Papazian in the role of Ottoman sultan. Could you, please, tell us about your roles in films?

My first film, “Girls with Red Ribbons,” tells the story of a group of Albanian schoolgirls during World War II who refused to sing the fascist anthem at school and rebelled against the invader for the liberation of the country.

In 1980, I was chosen by Viktor Gjika, one of the two greatest Albanian directors, a graduate of the Higher Institute of Cinematography of Moscow, to play the lead role, that of Zana, in his movie “In Any Season.” The film’s plot takes place in a university campus and tells the love story of two students, a volleyball player and a cellist.

The film “Spring Did Not Come Alone,” which I co-wrote, was directed in 1988 by Piro Milkani, another great Albanian director, a graduate from the Academy of Fine Arts in Prague. My character, Irena, is a young physicist who discovers that she is stricken by an incurable disease. The film develops the spiritual, philosophical and human aspects of the confrontation with impending death. The movie won the Best Feature Award at the 8th Albanian Film Festival.

In 1990, Piro Milkani directed me in the film “Youth’s Colors.” I was also the screenwriter. It is the story of a group of schoolmates who meet after 20 years. In the same hotel where their meeting is held, another party is in full swing: a group of young graduates are celebrating the end of high school. The film tells the concerns and aspirations of two different generations in the context of the end of the totalitarian regime in Albania.

You are also a writer, author of poetry and prose.

My participation in Albanian cinema as an actress and screenwriter is now well behind me, but I continue to write. After acting, literature is my other great passion. I started publishing poetry at the age of 20. After writing my first screenplay, I definitely abandoned poetry while favoring prose. My favorite literary genre is the short story. My first stories have been published in Albanian literary journals. Some of them appear and are published in two anthologies, one dedicated to young Albanian talents, the other to Albanian physician writers. In 1999, I published my first book, The Coffer of Memories, a collection of short stories in Albanian. The book takes the title of an autobiographical narrative, a brief recite on my father’s sad experience.

My second book, the novel 15 days of April, has just been published in Albania. It is a literary chronicle of the last 15 days of a totalitarian regime told in the style of magical realism. The book is largely inspired by facts that I really experienced under the dictatorship of the proletariat in Albania.

I would say that my writing explores and reflects my own memories. The preservation and transmission of family and collective memory from generation to generation is very important to me. We must never forget our origins, our language and our tradition. Our past represents the foundation on which we build our present and future.

Have you any connection with French-Armenian community?

When I arrived in France, I naturally got close to the local Armenian community, which helped me a lot in my administrative procedures for obtaining a residence permit. I will be eternally grateful to them. My marriage witnesses are two Armenian friends who have become like real family to me. I participate as much as I can in the cultural and religious events of the local Armenian community and especially in the commemorations of the genocide every April 24.

 

The current cover photo of your Facebook profile shows a group of Armenian children in the courtyard of an orphanage in Aleppo. Do you use social media to make people aware of the Armenian Genocide?

My Facebook profile is a reflection of two causes dear to me: remembering and honoring the sacrifice of my ancestors and all Armenian victims of the 1915-1920 genocide and the respect, safeguarding and development of my mother language, Albanian.

Every year, at the beginning of April, I renew the cover photo of my Facebook profile in order to draw the attention of my friends to the Ottoman massacres against the Armenian population, and every 24th of April I made it a habit to publish a story about my father’s life as a survivor of that genocide.

Could you tell us about your current artistic projects?

Actually, I am working on three projects. I am preparing a book with autobiographical stories that tell the daily life of an Armenian-Albanian family in Tirana during the years of the Cold War. I have already started writing my second novel, still in the style of magical realism and finally, I keep writing the screenplay for “In Any Season 2,” in which we will meet the former students of the university campus, in their 60s.

I would like to point out and emphasize once again my mixed origin: Armenian and Albanian. Usually a hybrid takes on and represents in a better version, if it is possible, the best virtues and attributes of his or her parents.

I have relentlessly and incessantly tried all my life to make both my parents proud, and to reflect as best as I could, their unique humanity, immense wisdom, uncovered talents, unfulfilled dreams, and what is most important: their immortal memory engraved in my heart and soul, while hoping and praying to pass this precious parental heritage onto my children Noémie and Garbis Junior.

As 2016 Literature Nobel Laureate, Bob Dylan once wrote: “Life is an ocean, but it ends at the shore,” that is how I would like to ride the never ending waves of my artistic performances and creativity, enjoying them as long as they last…

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