Nora Armani

Nora Armani Wants to Elevate Socially Relevant Films

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NEW YORK — In the past decade, actress, writer, director and producer Nora Armani has added another couple of titles to herself: founder and artistic director of the non-profit Socially Relevant Film Festival (SRFF).

She founded the festival in January 2013 “as a reaction to the proliferation of violence on screens and in life. Especially in the United States, films and TV are very violent, both in content and in form. Loud intrusive music, special sound and visual effects that aggressively assault our sense in an attempt to grab attention, especially to cover up the fact that there is clear paucity of content, exasperated me, and I wanted to offer an alternative form of entertainment that offered human interest stories and focused on social issues rather than special effects. This is on the general level, on a more personal level, I wanted to commemorate, in a meaningful way, my dear cousin Vanya Exerjian and her father, my dear uncle Jack Exerjian, who lost their lives  in a violent hate crime on March 16, 2004 in Cairo, Egypt. The festival has an award in my cousin’s name that is given to a film across all categories, that deals with empowering women and girls.”

The 2020 edition of the festival will  open on March 16 at the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Centre at the Lincoln Centre with Sophie Deraspe’s “Antigone,” Canada’s entry for Best International Film at the Academy Awards 2020. Screenings continue all week through March 22 at venues including Cinema Village, Hunter College, The Baha’i Centre, The Lebanese American University and The Centre for Remembering and Sharing.

For a list of the films, times and locations, visit www.ratedsrfilms.org.

Out with the Old (Way of Thinking)

This year six films 10 documentaries and 26 shorts will be shown.

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Armani and her fellow organizers focus on films made by up-and-coming, and some established filmmakers, who submit their through platforms such as FilmFreeway.com and that otherwise would not get seen.

“Unlike most smaller festivals, we do not go around Cannes, Berlin, Venice, Rotterdam, and such important film festivals, chasing after the films that have already been noticed and are attracting media and audience attention. Instead our mission is to shine the spotlight on these filmmakers who have important stories to tell that concern us all human being on this planet, and who steer away from the commercial currents of Hollywood, resisting them and offering us an opportunity to see real people in real life situations, be in through the documentaries, or narratives that they submit to our attention.”

Asked what qualifies a film to be defined as socially relevant, Armani explained: “In my definition a socially relevant film is one that connects to our reality in an intellectual and visceral way, telling us stories about the human condition, certain social problems, raising awareness, improving our intellectual and cognitive level, all the while entertaining us in a meaningful way.”

She stressed that the film should still have entertainment value and high production quality.

Many of the festival’s films every year tackle difficult topics, such as climate change, immigration, refugees, the status of women, violence against women and girls, social justice and discrimination, age, indigenous people’s rights, LGBTQ rights, mass incarceration and capital punishment, human trafficking, gun violence, mental and physical health issues, genocide and the effects of war, etc.

“In the feature length film department the themes of teenage suicide, philanthropy, the foster care system, immigration, the Australian Aborigines, the Peruvian jungles, development at the cost of human life and culture, transgender rights, centenarians and age, women and mass incarceration, mental health, plastic pollution, drugs and legalization come up this year,” Armani explained.

In keeping with the attitude of inclusion, Armani said that they have at least half the films made by women, all without intending to keep parity.  “We have not done so on purpose, meaning specifically looking for woman-made films and programming them at the expense of their male counterparts. Rather, it has always been the quality of the work that has dictated the presence of women. And since our films are films that hitherto remained under the radar for major distributors, it is safe to say that women filmmakers enjoy a limelight at our festival that can translate into major recognition. The MeToo movement has been with us even before it started. We only need look back a few years, to see Gretchen Carlson, one of the first, if not the first woman, to sound the MeToo whistle, gracing our red carpet as one of our guests as she was featured in one of the films we screened dealing with human trafficking and sex slavery.”

A scene from “Kond”

Other activist who are veterans of the SRFF are directors Deborah Kempmeyer and Cady McClain.

Because of Armani’s heritage, the festival, which has shown films from dozens of countries, has a film from Armenia every year.

“This year’s slate has three films from Armenia, two shorts and a feature film. They all screen in the same session on Sunday, March 22 at 5 p.m. These are ‘The Seashell Song,’ a poetic short by Anna Bayatyan, ‘Old and New Kond,’ a documentary about the neighborhood of Kond in Yerevan by Emma Karapetyan, and ‘Lorik,’ a narrative feature film starring Michael Poghosyan and directed by Alexey Zlobin. We hope the Armenian audience will come and support these films from Armenia in their New York premieres,” she said.

Film submissions have tripled since the festival was founded, Armani said. “The SR brand is now recognizable, and more often than not, people have already heard about us,” she noted.

In addition, next year, the festival will become an Academy Award Qualifying film festival for the short films. “You need to pass the seven-year threshold for this qualification,” she added.

The representation of women and minorities fares poorly not only in the US, but in Europe, she said.

“It is very rare to see films that really do justice to female characters, and more precisely female characters of a certain age. There just are not enough good scripts treating middle aged or older women, and the younger women are mostly portrayed as victims, sex-objects, and secondary characters at best, if not love and lust interests,” she lamented. But there might be some good news, too, she added, because of the growing list of accomplished female filmmakers. “This, however, is fast changing fortunately not least because of the MeToo movement and with the advent of such directors as Greta Gerwig, Ava Duvernay, Sophia Coppola, Mira Nair, Lisa Cholodenko, Jody Foster and more. These are some of the female directors that are developing new and strong female characters. The irony is that the cinema-going public is predominantly composed of women, and it is mostly women who are the decision makers when picking which film to see. Yet, Hollywood continues to be oblivious of this fact and does not offer a big enough spot on the platform to female filmmakers, and daftly excludes them from the academy awards too, completely side tracking their wonderful works.”

World Citizen

Armani is a continent-crossing world citizen. She was born in Cairo to Armenian parents. “Being born an exile means you are never at home anywhere, you are always the marginal one but also by the same token, you are the interesting one.”

Living in the insular, tight-knit Armenian community, she was estranged from the majority.

“We were living an isolated life in the community clubs and did not mingle with the local culture, primarily for fear of assimilating. This resulted in a detached existence, and a self-imposed isolation,” she said.

She graduated from the American University of Cairo, where she studied sociology and English and later went to the UK to get a master’s degree in sociology from the London School of Economics.

She then joined her then-husband Gerald Papasian and his parents Edmond and Nora Azadian, in Detroit.

“After a decade in the US, mainly in Los Angeles, I moved to Paris, and established my film production company, through which I co-produced a feature film, ‘Haifa,’ by Rashid Masharawi, that premiered at the Cannes Film Festival Official Selection,” she said. Then she moved to London, where she worked in several theater productions and television shows.

She moved to New York in 2004, working as an actor, coach, and interpreter. She is also finishing a second master’s degree.

She has appeared in a variety of roles, including Zarouhi, in the stage production of  “Mercedes,” in Armenia, about the 1948 repatriations. The production was directed by Hakob Ghazanchyan. Another favorite role is The Mother in Pirandello’s “Six Characters in Search of an Author,” in New York, Isabella in Shakespeare’s “Measure for Measure,” Volumnia/ Helen Weigel in “Plebeians Rehearse the Uprising” by Gunther Grasse in London, Beatrice in Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing in Los Angeles, and Raina in Shaw’s “Arms and the Man” performed at the Young Vic Theatre in London.

Armani does not only want to recite the words of other writers.

She had created the one-woman show, “On the Couch,” in which she reminisces about her colorful life in a humorous and reflective manner, as well as “Sojourn at Ararat,” written and starring her and her then-husband, Papasian in the 1980s presenting Armenian history through the two characters.

“I feel the need for another self-penned one woman piece. Now that I am finishing my second Master’s Degree (hopefully in May), I will have some more time to develop that new piece,” she said.

She is currently appearing in a production of “Terrorism,” by the Presnyakov Brothers at Columbia University’s new LenFest Centre for the Arts through March 14.

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