Stepanyan’s ‘Village of Women’ Depicts the Beauty and the Melancholy of Life in an Armenian Village

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BELMONT, Mass. – When Armenians from outside Armenia come to visit, they seldom have occasion to see anything outside of the capital city of Yerevan, and if they do go elsewhere it is usually to the other cities and noteworthy touristic destinations. They drive straight through the villages, without much time to do more than glance at their worn-out state. Tamara Stepanyan’s documentary film, “Village of Women [Kanants Gyughe],” rectifies this a little.

A new film, it is just starting to garner attention. “Village of Women” was one of 11 films chosen out of 3,000 to be presented at DOK Leipzig, the International Leipzig Festival for Documentary and Animated Film – one of the oldest film festivals in the world – in 2019, and is now traveling throughout the film world. It will be shown in Belmont’s Global Cinema Film Festival of Boston on Sunday, March 22 at 6 p.m. at Studio Cinema (376 Trapelo Road, Belmont, https://www.eventbrite.com/e/global-cinema-film-festival-of-boston-tickets-91132524835).

Tamara Stepanyan

The beautifully filmed documentary is set in Lichk, a village 130 kilometers distant from Yerevan. Lichk is located in Gegharkunik Province, south of Lake Sevan, and has a population officially of 5,430. The majority of the adult men leave the village to go work in Russia for eight or nine months out of the year, primarily to do manual labor in fields like construction. Boys there turn 18, go into the army for two years, and then immediately begin this cycle of seasonal work, without pursuing any further education. Life in Lichk seems like life in a third-world country, with no factories or work. Houses are worn-out and women always seem tired. They do heavy physical agricultural labor, keep the cattle, and maintain their families while men send back money occasionally and call over the phone until their annual winter break. However, the women also find occasional consolation from their difficult lives through song, dance and conversation.

Stepanyan, born in Soviet Armenia, moved to Lebanon as a child and then to France, where she lives now and has become an accomplished cinematographer (see “Exile and Waiting Transformed into Film through the Work of Tamara Stepanyan,” https://mirrorspectator.com/2018/02/19/exile-waiting-transformed-film-work-tamara-stepanyan/). Several years ago, she said that she noticed while reading newspapers that the villages in Gegharkunik were emptied of men. It happens that she goes every year to see her parents in Armenia on vacation. While in Armenia with her husband in the summer, she decided to take a taxi to investigate.

A scene from the film

The driver knew the region and suggested several places. They came to Lichk through its narrow streets and stopped at the post office, which seemed like a central place. Local children immediately came and surrounded her, asking what she wanted and asking her to come with them. She said yes, Stepanyan related, and went with one, ending up at the home of Anush Oseyan. Anush invited her to drink coffee, and thus it all began by chance. It could have been a neighboring village, Stepanyan said.

They spent the whole day there, and returned to Yerevan in the evening. Stepanyan kept ties via telephone. And every time she went to Yerevan she would also go to Lichk to visit Anush. Stepanyan said, “First it was necessary to establish all the relationships slowly, from the very beginning, so that there is a state of confidence. If there is no confidence, especially in documentary films, you cannot work.” This particular situation, Stepanyan noted, was a very sensitive one. She said, “You reach a place where an Armenian woman is very proud. She does not want you to see her family in pain or weakness. She always wants you to see her family in good form. Even when the men were not present, the women in a very beautiful way preserved the family.”

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She remarked that what the women were doing was very difficult. She said, “All those women, alone, they have to be both men and women, and brothers and sisters, and it is very hard. We cannot in our lives today picture this. We each have our roles. You have your role, your wife has her role, the children have their role, your brother has his role, but there, everything is all-in-all. This, I think, is very important to understand and appreciate. How are they able to do this? Where do they get this strength? But at the same time, it is very difficult for them — the stress and the anxiety they live through!”

A scene from the film

Filming in Lichk

At a certain point, after about a year, Stepanyan felt ready to film, and contacted Anush to ask if it were possible to rent a house and stay two weeks in the village. Anush replied, “Are you crazy? You can stay with me.” So Stepanyan said she went and stayed in a room with Anush’s 6-year-old son Sahak, while her daughter Hasmik went to stay with her mother.

Every day they would awake at 6 a.m. and go to bed late at night. They spoke a lot in the evening, drinking tea. Stepanyan said that she did not want to abruptly start filming, so she initially asked whether she could record conversations on an audio device, and Anush agreed. Stepanyan said it was important that the villagers understood that she did not want to make a sensationalist documentary about women living alone. She said, “I wanted truly to understand their lives, their pains, and their happiness. The camera would stop when I felt they did not want it. There had to be agreement when I filmed. If they did not open their hearts to me, I could not do it. It is a reciprocal relationship.”

She would initially ask herself why did the men always leave, but, she said, “after I would for about one year come and go, without filming, I understood that it was not the why that interested me, but the process of waiting, how they endured, how they lived in the state of waiting. My prior film [“Those from the Shore”] also was about waiting, about asylum seekers. This is a different type of waiting.”

Stepanyan spent a year filming and so was able to present life throughout the four seasons. She filmed completely alone in the summer, fall and winter. Why? “First of all, I understood that it is a fragile situation, and you cannot come with camera and so forth and say, here I am, let’s go. It would not work. I felt that I had to become a part of their life, their daily routine, their meals, everything. And I as a woman I could become part of it. Even if I brought a camerawoman it would not work. They trusted in me. Therefore, I did it alone.”

A scene from the film

She said that while she had done camera work alone before, it was more difficult here in a village house, with no bath and sleeping in the children’s room. But this also opened the way to establishing intimacy and becoming a part of the family. She did not want to film them only as subjects. Stepanyan said, “I wanted to become a part of them and do it in that way. I think I was able to convey that intimate feeling.”

She came and went over the year, each time usually staying two weeks in Lichk. She captured the various aspects of village life in each season. In addition to the changes in nature and work that it necessitates, the human landscape also went through cycles of change: the men would come back from Russia in the winter for several months.

Stepanyan said, “At once, the women changed, and they became more female. And the atmosphere between the couples, there was embarrassment. They were married for 10 years, but they were not used to each other. They needed time before becoming comfortable, but by then the men would leave again.”

Finances

At first there was no financing for her documentary, but eventually she obtained it in France and Armenia. So, in the spring, she told her producer she wanted to take a team with her, a cameraman and sound man. By this time, the villagers knew her well. She had already filmed three seasons and warned them that the next time she came it might be with two more people.

They were both men, and Stepanyan said she was afraid the villagers would be uncomfortable, but it was not true. The two specialists were able to do technical things that Stepanyan alone could not accomplish. At the same time, she did see that their presence made the villagers more constrained and she did not use as much material from the spring as from other seasons.

The film ended up coproduced by two French companies, the medium-sized La Huit Production and TV78, a television channel company (https://www.tv78.com/), along with Hayk Documentary Studio (https://haykdfs.com/en/), which is the oldest documentary studio in Armenia (it used to make all the television documentary films in the Soviet period). La Huit was the main producer and began to provide Stepanyan’s travel expenses and a per diem before full funding was obtained. “Village of Women” is considered a small budget film.

Music was also recorded in Armenia for the film. Stepanyan worked with Cynthia Zaven, an Armenian-Lebanese composer who composed music for Stepanyan’s prior films too. The editing and other work however were completed in France.

Stepanyan said that she began each of her three documentaries in the same way, alone in the beginning, until funding was found. She said that, “Of course there must be some money, but that is not the most important thing. If you want to say something with your film, your cinema, your art, you must say it. You cannot wait….It is a passion inside you. Either it is a fire inside you or you must do something else. Cinema is a very difficult profession.” She said that she has tried to explain this to youth in Armenia, who are discouraged by lack of money and other obstacles.

Stepanyan exclaimed, “I am very lucky to be able to live through my art. This is of course in part due to my husband. My husband does all so that I can work in my art.” This year Stepanyan had maternity leave, but the two years prior to this she gave workshops in schools, for the 5th, 10th and 12th grade, to teach youth how to make films. She said she likes this very much because children do not have the filters adults have, and so have greater freedom and creativity.

With two children now and three projects she wants to work on (at least two of which are connected with Armenia), she said she does not want to spend much time on festivals promoting her already completed works, as it takes much energy. She said, “I prefer to work more on new creations.” Consequently, she picks and chooses in which festivals she will participate.

Fortunately, she said, she now has a good producer and is not alone in this venue. La Huit is going to prepare DVDs of her three documentary films and her short fiction.

Change through Film

Stepanyan wants to show this film in Armenia. It has not yet been seen in Lichk. She hopes the film will be accepted by the Golden Apricot Film Festival and afterwards can be taken to the villages to raise understanding and perhaps even create change.

“The pain in me,” she exclaimed, “Why would the men go? There was nothing in Russia. They are slaves there to Russian people. What do they do there? Make sidewalks, asphalt…so perhaps indirectly I wanted to bring them awareness so that they would not go. The awareness that each time they left, they would not see how their children grow. Yet each year they return, the children have grown another year, and their youth passes by. What do they understand of life?”

After the film was completed, at least three men returned to live in the village. She does not know if this happened as a result of the film, but she wonders if the women did it. She said, “Perhaps all the questions we raised moved something, and the men understood that they were destroying their lives.”

She concluded, “I changed something at least in this village.” At the same time, she accepted that major economic change was necessary in the villages to provide suitable employment for the men. Apparently there is talk that the Chinese have bought an old factory in the area which they are going to start up, but it is not certain.

In any case, Stepanyan has succeeded through her work in becoming part of the life of Lichk’s women and perhaps part of the price she paid is to accept some of the burden of their lives on her shoulders. She said, “It is difficult. At times I felt I was a psychologist.” She did inspire Anush’s children with love for cinema. They normally would not have seen real cinema, with YouTube being the main source of videos for them, unless they could come to distant Yerevan.

Under the current circumstances, she said, “Those women [of Lichk] for me are not simply women, they are heroines. That strength, that beauty in them is very difficult to preserve. I feel that this film has great spirit in it, great pain.”

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