Armenian Genocide Memorial in Yerevan taken by drone at the centennial in 2015

‘100 Years from Home’ Takes Us to Kars and Back

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LOS ANGELES – The effects of the Armenian Genocide continue to ripple down through the generations, and a new film, “100 Years from Home,” provides more evidence for this. The film features the story of Lilit Pilikian, who is the great-granddaughter of genocide survivors from Kars, a city now in the Republic of Turkey. A documentary, it is a personal story bolstered with plenty of historical and cultural background, making it accessible to a non-Armenian audience, though perhaps even more moving to Armenians with a personal stake in this tragedy.

The ruins of Ani used as an ad for the September 1 screening of “100 Years from Home”

Pilikian is a first-generation American Armenian, who was born and raised in Los Angeles. She is an industrial designer by profession, so she needed the collaboration and support of her husband Jared White, who happened to be a filmmaker, to carry out this project. White declared, “It was definitely her idea,” while Pilikian jumped in to say, “but he agreed with it. My profession is to come up with crazy ideas.”

White had been working for a few years as a filmmaker. He had done mostly scripted films, shorts and web series, as well as commercials, and Pilikian occasionally helped him in a production design way. This was his first foray into documentary filmmaking. He said, “This was a kind of a departure for me, from my usual work, but it was something that was close to Lilit and close to me as well. It became a passion project that we both decided to pursue.” He suggested that perhaps Michael Arlen’s book Passage to Ararat, about Arlen’s quest to understand his Armenian identity, may have been in the back of his mind during the process.

Pilikian said that the centennial of the genocide played a big part in inspiring her to do this. She went to Armenian elementary school, and as a child participated in marches on the April 24th anniversary of the genocide, but never had been more actively involved in the issue. Growing up in the US, she felt caught between the Armenian and American cultures.

Some years ago, Pilikian helped take care of her grandmother Burastan Muradian toward the end of the latter’s life. Muradian’s family was originally from Moush, in Western Armenia, and had fled to Tsaghakasar, a village near Gyumri in Armenia, probably around 1900, where Burastan was born.

Mariam Pilikian examining the blueprint for the family home in Kars with her daughter Lilit Pilikian

Burastan had preserved the blueprint or plans of her in-laws’ family house in Kars, a house that they had built themselves. Muradian’s mother-in-law entrusted it to her right before passing away. Pilikian said, “Every now and again she would bring it out and show it to me and say it was important to her. It was something she held onto till the end.” It represented the dream of going back home to their (interrupted) lives and homeland, Pilikian’s mother Mariam had said.

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Muradian passed away in 2012, passing on the blueprint to the younger generations. The blueprint had a long journey to the United States. Muradian’s husband Ruben was very young when his family fled Kars in 1920 along with other Armenians who were able to flee to Russia. The Turkish Nationalists took over Kars from the Armenians and made it part of the new Republic of Turkey.

In Russia, Ruben’s four brothers either were killed or died for political reasons. The rest of the family eventually ended up in Soviet Armenia, during the movement for repatriation after World War II, and that is where Ruben met Burastan, and where Lilit’s parents were born. Eventually Lilit’s family came to the US, and Muradian brought the blueprint there with her.

The Road Back to Kars

The story of the blueprint awakened something in Pilikian, who began looking for the location of the house in Kars via Google maps in 2014. She then started discussing the possibility of doing a documentary with her husband and going to Armenia for the centennial of the genocide. She said, “I was suggesting, let us go for the 100th [anniversary]. Let us film all these prominent Armenians who will be there, and while we are there, we will look for the house.”

They began work on the project in early 2015 and did not finish until 2019. Pilikian did not fully understand the various displacements her ancestors underwent until this time. She said, “The making of the film forced my family to sit down and talk about it, not in a way that, listen, you should already know about it. Having Jared there as the camera allowed them to say it to me in its full context.”

Like Pilikian, the plan for the film changed over the course of time. The original goal was more of a general film on Armenian identity as well as the genocide. Pilikian said, “We wanted to get Armenians from all walks of life. It was about getting those different voices and different perspectives on the language, the future of Armenia, the land and on so many other things.”

White said, “It was in the process of making it that her [Pilikian’s] story became more central to the film. We figured that Lilit’s story is a good window into this world, especially for non-Armenians who don’t know anything about the Genocide or much about Armenians. It wasn’t just a history lesson then—it was a more engaging story.”

Tsarist era buildings in Kars, possibly built by Armenians (film still)

In order to get to Kars to search for the ancestral family home, they decided the safest way was to take a group tour from Armenia. They also visited Ani and Van. The trip to Turkey was short but tense and brought up a lot of emotions and anxiety for Pilikian in particular. White reflected that “I am there with the camera filming her as she is the subject of the film. At the same time, I know that she is going through all of these difficult emotional feelings, and especially when we went into Turkey…I was trying to be there for her and support her as much as I could while filming her with the camera. It was a strange balancing act, but at the end of the day, I think making the film actually brought us closer together.” “Yes,” Pilikian quietly interjected.

A Kars street at night (film still)

White said, “There was a sort of therapeutic aspect to making the film.” Being interviewed, Pilikian said, “helped me deal with those emotions, and where I fit in all this.” White added, “I better understood her through that process as well.”

The Armenian cathedral of Kars (film still)

In Kars, White said, “She was literally walking in the footsteps of her ancestors in the town they lived and walked in.” Pilikian pointed out, “Walking in those footsteps, you give it a physical face. I don’t know how different I am from the previous generations in the sense that they kept that blueprint and they had the intention of going back at some point. I was the first one who had the means and felt secure enough to be able to travel there. Maybe my parents could have, but I don’t think they wanted to, maybe because they felt closer to those stories.”

Kars at night (film still)

Without giving away some crucial developments in the film, it can be revealed that the search for the family house in Kars was suspenseful. The city had grown and changed over a century, while street names were in Turkish. The search continued through the wee hours of the night because the tour was only there till 5 a.m. in the morning.

Compilation and Editing

The presentation of general information about the Armenian identity in the film was lively and unusual because in part it was through a series of well-known Armenian in different fields. There was comedian Vahe Berberian, historical architecture specialist Samvel Karapetyan, historian Richard Hovannisian, political figure Raffi Hovannisian, filmmaker Carla Garapedian, journalist and lecturer Maria Armoudian, and church leader Archbishop Pargev Martirosyan from Artsakh.

White said that they only knew one or two of the interviewees beforehand and the rest they had to find by reaching out to people. Pilikian said, “When we reached out, they would say, you know who you need to talk to next? And then they would recommend others.” Shushan Karapetian at UCLA served as an adviser in this process.

White explained that in the case of cofounder of the social news website Reddit Alexis Ohanian, he just sent a private message via Reddit when he saw that Ohanian was going to be in Yerevan for a tech conference while the filmmaking couple were there. Raffi Krikorian, former vice president of engineering for Twitter, was at the same conference, and White connected by tweeting him.

The striking visual images of places like Yerevan’s Armenian Genocide Memorial, Ani, Kars and Van were made richer with a blend of different types of music. Pilikian said, “Our wonderful composer Emily Rice helped us with much of the music you hear—the placement of it.” White said, “She incorporated a lot of Armenian elements into the score.” Popular Armenian composer Ara Gevorgyan permitted the use of his music, Lusaber Choir performed some traditional music and Ruben Haroutunian played what Rice wrote for different parts of the score on the duduk.

Making the film was a long process requiring great expenditure of time, and the filmmaking duo donated their time for the good part of four years. They raised money through a Kickstarter campaign initially to get the necessary equipment, and then self-funded the rest.

Pilikian said, “Thankfully, we had enough passionate friends who were also very talented and willing to work on this project for a reasonable amount, on a shoestring budget.” White had his editing setup in their home and so was able to do a lot. Pilikian said, “Jared was good in getting things started, and then we would bring in a professional to do the last bit of polish.” Postproduction on music and sound was important. Having Gayane Grajian as co-editor was useful because she understood the Armenian-language interviews. Most importantly, White said, “Our co-editor helped a lot with honing in on the most powerful parts of the story. We had an outline, a plan, going in, but it changed so much.”

As the film was being edited, the couple said they did occasional informal test screenings with filmmakers and other friends. They asked questions to understand what audience members might want to learn more about and their opinions about various parts of the film. One important thing they quickly learned, White said, was that when they showed it to non-Armenians, they would think that the trip to Turkey was like a holiday or nice vacation. They did not understand what the big deal it was, so material was expanded in the film to make it clear why this was a big deal, with the ongoing hatred of Armenians, general political restrictions making it dangerous to criticize the government, and specifically mention of the Armenian Genocide potentially being considered a crime.

The screenings helped, White said, also because “we had become so immersed in this world and knew so much about it that we forgot what we didn’t know in the beginning of the process.” They also learned that they did not go into as much depth on certain topics. White said, “We had a whole section on Artsakh which we reduced to a few sentences. That was another challenge. There were lots of parts where I needed to summarize hundreds, if not thousands, of years of history in a sentence or two.”

Pilikian said, “We want to give the information necessary for someone who doesn’t know anything about it, but only so much as they need to know in order to understand what we are showing them.” The couple, she said, watched a lot of prior Armenian Genocide documentaries to see what they covered. She said, “We didn’t want to do the same things they did. We saw that we don’t have to do this historical retelling in-depth of the genocide. These things already exist.”

Distribution

The couple offered the film to festivals and premiered it at the Arpa International Film Festival in Los Angeles in November, 2019. They did a private screening for the cast and crew and others who helped in the US, and another one in Armenia.

Jared White and Lilit Pilikian at the Arpa International Film Festival premiere in Los Angeles in 2019

They also began submitting the film to various television outlets. White said, “PBS was the goal from the beginning for me.” Consequently, the couple was very happy that it is showing on September 1 at 8:30 p.m. at PBS SoCal KOCE in the Los Angeles area.

Jared White and Lilit Pilikian in front of the Moscow Cinema where their film was screened for cast and crew in Yerevan

As it will be during a pledge drive for the station, there will be three 12-minute pledge breaks through the film, each spaced 20 minutes after the other. Pilikian and White will be interviewed at the first one, and Vahe Berberian and Carla Garapedian appear later. The making of the film and the importance of genocide recognition, among other topics, will be discussed. DVDs of the film will be available for sale on the PBS SoCal website, and Armenian subtitles are being added to it at present as an option.

There is a second Armenian film earlier that night called “What Will Become of Us,” so that other prominent Armenians like comedian Lory Tatoulian and musician Sebu Simonian will also appear during its pledge breaks.

White reported that there was no Turkish interference or political pushback concerning the film so far.

He said, “We hope to take the film to more PBS stations throughout the country. The better it does on the broadcast on September 1, the better chance we have to take it to other stations and maybe streaming services.” Viewers (and readers of this article) can request the documentary to be shown at their local PBS stations.

White said, “I don’t think we can have a full theatrical run, especially now that movie theaters are not open. We would also like to take it to schools, when it is safe to do so, and we are looking at education distribution to universities as well as schools.”

Until it comes to your home town, people can keep up with developments concerning the film through its website, 100yearsfromhome.com, as well as Facebook and Instagram sites bearing the same name.

Epilogue: Love and Truth

The film presents Pilikian as its protagonist so lovingly that I could not help but ask White whether the documentary could be considered a homage to his wife. He accepted that it could be seen that way, while Pilikian merely noted that during a test screening one of the comments of the viewers was that it was like seeing her through his loving eyes, as a sort of love letter.

White emphasized that though “the personal aspect was definitely there, I also did want to help raise awareness for the Armenian Genocide. I don’t think enough people have heard about it. I am half-Jewish myself, so I could relate because both peoples went through their own genocide.”

He concluded, “What I was struck by in the process of making the film was the importance of the truth. The countries that deny the genocide or other countries that don’t acknowledge it and allow the former to continue to deny it, I feel just give tacit permission to other countries to commit further atrocities. I think the best way to fight against more genocides happening is to acknowledge them, to recognize and talk about them, so they don’t happen again. I was really struck by the need to fight for the truth and for what is right. It is not just a morally good thing. It is dangerous otherwise to not acknowledge these things.”

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