A Century After Genocide, Armenian-Americans Grapple with Trauma and Cultural Identity in a Documentary Double Feature

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PHILADELPHIA and DETROIT — Generations of Americans of Armenian descent have had to reckon with the aftermath of a genocide that nearly annihilated their people. Their stories have a new urgency in light of the recent war that broke out between Azerbaijan, backed by Turkey, and the Armenians in the contested region of Nagorno-Karabakh, also known as Artsakh. The complex issues that have caused lasting trauma and led to the renewed violence today are illuminated in a pair of moving, deeply personal documentary films coming soon to public television stations in Philadelphia and Detroit.

In the greater Philadelphia area, “What Will Become of Us,” directed by Stephanie Ayanian and Joseph Myers, airs on PBS station WHYY on Tuesday, December 8 at 7:30 p.m. ET. “100 Years from Home,” directed by Jared White and produced by Lilit Pilikian, follows directly after at 9:00 p.m. ET.

In Detroit, “100 Years from Home” airs on PBS station WTVS Detroit Public Television on Monday, December 14 at 8:00 p.m. ET, with “What Will Become of Us” directly after at 9:30 p.m. ET.

There will also be an encore broadcast of “100 Years from Home” in the Southern California area on PBS SoCal on Thursday, December 10 at 9:00 p.m. PT.

“100 Years from Home” is a vivid portrait of an American woman grappling with questions about cultural identity, intergenerational trauma, family, survival, and finding her place in her community and the world. The film was nominated for “Best Documentary” at the 2019 Arpa International Film Festival in Hollywood, Calif. where it premiered to a sold-out screening.

The picture follows Pilikian’s journey as she searches for her great-grandparents’ house in modern-day Turkey, which they were forced to abandon over a century ago during the Armenian Genocide in the Turkish Ottoman Empire that killed over 1.5 million Armenians during and after World War I.

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“What Will Become of Us” is a forward-looking feature documentary produced for public television distribution that speaks to the many immigrant communities who have experienced trauma. Today, often unrecognized, these tragic events create a burden for the younger generation, discouraging them from taking up their culture. “What Will Become of Us” follows six Armenian-Americans – famous and otherwise – as they navigate this solemn centennial and strive to forge identities for the next hundred years.

“Genocide always casts a long shadow. The greatest challenge for any community that has gone through a genocide is to be able to come out of that shadow,” said Columbia University scholar Khatchig Mouradian in an affecting segment of the film.

Early in the film, Karine Shamlian looks through family photographs with her grandmother, 108-year-old genocide survivor Asdghig Alemian Tetezian, who bears witness to the horrors she personally witnessed as a young girl.

To bring their story to life, Ayanian collaborated with long-time filmmaking partner Joseph Myers. Myers, being of Jewish descent, had an immediate connection to the story. The film premiered in late March 2020 through Detroit Public Television and is now being distributed on PBS stations across the United States. Ayanian, whose grandparents survived the Genocide, said, “My desire as a filmmaker is to make their sacrifices count.”

Philadelphia is home to one of the oldest Armenian communities in the United States. In October, large swaths of Armenian-Americans in Philadelphia, and across the country, rallied for the Armenians of Artsakh in response to the recent aggression in the region which resulted in thousands of deaths.

Detroit’s Armenian community is one of the oldest and largest in the country. Prominent Armenians have made their mark on the community, including creator of the popular Delta faucet Alex Manoogian, controversial euthanasia proponent Jack Kevorkian, and most recently Mari Manoogian, serving in the Michigan House of Representatives today. In October, Rep. Manoogian introduced a resolution that was passed in the Michigan House condemning Azerbaijani aggression against the Armenians of Artsakh. Every April 24th, Armenian-Americans from the Detroit area congregate at the Statue of Gomidas Vartabed in homage to the victims of the 1915 Armenian Genocide.

In “100 Years from Home,” the blueprint for the long-lost house was passed down from generation-to-generation until finally ending up in the hands of Pilikian. On the eve of the 100th anniversary of the Genocide, Pilikian embarked on an emotional journey to Armenia and Turkey in search of the house with her filmmaker husband Jared White.

The harrowing-yet-hopeful documentary was produced by the duo and directed by White, a non-Armenian who offers a unique outsider’s perspective on the subject.

“My culture and identity is something I’ve always struggled with, and it’s probably something most people don’t even know about,” said Pilikian. “Jared and I were able to tell the ‘100 Years from Home’ story in a way that allows people who aren’t Armenian into this world.”

Born in Los Angeles, which is home to one of the largest Armenian populations in the world, Pilikian never felt fully at home as an Armenian or as an American. Her struggles are common among American-born children of immigrants.

“100 Years from Home” features interviews with luminaries like Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian, historian and UCLA professor Richard Hovannisian, social critic Vahe Berberian, documentarian Carla Garapedian, Armenian studies scholar Shushan Karapetian, and Archbishop Pargev Martirosyan of the Armenian Apostolic Church in Artsakh.

While these films deal with weighty issues, in the end, the stories are hopeful. Pilikian comes away from the experience with a much stronger sense of herself and her heritage. “Confronting these issues that I often avoided while growing up was difficult for me, but ultimately cathartic. I became more comfortable in my own skin, in my own story,” said Pilikian. “I realized I’m not alone in this.”

 

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