‘Rapping Under Fire’: The Story of 3 Young Heroes from Artsakh

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NEW YORK — In 2017, writer and journalist Taleen Babayan turned her efforts to directing a short documentary in Martakert, a village in Artsakh which now stands divided between Armenia and Azerbaijan after the 44-Day War. Her subject is an unlikely trio of young men in their late twenties — Spartak Osipyan, Eric Poghosyan and Lyoka (Valeri) Ghazaryan — who form the Armenian rap group Orinak (“Example”). Unlikely as well, that a first documentary on this particular subject matter should be quite so successful but “Rapping Under Fire” fascinates from start to finish. The boys from Orinak have, after all, survived their entire lives amidst the ruins of the long-simmering conflict, in a region of the world that few people care about. At one point in the documentary, Spartak points to a rusty Ferris wheel where two generations of Martakertsis have now played on a daily basis, a metaphor for the condition of Artsakh: abandoned yet unwilling to give up.

The three discover rap music and adopt its style — “Proud. Defiant, Rapid-Fire,” as the film poster announces — three voices that express the fears and desires of a generation eager for change. They have even started a program to also teach local kids to rap — and how happy they look these primary school children as they strike poses and rap out loud.

What makes for a successful documentary? As with any film, strong filmmaking technique along with a seamless storyline are a good start — and “Rapping” has both. But the film also succeeds in drawing in the viewer and making him or her identify with its protagonists: in the process, the story goes from the particular to the universal.

Shooting “Rapping Under Fire”

A beautiful opening aerial pan of Martakert shows off the region’s verdant, natural beauty. Next the film cuts to Spartak, a handsome fellow who is engaged in hand-fashioning wooden coffins, of all things. At one point he looks up and explains that he and his fellow Martakertsis have known only war since their birth: “It’s always been this way, we’re used to it.” And then, in a statement that is both black humor and highly serious, he adds, “One thing never changes…There is always a need for a coffin here.”

One marvels at how these three previously unversed musicians from Artsakh managed to adopt and adapt a musical style created by young inner-city African-Americans to the Armenian language and local dialect.

Of course, today rap music exists in many languages including French, Spanish and Russian, but Armenian culture has remained somewhat isolated and traditional, so Orinak’s music in a way represents something even more remarkable.

The trio of rappers in Babayan’s film, “Rapping Under Fire”

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“At first people around here thought that this type of music was shameful,” Spartak explains. “Now they love it.”

Lyoka adds that “Rap has a message. … It lets you express who you are: Your thoughts. Your ideas. Your vision of the world. And rap sets you free — You can stand. You can sit. You don’t even have to sing to the beat. You do it the way you want it.”

The message is not always upbeat. Alluding to the government in Yerevan, Spartak sings: “Our country’s in crisis and everyone knows it. … The resistance can’t drive — they surrendered the keys. There’s a crisis in Armenia but we’re down on our knees.

Somewhere in the middle of the film, one of their proteges, Vika, speaks about the importance of learning to rap as a young woman in a place that still clings heavily to a patriarchal way of life.

In several places humor cuts through an otherwise serious atmosphere, as when the director shows us the successful Artsakh soccer team that competes in the CONIFA League, made up of internationally unrecognized states such as Abkhazia, the Isle of Jersey and Québec.

Babayan, at left, during the making of “Rapping Under Fire”

For Babayan, making the film was an almost religious experience: “We weren’t lifelong friends in that car (driving from Stepanakert). In fact, we’d only exchanged a few messages on WhatsApp. But we certainly felt like we knew each other all our lives — maybe because somewhere in our history, somewhere in our personal stories, our ancestors’ paths had once crossed.”

Overall, there are four main elements that make this film a success: the Orinak members as they tell their own story; the music clips themselves and the scenes where the director enters into conversation with the rappers. Finally, Grammy-nominated artist Sebu Simonian of the band Capital Cities narrates the film, filling in viewers about the history of Artsakh from ancient times to the first war in 1988 after the Soviet Union collapsed to the present. He has a deep, relaxing voice and provides useful information but at times the narration seems to interrupt the wonderful storyline flow that Babayan otherwise achieves.

The protagonists also show hideouts designed to protect children and the elderly.

As Babayan writes elsewhere: “They’re young and they have a life to live and stories to tell.”

In the abstract their lyrics seem overly sentimental, but not given what they have experienced: “This is a good place. The colors are brighter here/Stand with us. The connections are tighter here/Birthplace of our fighters are here/Embrace your land and your ancestors will smile/Drink the purity of mountain rivers. Stand here beside me. It’s all yours if you come back home with us.”

Babayan’s film seems prescient in retrospect: a group of Armenians building their own coffins in anticipation of a war that did indeed come and ravage Artsakh. For those who don’t follow politics, at the onset of the 44-Day War fewer than 200,000 people lived in Artsakh, a land almost completely surrounded by hostile Azeri territory. During the war, oil-rich Azerbaijan led a drone-led army to a crushing victory over an unprepared Armenia that had grown smug after its initial 1988 victory. Five thousand young Armenian conscripts were murdered in the process, and as many Azeris — an appalling death toll in a fight over an area roughly the size Rhode Island.

At one point, Lyoka tells the filmmaker (should we note he said this is the Ghazanchetsots Cathedral in Shushi?): “Of course we have faith…We believed we would win the ‘92 war and we did. We believed we would be independent and we are. We believe.”

How ironic. Perhaps the best coda can be found after the bombs have fallen and the bodies have been cleared comes in the words of Lyoka who poignantly told Babayan from the hilltop: “You hear that? There is life here.”

“Rapping Under Fire” (27 mins, 2020): A film by Taleen Babayan. Cinematography: Suren Ter-Grigorian. Editor: Artur Petrosyan. Writers Christopher Zakian and Karine Abayan. Distributed by Indiepix.

Watch “Rapping Under Fire” on Amazon Prime (link https://www.amazon.com/gp/video/detail/B08WR1LMLB/ref=atv_dp_share_cu_r).

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