“Drowning in Flames”

Gariné Torossian, Genie of Experimental Film


Sergei Eisenstein. Maya Deren. Marguerite Duras. Agnès Varda. Sergei Paradjanov.

Canadian Armenian filmmaker Gariné Torossian belongs to a coterie of exceptional filmmakers, visionaries with a wholly original way of presenting their work to the world using the Seventh Art as their vehicle. In Torossian’s case, her handling of film’s physicality itself, her weaving film like fabric, of playing with repetition both visually and with soundtracks, her integrating of these techniques along with her own particular take on montage and the splice, finally her integration of photography and other media into her films form a truly arresting and organic body of work. In the twenty-two films that she has created to date Torossian almost always returns to themes of identity—as a woman, an Armenian, a creator, an inheritor of a millennial culture—while remaining an outsider questioning and integrating worlds within her. The diasporan and the native, the mainstream and the marginalized, the spoken and the unspoken. Starting in 1993 with the 5-minute-long “The Girl from Moush” when Torossian first came to the attention of American audiences with her subtle and questioning sotto voce that accompanied a montage of Armenian cultural figures and monuments, to the wonderfully creepy grandmother in “Hokees” (2000) who comes back to claim the child she lost during the Armenian Genocide from her own granddaughter, Torossian has marched to her own drummer. And after watching this aforementioned film no one will ever hear the word hokees (my soul/my love in Armenian) in quite the same way.

Stone, Time, Touch

The trio of diasporan women in the 2007 feature documentary “Stone, Time, Touch” (72 minutes), Canadian Armenians originally from Lebanon where the survivors of the Armenian Genocide regrouped after 1915, offer rich contrasting views of their homeland — as it was imagined and as it appears to them in person.

Torossian captures the many conflicting emotions of returning to their quasi-mythical homeland. Wonder and excitement, awe and reverence, but also disappointment and confusion when presented with a real land full of real people negotiating often difficult lives almost two decades after the fall of the Soviet Union.

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Torossian’s great strength as a director here is to let her subjects tell their highly personal stories as they unfold. What does it mean to be both part of yet outside of, one’s own culture? How does one assert one’s belonging to a people or a place while simultaneously trying to erase one’s difference? Scarborough-born performance artist Kamée Abrahamian is only 17 on this particular visit to Armenia but already shoots video wherever she goes: she quietly takes in her surroundings, tentatively feeling her way. Actress Arsinée Khanjian has been to Armenia several times before, even shot “Calendar” with her husband Atom Egoyan in 1993, so Torossian lets her monologue unfold as she positions herself vis-à-vis a country independent for the first time in nearly a century. In this quietly haunting documentary Torossian periodically superimposes her own face over footage of Armenia to present a third view of the former Soviet republic — one as layered and complex as the filmmaker’s technical approach to film. Among other awards that it garnered, the jury of the 23rd Warsaw Film Festival awarded Stone, Time, Touch with its prize for Best Creative Documentary.

Gariné Torossian (Donata Wenders photo)

Drowning in Flames

And then there is “Drowning in Flames” (1995), which may well be Torossian’s masterpiece to date, a remarkable feat of technical skill and possibly one of the most visually powerful films that I have ever watched. This twenty-five minute work, a quick spliced together succession of deep red, orange and blue hues presents a montage of stills taken from the photographs of American photographers Mike and Doug Starn, who are twins. There is little narration: the film begins with a chilling scream and a whispered sentence “The blessed flames begin to speak.” The voice then reappears at intervals to make pronouncements about “the eternal light” and comment on the nature of beauty—all with haunting background music by Timothy Sullivan. The film is almost sci-fi in nature and reminds one in parts of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. Torossian shot the film on 16mm then cut the physical film into halves or multiple pieces. She then rearranged the images and frames and taped them together. After finishing the collage she optically printed it to make a negative and then a final print. To quote Torossian: “My main tools were a splicer, a viewer and tape.” Anyone who has ever edited 16mm film on an old-fashioned splicer knows that this sounds simple but requires an amazing amount of concentration and technical skill—not to mention an eye for how things may or may not look once spliced together. Drowning in Flames is a remarkable film as well because the Starn brothers’ photographs are themselves collages of existing images that multiply and manipulate original material. Torossian’s film becomes a remarkable cinematic mise en abyme of re-manipulation and duplication—and in the process something wholly original to cinema: “My film introduces a temporal element into the art of the Starns, which deconstructs it in the same way they’ve reshaped the work of others,” Torossian writes: “The Starns say that ‘Art cannot be excused from time.’ They allow their pictures to deteriorate and metamorphose into living entities that change like anything else.” Like the Starns, Torossian takes the work of other filmmakers and photographers as a starting point, on the way to creating something wholly new. She notes that “Drowning is an homage to their practice, like Visions was to Michael Semak and Girl From Moush was to Paradjanov.” Drowning moves at a rapid pace, displaying images of a virgin’s visage and hands from a Dutch master, followed by a bleached rose, the face of Anne Frank, as well as the twinned Self-Portrait of the Starn brothers themselves. There are also images of machinery and globes that spin by, seemingly on fire as if we were witnessing a visually gorgeous apocalypse, with a shriek of pain or alienation sometimes piercing an otherwise quasi-silent soundtrack. And the whole looking as if it were indeed drowning in flames, a filmic Armageddon of sorts.

Watch any of Torossian’s films — each one a beautiful, sparkling, intelligent gem. Together they make a unique contribution to world cinema, a vision that is universal in nature in its attempt to find meaning in the excavated past in order to understand the present, as the world hurtles ever more quickly into an unknown future. Torossian’s films say the following: stay with me, listen to me, touch this stone, look at this painting, feel what this woman who lives in a tin container feels. See things through my eyes and hear them through my voice. And above all share in the beauty of the world and the beauty of film.

“Stone Time Touch”

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Gariné Torossian Filmography:

  • 1992 – “VISIONS” (4min, 16mm, Color) Director, Editor, Cinematographer
  • 1993 – “PLATFORM” (8min, 16mm, Color) Director, Editor, Cinematographer
  • 1994 – “GIRL FROM MOUSH” (5min, 16mm, Color) Director, Editor, Cinematographer
  • 1995 – “DROWNING IN FLAMES” (25min, 16mm, Color) Director, Editor, Cinematographer
  • 1996 – “MY OWN OBSESSION” (30min, 16mm, Color) Director, Editor, Cinematographer
  • 1997 – “PASSION CRUCIFIED” (22min. 16mm, Color) Director, Editor
  • 1998 – “POMEGRANATE TREE” (3 min, 16 mm, Color) Director, Editor, Cinematographer
  • 1999 – “RED BRICK” (5 min, Video) Director, Cinematographer
  • 1999 – “SPARKLEHORSE” (9 min, 16mm, Color) Director, Editor, Cinematographer
  • 2000 – “DUST” (6 min, Video) Director, Editor, Cinematographer
  • 2000 – “DEATH TO EVERYONE” (6 min, 16 mm, Color) Director, Editor, Cinematographer
  • 2000 – “HOKEES” (25 min, 16mm, Color) Director
  • 2001 – “BABIES ON THE SUN” (5min, 16 mm) Director, Editor, Cinematographer
  • 2002 – “SHADOWY ENCOUNTERS” (15 min, 16 mm) Director, Editor, Cinematographer
  • 2003 – “GARDEN IN KHORKHOM” (14 min, Video) Director, Editor, Cinematographer
  • 2004 – “SANDIAS EUSTASY” (10min) Director, Producer, Editor
  • 2005 – “HYPNOTIZE / MEZMERIZE” (11 min, Video, System of a Down rock band), Director
  • 2007 – “ELECT THE DEAD” (3min, Color, Music Video) Director, Editor, Cinematographer
  • 2007 – “STONE, TIME, TOUCH” (74 min, Color) Director, Editor, Cinematographer
  • 2008 – “COME AROUND” (5 min, Video) Director, Editor, Cinematographer
  • 2017 – “LA STRUCTURE EST POURRIE, CAMARADE” (9 min, Color, Video) Director, Editor
  • 2017 – “AN INVENTORY OF SOME STRICTLY VISIBLE THINGS” (4 min, Color, Video) Director


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