Eddy Vicken, left, with French director Robert Guediguian

Eddy Vicken: Filming Celebrities, Monks and Armenia

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YEREVAN/GLENDALE — Eddy Vicken is a documentary filmmaker, born in 1976 in Paris and currently residing in Los Angeles. In 1995-1998 he received his bachelor degree at Audiovisual Production and Direction ESRA Paris (Higher School of Audiovisual Direction) and in 1995 his Baccalaureate in Economics. He worked as assistant director, an editor and a cameraman before becoming an author and a director of documentary films. Since 2017 Vicken has made a number of reports for Invitation to Travel TV program of French-German ARTE TV (broadcasting every weekday since March 2017), presenting various corners of the planet, including Armenia, Italy, Jordan, Greece, Israel and Palestine, etc.

For TV5 Monde and TPS Ciné Cinétoile Vicken shot series of portraits devoted to filmmakers of the golden age of French cinema, including Christian-Jacque, “The Man Who Loved Women” (2003), Henri-Georges Clouzot, “A Singular Tyran” (2004), Marcel Carne, “The Living Camera” (2005), Roger Vadim, “A Billionaire of Happiness” (2006). For KTO TV Vicken made documentaries on Pater Noster on the monastic day at the Carmel of the Pater in Jerusalem, and a program presenting a day with the Benedictine monks of the Barroux Abbey (winner of the Best First Documentary Award – Lauriers de la Radio et Télévision Française), etc.

His filmography includes “Kosovo, a powder keg in Europe” (documentary on the Serbian minority in Kosovo), interviews with Suzy Delair, Brigitte Bardot, Claudia Cardinale, Robert Hossein, Annie Girardot, Jane Fonda, etc., documentaries about celebrities of past (Howard Hughes, Elvis Presley, John Huston), etc.

Eddy, while going though your filmography one can think you are always on the move.

Lately I’ve been mainly involved with short-format documentaries that I have to provide for Arte’s daily magazine called “Invitation to Journey.” I loved to develop longer formats, 52 minutes or more, which ask for a long involvement, more consequent budgets, but those short docs with the daily show give me the opportunity to be more flexible in the themes I deal with. Among film expressions, I always had a particular preference for documentaries, whatever the format. I love the genuine aspect of it, the fact that it allows to show places, subjects connected with reality, though not easily accessible. It brings knowledge to people, culture, a true enrichment because seeing foreign lands and letting people express themselves is the best way to apprehend our world in my opinion. I would literally become crazy if I was not able to discover unknown places, and try to apprehend humanity in the many aspects offered by the subjects that I choose to explore. I love to listen other people’s stories and bring them to an audience, as much as I can, undistorted.

In 2009-2019 you were in charge of Vicken Productions Audiovisual Production Company. What projects your company has made?

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While living in France, beside working for other companies I always allowed myself a small space of liberty. That meant having my own company and being able to develop more personal projects, or documentaries that I needed to handle from beginning to the end. I wanted as much as possible to reduce the chain of decisions. I know every aspect of my work. I can film, write, edit and I love all of those step in the making of a movie. Generally, I work with photographers, editors, every department, collaborator, bring another point of view, participate to what makes a film. It’s a common adventure. But sometimes, we can’t enter everywhere with a full team. You have to be discreet, to dedicate time, more than a regular production would give you, to deliver the best film possible. That’s where having my own small structure is decisive. It’s help making films that couldn’t be possible otherwise. That was the case in Syria when I went filming in 2017 during the war. I wouldn’t bring anyone not knowing of what can happen in terms of security.

I remember your film, “Mount Athos, the Monks’ Republic,” presented at the Golden Apricot Yerevan International Film Festival in 2008. It was an interesting travel within the millennial Republic of Mount Athos, forbidden to cameras. However, how you succeed to film there?

The film about Mount Athos is the first one among these personal films. It thrilled me to film there because I feel very close to the Greek culture and I knew this project was impossible to do since the Athonite Republic has never allowed cameras for many decades. It is a remote place, only monks have lived there since the 11th century. Women were never allowed to step there. As a young director I was willing to show and explain this marvelous place of the Christian orthodox faith which managed through the ages to remain unchanged. But it was like the Holy Grail of documentaries for production companies. At that time, none did manage to film there. I wanted to change that. So I went there more than 10 times, in order to know the place perfectly, and find with the local authorities of several monasteries how to get a camera inside and film the monastic life there. It was time consuming but I had faith. Getting caught there by the customs would have been problematic with the Athonite government, we had several controls. But we finally made our film. I think women were the most interested to see it as it’s totally forbidden for them to enter this monastic Republic.

Eddy Vicken

Religious sites seem of special object of interest for you. Or all they were orders from KTO TV?

After Mount Athos a Benedictine monastery in France was interested by our work so we proposed them, my coauthor and myself, to show what a monastic day would look like. Another forbidden place, behind the cloister, Gregorian choir… it was more than interesting to me. As cameras were providing sharper images and didn’t need more than natural light we were able to fit in the everyday life of the monks without causing any kind of disturbance. The film, “Watchers in the Night” was broadcasted on KTO. It was their preferred film on the year. So they chose to send it to the “Lauriers de la Télévision Français” in the “first movie” category. A kind of annual celebration where the professionals of French TV and medias give prizes like the Cesars or Oscars. I was very surprised to get the prize since we had a small budget in comparison to the other’s channels. I guess that the mood, the purist approach of the photography, the text extracts from Saint Benoit’s Rule and the narration from Michael Lonsdale, such a marvelous actor, made the difference. It was a fulfilling project. We lived several weeks at the monk’s rhythm. So afterwards when I was proposed to decline the concept in several monasteries, sometimes with nuns, I was glad to follow the invitation.

What memorable moments you can recall from your filming in close monasteries?

I had wonderful moments in those spiritual places. As a great-grandson of an Armenian priest it was not a strange place for me to be. Even if it was about Catholic monasteries, they remain so close to the Armenian spirituality that I felt like it was “home.” I had wonderful interviews of men and women who followed incredible paths, which lead them to choose a meditative and radical life in the Christian tradition. It’s exceptional regarding our contemporary times. Catching light and spirit of those given to God people and these marvelous places moved us deeply. There is a feeling of brotherhood that provided us inner peace and inspiration.

Eddy, you have interviewed world-famous celebrities; I assume, they all were very memorable, however, who stands out?

As a young director I was amazed by the meeting with Brigitte Bardot, Jane Fonda and Claudia Cardinale. It was a privilege. Whatever we may think of their ideas and issues they remain strong women, icons, goddesses of the cinema at its pinnacle. You are transformed by meetings them. I was dazzled and captivated with their power of attraction. They were not global stars by chance. Something undefinable emanates from them that is not common.

And what vivid (bizarre, unusual…) fragments you can present us from your interviews?

Brigitte Bardot is a sacred monument of French cinema renown worldwide. The first time she agreed to an interview she said: “I say yes but I don’t say when.” I had to wait one year before she phoned the producer saying that she agreed to the interview two days later. At that very moment I was stuck on Mount Athos in a remote monastery. I had to do the impossible — to reach Paris in two days. I arrived two hours before the interview began. She said: “I give you half an hour.” Finally, she gave a 90-minute interview. I was very impressed by her, scared to not do something wrong. She is a woman of great character. I still remember Bardot telling me: “Do you know anyone that managed to make me do something I didn’t want?” Jane Fonda was so charming, she had this delicious English accent while speaking fluent French, I was like mesmerized.

Women made strong impressions on me, but they were not all celebrities. I was very touched and moved by the women I met in Rwanda telling their stories of survival during the genocide they endured. I made the trip there because I wanted to understand how genocide happened there too. And among these moments that I’ll always remember, I also have in mind the testimony of a nun. She told me how non believing she was, growing up in an atheist family with a Jewish background. She had been a very pragmatic being… And following a friend in Italy who entered a Church the day of Easter she was filled with a supernatural feeling, something that words cannot express… a kind of metaphysical experience which instantaneously changed her mind at the point that she ended up in this catholic monastery. Apart from the superior mother of the convent, no other sister she lived with had never known her personal story before. I was very moved to hear her testimony.

Armenia occupies a special place in your activities. How many reports you have made in your ancestor’s land?

The first trip that I made was in 2001 for the 1700th  anniversary of Christianity in Armenia. I managed to go back in 2002 one year for a documentary with a film director who was interested in depicting the population of Artsakh. I was only filming, not directing. Since that time I have tried to come back as much as I could and, if possible, with documentary projects. In my collaboration with Arte I did have the opportunity to talk about the country and its culture and history three years ago. I came back in autumn 2020 for portraits of Martiros Sarian, Sergey Paradjanov, Robert Guédiguian and Charles Aznavour.

The last time I landed in Armenia it was the day after the war started. My plane was delayed one day, but the production company I had signed with agreed to let us go. Normally I would have tried to be involved in a project that would have showed the atrocity of this war but I was already contractually bound with the TV channel to do those films and responsible for my operator who didn’t sign up for a war documentary. It’s the irony of life. I did a film in Syria in wartime in 2017, but couldn’t do the same in Artsakh. It was a terrible feeling, a nightmare for every Armenian. In my case it’s even worse because I had family involved in the war; we thought we lost them. Anyway after all that Armenians suffered in the 19th and 20th centuries, every single kid, each life we lost is unbearable. My family had been always living in a small village in Hadrout. It was the last place where I still had ancestors buried on historical Armenian land. Now it’s in the enemy’s hands. Some days I was wondering: why does it matter to do those cultural films? These testimonies of the Armenian culture that we try to show the world are useless when in the end brutality prevails, and oil provides weapons to dictators like the ones in Azerbaijan without any reaction from the so called “civilized world.” I knew that I am very realistic. So one of those sleepless nights I wrote what I felt on a social media. Because Armenians once more could rely only on themselves.

Please tell us more about your roots.

I have family roots dating back to the 7th century from Yalova at the south of Constantinople for one part. Every villager knew that their ancestors came to Yalova after the Muslim invasions in Armenia and settled at the time of the Byzantine empire in seven villages in the surrounding region. Another part comes from Ainteb, Cilicia, that came to France after being settled in Aleppo several decades. You can add one grandfather from Artsakh who fought in World War II in the Red Army and after being severely injured during the battle of Smolensk, was a prisoner in the German camps. He managed to escape and join the French Foreign Legion. He finished the war under the French uniform but didn’t manage to come back in Artsakh since he was warned that Stalin was sending every man made prisoner by the Germans to the gulag. He had to wait many years before being able to see his family again. So in the family we are Armenian for 3,000 years, French for 100 years, and my children complete this Armenian eclectic panorama because my wife’s family are Armenians from Iran who spent several decades in Armenia.

Is Eddy Vicken your real name?

They are my first and Christian names. It’s Eddy because my parents wanted maybe something more “modern” than just Edward. And I sign with my baptism name, Vicken, because it’s totally Armenian. My family name is just unreadable on film credits. It’s not a simple Armenian name like Gasparyan or Tovmassian. I can tell that it was difficult to read for my teachers, so for an audience, possibly international, during the short time credits of films…

Now you live in the US, but keep working for French TV. How is professional and general life in the States? Especially in “Armenian” Glendale.

I moved in California for family reasons, not with a professional agenda. It’s too recent, I didn’t merge yet in the American film industry and I don’t intend to do it. I like the liberty that the French and European cultural environment provide to me. Art is not a business; it needs a relative, if not absolute freedom. So in order to maintain that freedom, I will keep on coming back and forth, even if the Covid made things more difficult. I am not bound; I live between the two countries at least. I am now working on a documentary about William Saroyan. I can find almost everything that I can think of about Armenian ways of living in Glendale, but it can never take the place of the genuine antique stones and historical background that I cherish so much in the lands that stand between France and Armenia. So I’ll keep on moving. I have some projects which are more tied with fiction and graphic novels, that is for the coming future. I did a lot of what I wanted in the documentarist genre.

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