The Pure Spirit of ‘Zulali’ Appears on the Big Screen

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By Lilit Shahverdyan

Special to the Mirror-Spectator

YEREVAN – The long-waited movie “Zulali” was released on October 21 in Yerevan. The film is about personal hardships in the small community of Berd in the Tavush region and explores the mysteries hidden within the walls of a tiny village house.

The depiction of a harsh destiny and love are accompanied by the melodies of Tigran Mansuryan, who returned to composing music for cinema after many years. Narine Abgaryan, the author of the eponymous novel on which the film is based, and the film’s producer and director Hayk Ordyan are both intimately familiar with Berd as natives of Tavush.

Ordyan started his career as a documentary filmmaker in Armenia and abroad and produced movies in Russia, China and other countries. “I decided to attempt a feature film and pondered long about the plot I wanted to bring to the big screen,” asserted Ordyan. A chance meeting with Abgaryan in Moscow sealed the destiny of “Zulali,” which Ordyan thought had the potential to become a competitive feature film. Emphasizing the significance of the film, he added, “It was very much mine, very natural. I grew up in the same environment, surrounded by the same characters, the same mindset, and dialect.”

“Zulali” attracted the producer with its complexity and varied layers which “can be put together as a mosaic” and seemed an appealing subject for the big screen. It explores the difficulties of life in small communities where everything is connected and one careless step alters the whole course of events. The film is based on the stories and memories of three main characters, Zulali, Akir and Nazaros, through which the cruel fate of a family is unveiled. Despite all the difficulties they face, the villagers are able to overcome them together, living, loving and taking care of one another.

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Ordyan always kept in touch with the book’s author, Narine Abgaryan, who provided her assistance in every aspect, starting from mental support to choosing the characters. “I showed Narine all the photographs of the actors and the scripts because her opinion was always essential for me,” states Ordyan, “and we worked together on shaping the language of the movie.” Though the novel was written in Russian, the producer decided to use the local Armenian dialect for the film in order to make the film more authentic. “We used the language of Tavush to get closer to the peculiarities of the region,” explained Hayk, “but made the dialect lighter, so it would be understandable for everyone.”

Cooperation with Abgaryan came easily for Ordyan through their mutual attachment to Tavush. Later, the two also became close with Hermine Stepanyan, who plays the title character, as she also hails from there.

In the film, the title character loses her ability to speak due to a family tragedy, and Stepanyan said that she was able to capture her character thanks to a strong relationship with Ordyan. “It was a challenging role that I was afraid to perform,” she said, “but Hayk had my back, and he helped me overcome all my fears.”

Zulali’s role was complex, full of distinct emotions, thoughts, and actions, and the film set a path of self-discovery for Stepanyan. “After reading the book, I tried to understand the essence of Zulali,” added Stepanyan. “I realized that she represents nature, and I also became a part of that nature.”

Zulali never kept silent. She always talked to herself, to Akir and to Nazaros, yet no one could hear and understand her, because it all happened in her imagination and dreams. One of the villagers, however, took advantage of Zulali’s weakness and raped her. Soon, little Nazaros was born, who became the pillar of his family, helping his aging stepmother Akir and Zulali in every possible way.

During the course of the shoot, the characters appeared amidst surroundings of magnificent mountains and valleys. Returning to everyday life after the movie was a new hurdle they encountered: “Living like Zulali would be difficult for actors,” said Hermine, “and we had to shift the things to back where we initially started.”

Ordyan’s production company, Order Film, started working on the movie in 2019 and faced major issues caused by the pandemic and then the war of 2020. These events brought about financial difficulties, which at one point halted production. “I even believed that ‘Zulali’ was not destined to be screened,” confessed Ordyan, but the support from collaborators made the completion of the film possible after the war.

“I returned due to Mansuryan,” he said, “as he came with a fait accompli: he had written the score, so I had to complete editing.”

Ordyan considers this a triumph as he convinced Mansuryan to start composing music for movies after a prolonged hiatus. “The maestro saw the first images of the movie and immediately asked for a pen and paper to start writing the music,” said Ordyan.

“Zulali” will be available for competition and showings at international film festivals. It is already being dubbed into Russian, the original language of the books which made Abgaryan popular in Russia. “‘Zulali’ is all based on enthusiasm; it was supposed to be created, and we created it,” added the producer.

Abgaryan pointed out that Ordyan as a producer exceeded her expectations because he grew up in Shamshadin, in Tavush province, and was well-acquainted with the region. Reflecting on the movie premiere on October 22, she posted on her Facebook account: “I lived again all that I was made of — the sharp smell of the earth awakening after hibernation, the sweet taste of barely fermented wine, the nuts in the darkened palm of my great-grandmother, her tales…”

Ordyan asserted that the main idea behind the film is spreading love and humanity, the values that should lead people. “Zulali” translates from Arabic as “purity,” which is the virtue they aimed to portray. Only at the end of the film are Zulali’s thoughts and emotions revealed, with her memories of the day she lost her mother. Zulali’s mind was free and she danced, releasing her thoughts and concerns through her movements, so that she could be seen and heard by the audience. “Zulali has many layers, but love is the most important,” says Ordyan. “If the film heartens the viewers and they start loving life, I will consider myself a success.”

The trailer of the film may be seen below.

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