Patrick Malakian

Patrick Malakian: ‘If We Face Our Problems, We Will Solve Them’

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YEREVAN — French-Armenian director Patrick Malakian has been a frequent visitor to Armenia during last years. He was born in 1963 in Boulogne-Billancourt; he is the son of renowned filmmaker Henri Verneuil (Ashot Malakian, 1920-2002) and editor and actress Françoise Bonnot (1939-2018). After his studies at the University of Hartford in the US and military service, Patrick Malakian became an assistant of director and directed his first short film in 1991. He directed his single feature film, “Why Is Mum in My Bed?,” released in 1994, as well as episodes in 10 TV series. Malakian has served as producer, writer and actor in several TV series.

My conversation with Patrick took place on November 1 of the last year in Yerevan, after the international conference on cinema issues dedicated to the 100th anniversary of Henri Verneuil, which was held on October 29-31 in Yerevan.

Patrick, what is your opinion, as a filmmaker, on your own films?

My movies are made for television. When you do TV movies, you have certain requirements, that you should understand. Then it means that they are not totally your movies. Each network works differently, each network accepts different things, so you have to get into those slots to direct for television. The good thing is that allowed me to explore different styles. I did some thrillers, some comedies, some science-fiction; once I directed ten episodes for a TV serial that was broadcast in Canada and the good thing is that I was free enough to decide I want to shoot them. And because I was the director with the most episodes, I could put into place some rules. I directed each of those 10 episodes in different ways. There is one episode when the camera never moves, then in another episode the camera moves. I was experimenting to challenge my creativity. And I think that as an artist, specifically when you work for television, you have to challenge your creativity. I always thought that constraints are incredibly good creativity power sources.

Absolutely! We can see it in the example of Soviet cinema, Iranian cinema…

Every cinema, because there is always a moment the director or screenwriter will face the producer and no matter what, no matter how much rich the producer is, they will say: no, it is too expensive. This sentence challenges your creativity as you start to think: ok, what I have to do, I will take this out, but it is important, I still will do it, yet with less money — it is all about that.

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Did your father ever give you advice for your films?

Never. It was always an understanding between him and me. He would never help me. When I was an assistant director, I did without him. And the fact that I took the Malakian name, when I met people for the first time, they did hire me not for my surname, but just thought that I am good. Then they would learn that my father is Henri Verneuil, but it will be too late. The first impression was already made, and they hired me for what I am capable of. When I made my first movie, my father did not help me.

I assume that another reason for changing your surname from Verneuil back to Malakian was that you did not want to spend your life in the shadow of a famous father.

No, because when I did this, I was 18 years old, so too young to think about the career. I was going for a bachelor’s degree. I did it because I just needed to be me, to find out who I am, and whether the people who were around me were there because of my father or not.

And your siblings are also Verneuil?

My sister Sophie took the surname Malakian back at the same time as me. It is hard for two others siblings, they tried everything, they tried to call them Verneuil, because I believe, it was a way for them probably to tell people they are proud. Sevan was 13 and Gayane eight, when my father died, so they really did not know him very well, and it was a time when he was not that famous anymore, so it did not work. So Sevan took lots of different names: right now, I believe, he is under Malakian.

We see your connections in French-Armenian community and also your involvement in cultural projects in Armenia. Do your siblings also have Armenian interests?

Not as much as I do. We all have our own path, our own personality; I decided to go to the Armenian path. My siblings do other things. Sophie is a veterinarian; she helps people by helping their animals, Sevan is in music and Gayane is an actress.

As film historian I would like to check some facts from Verneuil’s biography. It was written that before “Mayrig” he intended to shoot “The Armenians” by Clément Lépidis and “The Forty Days of Musa Dagh” by Franz Werfel. Is it true that it was Henri Troyat, the eminent French novelist and historian of Armenian descent, gave him the idea of screening Werfel’s novel?

There is a script of “Musa Dagh” written by Troyat and Verneuil. As a matter of fact, I read it two weeks ago.

Do you think this script might be turned into a movie?

No, and I will tell why. I always thought that if you do a movie about a country from the history of another country than your own, the hero has to be from your country to interest your people. And I became sure about it after reading “The Forty Days of Musa Dagh.”

But the main heroine of “Musa Dagh,” Juliette, is French.

She is, and her husband lives in France. It will need lots of work and the problem is as soon as you touch specific historical facts, it becomes very hard to romanticize it, get out of the line of what really happened. The hero can be the captain of the ship, who rescued the survivors. I was thinking that is a way to bring a French hero into the story, but his life is not really interesting. And because he really existed, I cannot invent things about that. I always take as an example “The Last Samurai” with Tom Cruise, because that film takes place in the real history of Japan, but entirely invents the story. And I think if you do “The Forty Days of Musa Dagh,” it is hard to invent something. If I do invent something, I know every Armenian will come to me and say: I know, it did not happen like this, etc. Right now I don’t know, but the way it was written, it cannot be a movie.

I know that in his early career Henri Verneuil met Louis Lumiére, one of the founders of cinema and took an interview for Haratch Armenian newspaper of Paris. Do you know if there is some photo of Henri Verneuil with Louis Lumière?

I have no idea.

We know Henri Verneuil’s first film was shooting Armenian writer and politician Avetis Aharonyan’s funeral. Is there a digital copy of it?

No. Right now there is a man in France, who is interested in publishing all 34 films of my father in remastered digital condition, including all his short films. I hope maybe one day we will find that very first film too.

Have you thought about collecting all his writings in a volume, including his first about the Armenian cause?

No. I am perpetuating his memory. I am trying to show his movies, but my life is not about him. It cannot be like that. I have all the posters of his films, which I buy, every time I see an original poster, I buy them, I restore them, but none of them is at my home. I appreciate when people do that, finding the early articles he wrote, but I never did myself a research. Right now there are a couple of people who approached me, when we did a concert at UNESCO, they want to do a big book on my father, so I will help them of course; I will do lots of things, but I don’t want to be the instigator.

After Verneuil’s death a French newspaper wrote: “His films will be watched by our grandchildren.” Do you think that this happens now?

Yes. Not all 34 films, but at least five of them will always screened and seen by younger people. I do believe, the fact that we restore and remaster all his movies, some other movies will be discovered by the people too. His career was made of such eclectic movies, that some others will be rediscovered.

Especially if some black and white movies will be turned into color ones.

Yes, it is the only way today. I don’t want my father’s career to end up in the festivals, when you have ten people, only specialists, in the room.

One of squares in Marseille is named after Henri Verneuil. Is there a statue of him there?

No. Actually there was a statue in the square, made by Armenian sculptor Toros Rastklenian, of red color, symbolizing the blood of Armenians, but unfortunately it was damaged on April 23. I wonder who did it! And as it was damaged twice, the Marseille town council decided to take it away, and Toros’s wife took it back to her husband’s workshop. Now it is standing in Toros’s workshop.

As a person of Armenian origin, how much you transfer your heritage to your daughters?

I never push it. It is a personal path you have to do. On top of that, they are not my daughters, but my wife’s, although they live with us. Of course they know my father, for the past five years they have been with me in lots of Armenian events in Marseille, one of them, the youngest, already came to Armenia with me, so I just need them to understand, know and maybe one day have more interest, which they should pursue by them own. But because of that (it is interesting, because they are Jews) they have the consciousness of the Armenian genocide, which for young people is unusual, and, I know, they pass it to their friends.

The last time we met you were here with a totally different project in the theater.

I have someone I really like here — director, choreographer Arman Julhakyan. I have been working with him for the past seven years, and every time he does a new project, I give my input and I try to help and promote him. Last time I was here for Arman’s choreographic performance “#44” about the last war, a very emotional ballet, that’s for sure. After a while Arman said he does not want to deal with it anymore, but I told him to proceed, only changing the perspective. Because now this ballet is not just about Armenia’s 44 days of war, but about a mother, having children going to the war. It is obviously terrible, when it happens to you, but you have to take one step away to look that it happens everywhere in the world, and you created a piece that will talk to everybody. So you can change your point of view and still do it without affecting yourself. Now Arman is starting to think on this way. So yes, I am very much into the art here, I love the school Arman works in, Hayordyats Toun cultural center in Nork. I fell in love with that school seven years ago and I will do my best to help them.

And during your conference you said Armenian culture is so strong that it can be one of our tools.

That is who we are — something we can share with the world, where the world can come and take people from here to work with them. Our issue is that we want to exist. We want to be still be here. Of course we talk that a lot of people are leaving Armenia, some say that Armenia is dying. No, no, no, Armenia is not dying, Armenia is facing a very huge problem, but we have to face it. Something that I have noticed in Armenia is that we have a tendency to put the existing problem under the carpet so as not to see it. But if we face our problems, we will solve them: hiding them will make them worse. And our art, tourism, crafts, also this newly developed wine production are huge things we are good at. We should take an advantage of this: the government has to realize that and assist those fields by all possible means.

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