Frédéric Tonolli

Frédéric Tonolli: Making Films from Chukotka to Artsakh


YEREVAN / VILLEBON SUR YVETTE, France — French documentary filmmaker, writer and cinematographer Frédéric Tonolli (born 1959) spent most of his childhood in Villebon sur Yvette, where he still resides. He has filmed and directed numerous documentaries for French public television channels. In 2009 he directed for France 5 a series of documentaries of four episodes retracing nearly a century of geopolitics around oil, from Norway to Iraq. From 2011 to 2014, he directed a new series of four documentaries on love stories in cities at war (“Sarajevo, my Love,” “Berlin, my Love,” “Baghdad, my Love” and “Belfast, my Love”). His filmography includes also “Blood of the Mountains” (1994), “The Lords of Behring” (co-director: Patrick Boitet, 1995), “Profession Profiler, Micky and the Black Wind” (1999), “The Nine Moons of Behring” (2003), “The Powder Box of Caucasus: My Little Papers from Armenia” (2005), “People of Water” (2006), “Upside down, the Arctic” (2008), “Children of the Whale” (2008), “The Death of a People” (2009), “The Secret of the seven Sisters” (documentary series of four 52-minute episodes, 2009), “Baghdad Taxi” (2012), “Syria, the Children of Freedom” (2013), “Normandie-Niemen” (2014), “The Forger of Vermeer” (2017), “Guyana: the Gardeners of Exile” (2018), “Trapped: The Bataclan” (2020), etc.

Frédéric, I have an impression that for you the whole planet is a big family and you easily access the homes of all family members. Am I right?

Difficult to answer if the world is one big family. I cannot say that I feel good everywhere, it can happen that the environment is hostile and does not want you. So I try to manage to get invited or to be invited. I do not come as a conqueror. I am not at home, but I like that they make me feel at home. That is different.

You have worked in many countries, including Madagascar, Ethiopia, South Africa, Yemen, India, Indonesia, Equator, Guyana, Armenia, etc. What was your most memorable adventure?

It is impossible to answer. It would even be a lie or a distortion of the truth. Every journey, every film is an extraordinary adventure. I am not a tourist. I have the chance to live my life working. My work is my life, my life is my work and it all blends together. I often say that I am lucky to earn my living by living, even if sometimes I earn it very badly, in the pecuniary sense (laughing). All my adventures have been great because they were my adventures. Otherwise to try to answer your question: the years I lived among the Chukchi in the Behring Strait are unforgettable and all the stays I made in the early ’90s in the Martakert region of Artsakh with Vladimir’s Squad remain engraved in my heart and I think about them almost every day. But I do not live in the past, I just keep it with me forever, like suitcases that accompany me all the time.

Although your experience on those countries has been reflected in your films, have you considered writing a book on your travels?

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I have already written a book about my travels in Chukotka. Then I wrote another one: The Secret of the Seven Sisters, the Untold Story of Oil. Afterwards, the trips are so intimate that I put off writing about them out of modesty and also laziness (laughing).

Frédéric Tonolli

What did you find most exciting in that eternal kingdom of cold in Chukotka, the Arctic region of Northern Russia?

After the Arctic night there is the Arctic summer. Nothing is eternal. When it is too cold, well, we take shelter, we warm up together, we talk and we share what we have. It is great. And then I had the chance to walk on the ice floe, to hunt whales with a harpoon on a small boat in the middle of the sea with men of great courage who did not hunt to kill, but to feed their families as they have always done. I learned to catch my own fish, to smoke it and even to make my own “samagon” – homemade  vodka. In short, I had the chance to live a unique experience.

If I am not mistaken, your second name is Karekine, which reveals your Armenian origin. Please tell us about your Armenian side.

Yes, my name is Karekine. On my passport it says Frédéric Karekine Tonolli. And I am very proud of it. My mother Alice was born in France of two parents (two orphans) who survived the Genocide. You don’t choose to be Armenian, you are Armenian. You cannot explain it. As a child I read Armenian; I have since forgotten. Then in the ’70s and ’80s in the West the Armenian question came back with Hay Baikar (the Armenian fight) and ASALA and after the earthquake, the independence, the Artsakh war, there I had to commit myself, it was not a choice but a duty.

Yes, I am French. And yes, I am Armenian.

Have you met any Armenian in some of the exotic places you have visited? For instance, in Russian documentary “Welcome to Enourmino” by Alexey Vakhrushev, telling about a Chukcha rural locality, there is a visiting seller, who, according to director, was an Armenian.

Yes, of course, all over the world, as far as Chukotka I met Armenians. Some good and some not so good. For the anecdote, in 1995, I had a visa problem in Chukotka and was going to be expelled. I went to the administration in Anadyr, the capital, and I saw on a door an Armenian name. That was the prosecutor’s office! I knocked and went inside and before he could speak I said to him in Armenian: “I am Armenian, you are too, we are far from our homeland, you must help me.” He helped me, although at first he did not want to!

 I see, you met Aramais Dallakian, who later became the first deputy chairman of the Council of Chukotka and even he was the deputy governor of Chukotka. Frédéric, you were one of the first documentary filmmakers who shot a film in 1994 about the war for Artsakh’s independence, “Blood on the Mountains,” based on real events and screened widely. Unfortunately, recently the mountains of Artsakh were covered by blood again. And now foreign documentary filmmakers are denied entry to Artsakh. However, do you think documentary filmmakers still have a job to do on this direction?

Of course I was very proud to make the “Blood of the Mountains” and to have shared these unique moments with these everyday heroes, these discreet heroes, these men and women ready to die for their mountains. But I was especially happy that a public television channel (ARTE) broadcasted it. Making a film is nothing if it is not being broadcasted. And my most difficult struggle was not in Artsakh but in finding a broadcaster. You don’t make a film to please yourself or to show off but to inform and in a way to fight. Of course we have to continue, we have to film in Artsakh and we have to keep on filming!

One of your close friends in Armenia was late Sarkis Hatsbanian, whom many know in Armenia. How you characterize that brave Armenian?

It is not my job to hand out medals of bravery. In fact, some people have done it for themselves! I did not come those years to receive a medal, a gratitude, an award. I simply came because I had to, as a duty. Yes, I met Sarkis, and we were friends. But we were all friends, and we were few! Levon Minassian helped me a lot, he was the one who managed to get me out of a helicopter in Martakert, when everything was closed. I was also lucky enough to meet Monte Melkonian in Paris. Yes, a hero, but the heroes are all those Armenians who fought when all was lost. These are the brave Armenians.

You also directed a documentary about a squadron of French pilots who fought on the Soviet front in 1942, offered by General de Gaulle to Stalin. Many Armenians, while hearing the name of this legendary regiment, Normandy-Niémen, recall the name of Sergey Agavelyan, who was the deputy commander of the squadron regiment for engineering and aviation service. Is Aghavelyan in your film?

Of course Major Agavelyan is in the film. There is even a picture of him and an actor playing him. In all my films I try to talk about Armenia as much as possible. In my job I try to be fair, honest, ethical, and if I can do something for Armenia, I do it! In my latest film, which will be broadcasted on ARTE in February 2022, about Putin’s diplomacy, I have imposed a whole chapter on Artsakh. My producers did not see the point, but I insisted. In a journalistic sense I was right, but my heart also forced it on me.

Do you have new projects regarding Armenia?

Of course I have a big file on the history of Artsakh, from yesterday to today (I have a hundred hours of personal archives). But the channels do not take films on Artsakh every day and there is a lot of competition from other journalists. For me it is harder, but I am glad that others are interested in Armenia and Artsakh. And I am fighting to get my next documentary on Artsakh produced.


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