Michael Goorjian, Rodin Hamidi, Ghasem Ebrahimian and Edgar Karapetyan at the shooting set of “Amerikatsi.” (Shant Sevag Photo)

Michael Goorjian: Shooting ‘Amerikatsi’ a Return to Filmmaking in Armenia

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YEREVAN/OAKLAND – Michael Goorjian is an actor, director and writer. Since 1991 he has appeared in 58 TV and films, and directed 14 films, documentaries and videos. Among his notable works are his TV roles in “Party of Five” and “David’s Mother” (for which he won an Emmy Award for Best Supporting Actor), his film “Illusion” with Hollywood legend Kirk Douglas, his philosophical novel What Lies Beyond the Stars, characterized by Huffington Post as “an absolute gem,” etc.

We met and became friends in 2006, when Michael was visiting Armenia for the first time, traveling and meeting people. At that time in an interview Michael said that Yerevan became his favorite city and he cannot wait to get back there and make a film.

After 14 years Michael came back to Armenia with a feature film project, staying seven months. Recently he finished his film Amerikatsi, produced by People of Ar (producer Arman Nshanian), Palodeon Pictures and H&H Films.

Michael, it is typical for film professionals of Armenian descent — from top celebrities like Cher to unknown beginners — to express their wishes to make films on Armenian topics or in Armenia, yet very few do it. But you did!

I promised I would, remember? Back in 2006 when I first came to Armenia I was so inspired that I told you, somewhat jokingly, that I would find something I could shoot in Armenia as an excuse to come back. Well, it took me a little while to find the right story, but eventually, I did and the rest is history. You never know, sometimes the most whimsical impulses lead to incredibly important outcomes, which is definitely the case for me. Despite the many challenges involved — shooting a period piece, in a foreign country, in three languages, during a pandemic! —  despite all that and more, “Amerikatsi” is by far the most meaningful creative project I’ve worked on to date.

The title of your film is an Armenian word “Amerikatsi” (American). I hope the international audience will remember it, perhaps associating it with Godfrey Reggio’s Qatsi trilogy.

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It took quite some time for us to find the right title for the film. Originally I had titled it, The New Armenian, inspired by the William Saroyan’s quote about how whenever two Armenians come together a new Armenia is born. Conceptually that title works and reflects the dynamic between the two main characters in the film. However, as you pointed out to me, out of context, “The New Armenian” has another meaning somewhat akin to “Nouveau Riche.” Besides that, pretty much everyone who read the script felt that title just didn’t reflect the essence of the film. So during the entire shoot (which due to the pandemic lasted close to five months), everyone was pitching alternative titles, all sorts of things. Eventually, after a hard week shooting, Rodin, our first assistant camera suggested “Amerikatsi,” which is what the main character is often referred to in the film. It just seemed to stick. And surprisingly, non-Armenians seem to like it as much as Armenians.

In your interview with Asbarez Armenian daily in 1994 you said: “I think with anybody who creates something, whether it be writing or film, the most powerful thing that they can do is something that is personal and dates from their own history.” So as we can see, your film, dedicated to your grandpa’s memory, also somehow connected to your family history.

Indirectly. My grandfather was not part of the post-World War II repatriation movement. However, he was, like the main character, a Genocide survivor who escaped alone as a child and made his way to America. What I said back in 1994, I still think is true, but I think I would add to it by saying that, for me, the most powerful form of narrative storytelling involves reaching for a truth that resides deeper than facts. Amerikatsi is by no means a historical account of any one person’s experience. Yes, we did our best to attend to as many historical details as possible, to create an authentic representation of Soviet Armenia. But the story we are telling is an amalgamation of hundreds and hundreds of stories. So, yes, my grandfather, Manoog Goorjian, is in this film, his essence is in my performance as Charlie Bakhchinian. But also the father of Spanish-Armenian actor Hovik Keuchkerian can be seen in this film through his performance as Tigran. Details from the many stories we heard about those who repatriated to Armenia are in the film, as well as details from the perspective of native Soviet Armenians.  Everyone working on the film contributed to the story in this way, which I believe gives our film a richness greater than if the story was just coming from me.

Michael Goorjian (Shant Sevag Photo)

Diaspora Armenian artists are most concerned by the Genocide subject, which is natural as they are the result of that. In our interview of 2006 you said: “I don’t necessarily want to do a film about Armenia and Armenian history and the Genocide. I would prefer to make a film that was made with Armenians or just happened to take place in Armenia.” So things happened like this, and though in your film there is reference to genocide, the main focus is on  the Soviet-Armenian reality of late 1940s and early 1950s. It is very welcoming to make a film on the repatriation topic, hitherto not having much consideration in film.

I think it is extremely important to make films about the Genocide, and I applaud those filmmakers brave enough to take on the task. As a filmmaker, I felt I could better serve my Armenian heritage by focusing on other aspects of our history and culture. I also just wanted to make an Armenian film that would be a joy to watch, and hopeful, and most importantly, something non-Armenians could relate to. Knowing personally how hard it is to drag non-Armenian friends to a film about the Genocide, and I thought maybe I could make a film that would be a little easier for proud Armenian grandmothers to get their odar neighbors to watch. I remember, one of the most encouraging comments I got about the script when I first wrote it, was from a fellow filmmaker who told me, “You know, your story is not just for Armenians, it’s a universal story, everyone will relate to it.”

You have not done a joint project, as it might be expected, but an Armenian one with an international cast and crew. Observing the shoot, I was very impressed by high professionalism of all participants. Tell us about them please.

Topics: Films

In addition to myself, our cinematographer, and a few others, the entire cast and crew were hired locally in Armenia. And yes, everyone was extremely professional, but also very creatively motivated, which is not always the case with an American crew. When everyone involved in a film really cares about how it’s going to turn out, it can make an enormous impact on what you end up with. That is what I experience working in Armenia, and it’s why I would like to return and make more films there.

Iranian-Armenian film director Anahid Abad once said that making films in Armenia is both hard and pleasant. What was your experience?

From a filmmaking standpoint, I would say the “hard” part of shooting in Armenia is mainly due to its isolation as a country and lack of infrastructure you would find somewhere else. For instance: the soundstage we shot on needed a new roof, there were no fancy trailers for the actors, certain filming equipment wasn’t necessarily available inside the country. But for me, none of that mattered that much, and those are issues that will soon not exist once more films are shot in Armenia. As for the “pleasant” part of shoot in Armenia, there are many things I could tell you. Of course, the cast and crew were all wonderful to work with, and living in Yerevan was a blast (even during a pandemic). I will also say that there was a sense of creative freedom there that is hard to find in places where filmmaking has become over-institutionalized. There’s a bit of “the wild west” in Armenia. Even with a limited budget, we were able to find ways to do things that would be difficult somewhere else.

What was the most exciting moment during the shoot?

Honestly, so many crazy things took place during the shoot, it would be hard to pick just one. I do remember one day that was pretty special to myself and I think everyone else. We had started principal photography in March 2020 and after 10 days of shooting, we were forced to shut down due to the pandemic. Everyone was in lockdown for two months and we didn’t really know if we’d ever get to finish the film. Finally, we learned that we were going to be allowed to continue shooting a few scenes at the sound stage since they could be done with a very limited crew, and only a few actors. Arriving on set that day, everyone was just so happy. To get to see other people — but more importantly to get to work again. Sometimes as filmmakers we forget how lucky we are to be in the business we’re in. There is no place I’d rather be than on set with a group of other talented people working on a movie.

And when the spectators can enjoy “Amerikatsi?”

Later this year. We just finished our post-production and so now plan to head out to film festivals to help promote and sell the film.

I am sure there should be other Armenian stories you would like to share with the world through cinema! 

Yes, but I think more important is that I want to make more films in Armenia — not just Armenian stories, but non-Armenian stories as well. To help build the film industry in Armenia would be my dream, and I think the more we can share our country and our culture with the rest of the world the better. There is so much creative potential in Armenia.

At the end let me remind you that in 1994, after your winning Emmy award, in an article about you in the Los Angeles Times, you said: “I can do something that not everybody can do. I can do something where I can say, ‘Yes, I’m getting paid for a reason!’” I think with your film you prove that you did something that not everybody can do.

Wow, that’s quite an ambitious statement. But yes, I still agree with that. As an artist, I don’t want to just do what others can do. And I think with “Amerikatsi,” not just for myself but for everyone involved with the project, we succeeded in creating a film that is both unique and important.

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