Arman Ordyan while filming “Zulali” in Navur village, 2020

Arman Ordyan Advances Armenian Cinematography

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WATERTOWN — Usually when we think about the creators of films the names of directors or producers, or maybe scriptwriters, come to mind, alongside the actors. We seldom think about the art and technical aspects involved in the actual filming. Forty-five-year-old Arman Ordyan, director of photography in feature films like “Zulali” and “Big Story in a Small City,” reveals his experiences over more than two decades in various aspects of filming in the Republic of Armenia.

Arman Ordyan (photo Aram Arkun)

The Road to Film

As a student, Arman was very interested in drawing and mechanics. He would bring pieces from his mother’s workplace to make car alarm systems at home to earn some money. He joined an afterschool program or club on cosmology organized by the paramilitary Soviet sports organization DOSAAF [Volunteer Society for Cooperation with the Army, Aviation and Navy] and did experiments, participated in discussions and even built model rocketry like space shuttles. Ordyan said, “I thought that there was something there that broadened my world view – that everything is not small but much larger. That, I think, gave me something great, on how I view things even today.”

Arman first was accepted to the Foreign Economic Relations and Management Institute, a private university, and the next year also applied to the Agricultural Institute’s Mechanization, Material and Technical Management engineering specialization, whose buildings were only 200 meters distant from those of the Economics Institute. Arman soon had to leave for his army service, and when he returned, he only needed to pass the final examinations for the Economics Institute, and needed one more year at the Agricultural Institute.

Arman was filming video clips with a small camera when his aunt came to visit from the US in 1999 and traveled around the country. The aunt was a friend of Arsen Aslanyan, who was director of the Kroong Armenian Pop Music Festival and several other programs, so she invited Arslanyan to the Ordyan home. Arslanyan was impressed by the quality of Arman’s work as an untrained amateur, and invited Arman to work with him as a cameraman.

Arman Ordyan while filming “Zulali” in Navur village, 2019

“I asked him what that was because I didn’t know at that time,” Arman said. “After going several times, I realized I liked this field very much.” He also decided he didn’t need to continue his formal education at the two institutes where he had been studying because, he said, everything was corrupt and diplomas were merely formalities at the time.

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Aslanyan sent Arman to various specialists with decades of experience to learn. “When I started with Arsen, he did not give me day or night off. He told my mother once that I am putting him under pressure so that he learns everything quickly.”

Right away, Arslanyan took him to the place where filming was taking place for an advertisement for eggs. Aslanyan recalled: “He said, go film. This was the first time that I saw the big camera. I was looking and everything was blurry. I asked, what should I do? He said, turn the focus, and I filmed an advertisement for the first time.”  In a year, Arman said, he was able to start filming documentary films.

Arman had learned English in public school, where Russian was only the third language used, and this knowledge led him to be placed in various projects which came from abroad. He began working as a second cameraman, and technical groups were subject to him. In this position, he said, “You have to coordinate the work of the technical specialists who have come from different countries and translate for one to the other. This was a great experience for me, to learn technical things which didn’t exist then in Armenia, and learn of different stylistic schools. In the Soviet Union, there was only one school.”

Arman Ordyan while filming “Zulali” in Navur village, 2019

He said that this allowed him to move forward more quickly than if he were to have studied cinematography formally at Armenian universities. He taught himself how to do video editing, he said. At that time, computer editing still had not spread in Armenia. He also learned how to do animation.

He was forced to learn new things, he related, because “I would film something and there would be no specialist to do what I wanted. I never was afraid of trying new work. On the contrary, I would always put myself in that situation and say to myself, now get out of it.”

He gave the example of when Armenian public television was preparing a New Year film called “Siro Astgh” [Star of Love] (2004), he was asked to do the editing. He brought his computer and turned public tv director Suren Rshtuni’s office into an editing room. “We edited and for one month I didn’t go home,” Arman related. The 3-hour-40-minute film ended up including 16 musical clips.

Ordyan Family

It is not coincidence that Arman often has collaborated with director and producer Hayk Ordyan on films and other projects. They are related, being the great-grandsons of two brothers. The Ordyan or Ordunts family has roots that can be traced back around 700 years, according to Arman, and many ancestors were teachers or educators.  In the 18th century, his ancestors went from Nakhichevan to Gharabagh (Karabakh) and then from there to Armenia, where one part settled in Aygedzor village of Shamshadin (now Tavush Province) and the other in the Goris area of Syunik. Parenthetically, on Arman’s maternal side, his mother’s father’s ancestors were perhaps even more illustrious, being meliks or local princes, and on his mother’s mother’s side, included an abbot of Gladzor Monastery, part of the Ter Grigoryan clan.

Arman Ordyan while filming “Zulali” in Navur village, 2019

Arman as a youth had lost contact with the Ordyans. Arman was born in Yerevan but his father Rafik, an engineer who created a race car which won the Grand Prix of the Soviet Union, died in 1979, when Arman was two years old and his family moved several times.

Years later, when Arman was working in Armenian television, and was around 22 years old, he was in the office when someone came to look for him. It turned out that it was Hayk who had found him, exclaiming, you are my brother! Another relative, a sculptor, had also found Arman, so ties were reestablished with the Ordyans living in Aygedzor.

Innovation in Films

In the early 2000s, the Italians had just filmed a festival in the Karen Demirchyan Yerevan Arena for Sport and Music (called “hamalir” for short) with a Western-style controlled crane and left it there at night. There were no Western-style film cranes yet in Armenia. Instead, you had to sit with the camera and rise up together. Arman recalled that the technical workers from state television channel H1 went and drew the crane’s parts and were then able to construct one. Though difficult to use, Arman figured out how to best operate it and was often asked to film with it.

Arman Ordyan while filming “Zulali” in Navur village, 2019

A few months later, Arman said that he was filming a video for Karo Sarafyan. When Gor Kirakosian, who was born in Armenia but grew up in California, needed to produce a film for his diploma, he came to Armenia and cameraman Gagik Hambartsumyan, who was a teacher of Gor in America, advised him to meet Arman. Arman was using the new Western-style controlled cranes for the Sarafyan video and Gor observed him. Convinced of his skills, he first asked Arman to work as his cinematographer on Zara Papayan’s “Adana” music video clip. Instead of the usual image of the singer standing before the camera, Arman said that he set a precedent for future clips by giving it an artistic nature and colors.

After this Gor, with Arman as director of photography, completed the short film “I Hate the Story about Romeo & Juliet” (released in 2004). A year or two later, Arman worked once again as cinematographer with Gor, this time on the feature film “Big Story in a Small City” (2006 release), starring Hrant Tokhatyan. “These two films changed a lot in the field of Armenia cinema,” said Arman. “They changed the stereotype that it is not possible to film with one’s own means and succeed. Moreover, everyone said that because the theme of ‘Big Story’ was the death and burial of a person, this would not work in Armenia.”

The young Arman Ordyan, center, at the start of his career

“Big Story” had to deal with many technical issues. Lights were made by hand, copying outside equipment, and though heavier and not as mobile, they worked. Despite these complications, it was an innovative film. Arman attested that it was the first full length high definition (HD) film made in Armenia.

Arman declared, “We were young, and the actors and everyone else were young. That was very good because there were no older experts to give us advice. We improvised and did whatever we wanted. Yes, we made some mistakes too but this allowed us to establish ourselves as who we are, each one of us in turn. That was a very important thing.” Arman said that “Big Story” remains as one of his most remembered works and still is loved by many now even in the younger generations.

“Big Story in a Small City” poster

Arman worked as cameraman on Gor’s next feature film, the comedy “Lost and Found in Armenia” (2012), which was an American production in the Armenian language. He recalled that Armenia still did not have much film equipment at that time, so they went to neighboring Georgia to find certain things. He said, “There, one company could provide the equipment needed for doing six films at once. In Armenia, you needed to collect equipment from six companies to get half the equipment needed for one film.”

The benefits of learning many technical abilities did not only help Arman personally. He said, “This also helps the filming work, because the most expensive thing in the field of film is time. When you know what you can get from what now, and afterwards, what that can be turned into in post-production, then the work becomes easier, the quality increases, and you avoid troubling the entire technical team.” This team, he pointed out, could be over 100 people, subject to the director of photography.

More Feature Films

The next film he worked on, again directed by Gor, was “Qayl Dziov/Khod Konem” [The Knight’s Move] (2013), a comedy shot in Kazakhstan and Armenia. Arman worked with Filip Vandewal of Belgium on this film as well as in “Lost and Found in Armenia,” and, he said, it was a great opportunity to learn from one another.

During “Lost and Found,” Arman said, he and Vandewal always fought. “Our style and lighting ideas were very different,” he said, but while working on “Knight’s Move” in Kazahstan, they went out to drink beer after the first filming at the state museum and managed to combine their ideas. “We became close friends and partisans of the same ideas,” he said.

In the dramatic film “A.K.A., Nerir u Prkir Kez” [A.K.A., Forgive and Save Yourselves] (2019), Arman as director of photography for the first time on Armenian streets (closed for this purpose) filmed street racing on a large scale with modern technology.

As his career progressed, Arman said, “I was able to do many things to change the culture of the film world. The technical workers began to appreciate themselves more. One important thing I did was that [work] time became clearly defined. Beyond that came overtime. People are specialists and must be respected.”

“Zulali”

More recently, Arman was director of photography for the feature film “Zulali,” directed and produced by Hayk Ordyan (2021). He felt this was a difficult story to turn into a film, and Narine Abgaryan, author of the eponymous novel, even felt it to be impossible, Arman related. However in the end, he said that she approved of the film.

“I tried to make ‘Zulali’ in such a fashion that, since the movie is narrative, the protagonists speak outside of the shot…Hayk accepted my proposals to introduce into the film a documentary nature, with artistic analyses. There are many visual effects interventions, such as with light, but the viewer does not feel these interventions. Whatever was done was done naturally,” Arman related. He said that the film visually had continually to switch quickly from maximalism to minimalism in order to stress the different layers of meaning through images.

Arman Ordyan while filming “Zulali” in Navur village, 2019

The path of the market, for example, begins and then extends so far that practically no one can be seen traveling on it, Arman noted. The protagonists’ psychological state are reflected or depicted through images. In this huge world, people are very small things, yet at certain times they appear very large.

Even the village setting of the film is actually composite. The images of nature were filmed in Aygedzor village of Tavush, which is at a comparatively low elevation, while the house chosen as Zulali’s home was located in Navur village, which is very elevated.

Arman said that the Navur house was a 100-year-old abandoned and broken-down old house, but he insisted on using it, and after hearing his explanation, Hayk Ordyan agreed immediately. “If you look at it, it has 360-degree windows. The house is very narrow and small, but the light coming from outside is a symbol of the psychological state and character of the protagonists. They are in such difficulties, but at the same time they are good and they look towards the good. They have not been broken,” he explained. The house had to be entirely rebuilt for the film.

Arman noted that everything in the film has its own meaning or symbolism and did not take place on its own. For example, he said that when the young Nazaros sits in the house eating an apple, through the window you can see the mountains and a horse tied, which the filming team set up. He said, “I like such things because it adds layers. Each time you view it, you see new things, new layers.”

The rhythm of the film’s imagery is also important. “It is important that the tempo of the film begins slowly, as if you are watching something on television, and then it engrosses you and engrosses you, till in the end you find that you are breathless,” he said.

The script for the film went through a long gestation period and received advice from several outside script readers. Arman made his suggestions to the director’s script as cinematographer, but was involved from the start. The preproduction was very long but the filming was intended to be short. However, on the fourth day of filming, Arman said, snow fell in Navur and the team had to light fires and melt ice with fans so that they could film sections as if it were summer.

“For ten days, we fought with nature. For example, in the market scene, we cleaned the entire field completely of snow with brooms so that it would appear as if it were a beautiful autumn. We came in the morning and there was snow and so cold that though we set up two large military tents with two stoves in each one, it still would not get warm. Wherever I went with the camera, we built a fire on top of an iron [piece], but it still was cold,” Arman described. After ten days, they saw it was not possible so they postponed filming, but in the spring Covid began and again prevented their work. Finally, Arman said, the next fall with great difficulty they completed the filming, though funding was running out, and then the 2020 war started.

Arman Ordyan while filming “Zulali” in Navur village, 2019

The music for the film was composed by Tigran Mansuryan. Arman said he and Hayk already knew Mansuryan because Hayk had filmed a documentary about him. For many years Mansuryan had refused to compose for any films. At first, said Arman, it seemed that Mansuryan was not able to say no to the two cousins because they were close to him – but he also was unable to say yes. Eventually they screened for Mansuryan the market scenes that they had first filmed for Zulali, and, as Arman described: “When Mansuryan came to the office and viewed them, he said, give me a pen and paper and began immediately writing down the notes.” Obviously, what Mansuryan had seen was only a fraction of the filmed material, but, as Mansuryan himself declared, this melody immediately came to him from the first images.

During the war, Hayk went to Karabakh and when he returned, he was in a bad state emotionally and could not do the editing, recalled Arman. At this point, it was Mansuryan who persuaded Hayk, declaring that he had already written the music and had to start the recording. Arman simultaneously did the color work on the film.

Arman proudly says that “Zulali” is a purely Armenian film, in good part because of Mansuryan’s music. Moreover, he observed that until this film, there were only two other Eastern Armenian dialects used in Armenian cinema, those of Lori and Gyumri, but now the Tavush dialect is added to this roster for the first time, making “Zulali” unique. The actors learned the dialect, which was adjusted slightly, Arman said, so that non-natives could understand. The young boy playing Nazaros already spoke the dialect as he was chosen from around 60-70 children in Tavush.

The film has been making the rounds of various international festivals, starting with its premiere at the Moscow Film Festival, the second oldest festival in the world. It has screened in the Salento Film Festival of Italy and in an Egyptian festival, in addition to various Armenian festivals, and has won various awards.

Arman Ordyan at the “Zulali” premiere in Berd, Tavush Province

On a practical level, the filmmakers attempted to also help the inhabitants of Tavush province by buying their food always from homes, not stores, so that the villagers would earn money. Over 60 people working on technical aspects of “Zulali” had come to Tavush from Yerevan. They stayed either in Navur or Berd. When local villagers were filmed in mass scenes they were paid symbolically.

Freedom

Arman said that he valued his work on “Big Soul” “because this was my first film where I was completely free.” Another such film in which he said he felt free is the short “Hogevark” [Agony] (2014), in which he was cinematographer and Hayk Ordyan director. “Freedom is very important for a cinematographer. The director allows you to freely create, whereas others say, that is a good idea but too expensive, so do it like this….When you are free, you both get pleasure from your work and you rise one level too,” he said.

In “Agony” Arman said that he was able to film in one small room the condition of a country and the fate of a people. “Its most important message is the emigration – Armenia is being emptied. People leave and families are left halved. The country is growing old and itself is in agony. It is not only the story of a grandfather and grandmother but its layers extend into the nation. Its details say much,” he added. For example, the rice being cleaned by the grandmother symbolizes the people dispersed.

As director of photography and editing, in “Guests,” also called “Ine Musaner” [Nine Muses] (2010) and “Toast Modern” (2015), Arman came up with a new approach for filming the paper sculptures created by Karen Sargsyan of Holland. Each of the nine muses deliver a message through dance. Arman created a stage for the figures, and through camera movements, Arman said he made them come alive, not through their own movements. Hayk Ordyan called this approach visual performance.

Documentaries

Arman has filmed a number of documentaries over the years as director of photography. The first major one, prepared with Arsen Aslanyan, is called “Christian Armenia” (2007), where Arman also did the editing. Arman said that they had to use money from videos and commercials they sold in order to fund that film about the introduction of Christianity to Armenia. Later, they prepared a documentary for the centennial of the Armenian Genocide. In 2017, Arman served as director of photography of the short film “Portrait,” which was about Charles Aznavour and his house-museum in Armenia.

Arman Ordyan while filming “Portrait” with Charles Aznavour

Arman also had the opportunity to film for a different type of documentary, basically a reality show. After “Agony,” he and Hayk were invited to work on two episodes of a Russian-language show, “Land of Leopards,” on Siberian leopards and tigers in the taiga, together with a Russian team. Arman said, “Reality shows are performance art: you film and you don’t know what will happen. There is no script – only an idea. You go to film and whatever that person does, you have to follow him.”

Arman Ordyan on the set of “Genocide: The Beginning”

The taiga was dangerous at first, because if you stay outside at night, you will not survive until morning. Arman said, “The taiga was interesting because the first day you say they cannot give me enough money to come here, because death is walking alongside you….A week later, when you learn how to live there – you need to walk and breathe differently for example – everything changes. Once you learn, you say there is no better place in the world. It is heaven.”

Arman Ordyan filming INECOBANK commercial at Yerevan’s hamalir (2017)

This documentary’s reception was so good that the team then was asked to go to Bolivia for a Russian company and prepare a series there called “Bolivian DNA” (2017). They went to Lake Titicaca, where the leader of the Aymara people lives. Each year, the leader is changed. He is a fisherman, so the Ordyan team had to start filming at 5 a.m. in the morning. At first, again Arman thought this was not his place. Unlike artistic films, in documentaries you don’t create things. However, after a few days, he understood how to guess what would happen and it became interesting for him, he said. Among the five episodes, there was one on President Evo Morales

Armenian Cinema

One important thing missing in Armenia are cinema laws, he said. Without such laws, protecting investors, it is hard to find people to make such investments. There also must be insurance available for films. Arman said, “The talent is there. With these components in place, Armenian film would advance very quickly.” He added that film is the most powerful weapon in the world and until the Soviet Union, there was indeed a recognizable Armenian cinema: “Now we must just restore it. There are such great youth.”

There has been some progress recently. Arman said that the National Cinema Center of Armenia, a state funding body with Shushanik Mirzakhanyan as director, has a transparent competition with juries and pitching of projects, which are openly discussed. He said that in the old times, grants would be given to the same person who 100 times before had made films. “Zulali” was one of the films which recently received state support.

Arman suggested that a “film city” or base could be established in Tavush province. This was originally Hayk Ordyan’s idea. “With one or two hours travel you can find whatever natural condition, season or environment you desire, forest or snow. That makes the cost of production of films very cheap,” Arman said, but a state plan is necessary to turn this into a reality.

As far as his own work goes, Arman said that whether for commercials or feature films, he refuses to film bad things or get involved in politics. He won’t do ads for cigarettes or alcohol, for example. “If I do not like something, I won’t compromise. I may lose work and money, but I have always tried to live this way according to my principles,” he said. He always will defend his teams, he remarked. Consequently, he said, “Gaffer Davit Gevorgyan and the rest of the technical team call me ‘the most dukhov [spirited] cameraman in Armenia’.”

Arman is working now on a new film with actor/director Mikayel Pogosyan, with whom he became friends while filming the feature film “Hay Haye” [Armenian vs. Armenian] in 2021. They are constantly exchanging ideas while perfecting the script.

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