Ani Grigoryan

‘We must live in reality without losing our own fairy tale,’ Says ‘Avtona’ Film Director Ani Grigoryan

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By Maydaa Nadar

Special to the Mirror-Spectator

ISMAILIA, Egypt — In one of Armenia’s villages, Avtona, there resides a young Yezidi boy. He is around 12 years old and is named Suko. He lives in two worlds, one imaginary and the other real. Armenian documentary director Ani Grigoryan in the film “Avtona” depicted Suko’s feelings and thoughts as he finds himself moving between these two contrasting worlds. She was motivated by several goals, including depicting Armenia’s rich cultural diversity and presenting the Yezidis as an integrated community, which together with other communities gives richness to Armenian society as a whole.

Suko

Ani participated with “Avtona” in the 24th Ismailia International Film Festival for Documentaries and Shorts, held in Egypt. The director talked with the Armenian Mirror-Spectator about her participation in this and other festivals, as well as about her profession and academic work.

She said that working as an administrator in two programs with the Public Television of Armenia was a useful experience. She considers herself lucky since the team she worked with brought together wonderful people. Also, this job opened many doors for her. For instance, she attended many shootings and went on trips to the beautiful cities of Armenia.

However, what was most important for her was to understand the structure of the program and become involved in the actual process. She commented: “It’s one thing to relate in words and another when you yourself form a part of the work. I learnt that the director is not a person who only develops and follows the process of the film, but also that he must know the working methods of everyone in his team. In this sense, working in television further strengthened my knowledge in a practical way and enriched me with self-confidence.”

Epraqsia

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She is the director of three documentaries: “Against Colds,” “Vera” and “Avtona.” At the age of 19, she directed the first one. It focuses on 90-year-old Epraqsia, who lives on her own. However in winter, when it gets cold outside, she needs to leave her lovely house, hoping to come back in spring. “Against Colds” won the Audience Award at the International Kin Film Festival in Armenia. It also participated in the Italian Cefalu Film Festival and had an online screening. “Vera”’s storyline concerns an orphaned young lady who works for the sake of her freedom. The documentary won many prizes not only in Armenia, but in different European countries as well. Both films were exhibited in 16 countries.

Ani likes attending festivals because, she explained, “The most interesting part is getting to know new directors and creators. Over the course of a few days, you have the opportunity to watch many films from different countries. New thoughts and ideas are born, which help in further professional and creative work.”

The young Yezidi Suko in “Avtona” was the protagonist of her graduation project. When she was asked about her choice of subject, she answered: “During my years of study, I always wanted to make a film about the minority peoples living in Armenia. Thus, I devoted my graduation year to make this idea into a reality. I really wanted the hero of the film to be a child, because children have more sincerity and simplicity in life. For about two months, I traveled around different Yezidi villages across Armenia to find the hero. Finding the ideal person for my story was not an easy task. Then accidentally, from inside the car, I saw a small boy who was whistling and walking behind a herd. At that very moment I shouted, ‘Stop the car! I found the hero of the documentary.’ This is how I met Suko, who lives in the village of Avtona.”

While getting to know Suko, she realized that he is not like other children of his age. He is more self-confident, quiet and thoughtful. He lives in his own world, unknown to everyone, so it took her a lot of effort to get to know him. Ani utilized the boy’s unusual character and decided to make a script. She asked his teacher to assign to the children a creative exercise with the theme of a fairy tale. Suko’s own tale was mixed with what Ani had in mind and the film was created.

She built the boy’s imaginary world in parallel to his real surroundings. In this regard, she explained: “Since life is not always like a fairy tale, it was necessary to show the protagonist’s fictional world accompanied by the existing circumstances, which is hard, because in his case, reality is a synonym of conflict.”

Yet, does only Suko reflect such a contrast? Her answer to this question is: “This contradiction is also expressed in our own lives. Sometimes we are locked into the world we have built and we don’t want to see beyond it. Nevertheless, there comes a moment when you have to try to see it all. This is the time when it is possible to distinguish between a fairy tale and the truth.” She added, “at the end of the day, we must live in reality without losing our own fairy tale.”

Speaking about the documentary’s principal character led to the topic of the Yezidis in Armenia. About 35 thousand Yezidis live in Armenia. She said they mainly live in mountainous regions and are engaged in animal husbandry and farming. The Yezidi community is of great importance for the Armenian people and culture, Ani remarks. She said, “Yezidis live very peacefully with Armenians. Suko says in the film that he goes to an Armenian school and has many Armenian friends. I believe the brotherhood between Armenians and Yezidis will last long.”

Grigoryan was not solely the main director of “Avtona.” Additionally, she was the script writer and participated in the editing. “The documentary genre is one of the most interesting and flexible genres in cinema, allowing your creativity to shine. The most important aspect is the editing, a role I really enjoyed in ‘Avtona.’ Doing it, you seem to give up your initial idea and start assembling the film anew from the start. Unfortunately, the institute where I study does not have a separate faculty for film editing and we, the directors, have to edit our films. For documentary filmmakers, it’s a heavenly process, but for feature films, it’s a bit tricky.”

Ani Grigoryan

Participating with “Avtona” in the Ismailia Documentary Film Festival led to her first visit to an Arab country and her first long trip outside Armenia. Ani felt glad about her participation and she mentions: “The festival was very colorful. Every film was better than the other. I discovered numerous things related to technical issues and the plot of works, which I will definitely utilize in the future. Such a gathering creates a great opportunity to meet new people. Sometimes they become the beginning of great collaborations.” She added that “we were warmly received by the people responsible for the festival and nicely treated by everyone there. From the very first day, we got close to the volunteers who revealed Ismailia to all the participants. Whenever we had a little free time, we walked around the city. People were friendly and when they found out that I came from Armenia, they tried to remember something pertaining to this country. Undoubtedly, with such nice impressions and longing, I will return again to discover more of Egypt and its original culture.”

This is the second consecutive time Armenia has been part of the festival. Last year, the Armenian director Garush Ghazaryan took part with “My Black Heart.” “Garush is one of my friends. Thanks to his advice I joined the events. We study at the same institute and he shared with me very positive opinions about the festival. I am very happy I also became a part of it,” she said. About the significance of Armenian participation in the Ismailia festival, she said: “This time, my work was a documentary, while last year, Garush’s was a feature film. I highly appreciate the efforts made by creative young people in Armenia to present their films to various public audiences and in different countries. I hope for the presence of Armenian films to continue in the Ismailia annual celebration.” (See my article in last year’s Mirror-Spectator.)

Ani is pleased to see the documentary genre developing in Armenia and the endeavors of the new generation in this field. She sees it is important, taking into consideration that this category of films presents the Armenian nation to the world, and says that the more such films are made, the richer will be culture [in general]. She also emphasizes that “We should recognize and protect the people living in our country, including the Yezidi community. One of the means to do so is documentaries and this highly encouraged me to work on the film ‘Avtona.’”

Passionate about her work, yet also about her studies, Ani decided to obtain a master’s degree majoring in feature directing from the Yerevan State Institute of Theater and Cinema. This graduate study is supervised by Edgar Bagdasaryan. She thinks that simultaneously with constant immersion in the creative process, she needs additional knowledge. “Each of us is learning until the end of our life. Since my undergraduate years, I made up my mind that I would continue for a master’s degree. Knowledge acquired academically plus practical work gives rise to thoughts consonant with the times, and also to innovative ideas for new films.”

She received much help at the Yerevan Institute from colleagues, and in particular from her professor Ruben Grigoryan, on “Avtona,” because it was a film that was part of her coursework. She said: “It provided support through its facilities and filming equipment. Studying here is pleasant and we are given the right orientation, which is the most important thing.”

At the same time, she observes, “Self-education is also very important. There are many very famous directors who did not receive a higher education, but they shot fantastic works.”

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