Notes From Hairenik
A few nights ago I watched a fantastic film on channel Armenia called “Men” (Dghamartik). I had seen snippets of the film before televised taken from a fairly poor, faded print, but not in its entirety.

But I was lucky enough to view it from start to finish this time around, from what looked like a newly struck print from the original master negative I am guessing. The colors were vivid and there were virtually no defects in the form of grain, excessive dust, or tape splices. In fact I have not seen any of the classic Armenian films in better condition than this one.

This film produced in 1972 stars some of the great legends of Armenian cinema, notably Mher “Frunze” Mkrtchyan and Armen Jigarkhanian. Other actors include Azat Sherents, Avetik Gevorkyan, Armen Ayvazyan, and Alla Tumanyan.

“Men” is about four close friends who are all taxi drivers. Three of them are trying to help the fourth, Aram played by Gevorkyan, who is a shy, slightly built but handsome twentysomething, gain favor of the woman with whom he is in love—a violinist and swimmer, Karine, played by Tumanyan. They invent several scenarios through which she will hopefully notice him, thereby giving him the green light to make his move. None of their preposterous schemes work, but their efforts are simply hilarious. Several times throughout the film images appear of a group of about twenty or so men dancing in a tight band shoulder to shoulder through a field full of wild poppies high atop Armenia’s signature green hills just beside an ancient church. The narrator of the film, Edgar Elbakyan, recalls the tale of Aram and his lads, and during one of the scenes of modern life in Aram’s home village he states “…the woman tended to the domestic chores while the men only danced…” A classic line and a slight jab at the Armenian mentality.

The film’s quality was remarkable considering that it was produced by Hayfilm Studio, whose archives were undoubtedly damaged in the energy crisis that Armenia endured during the early 1990s. Ariga guessed that this print probably came from the film archives in Moscow, and she’s probably right about that judging from the relatively poor condition of classic films I have seen on television to date, with faded colors and barely audible sound tracks. Dozens of Soviet-era Armenian films have been restored to the degree feasibly possible and transferred to video, and they are readily available. You never know what you’re going to get unfortunately until you actually purchase the VHS tape or DVD, if the title is even available in that format.

Apparently “Men” has just been released on DVD, as noted on the Narek.com Web site which sells music recordings, movies, and books. Since television stations in Armenia love to broadcast pirated, copyright-violated movies several times each day, I am assuming they showed the DVD release. I’ll have to purchase my own pirated copy somewhere….

Last Saturday night while in Vanadzor I caught another classic on television, also featuring Mher Mkrtchyan—by far my favorite Armenian film actor—called “A Slice of Heaven” (Mi Gdor Yergink). The film released in 1980 also stars Ashot Adamyan and Sofiko Chiaureli, who incidentally played the mysteriously beautiful female lead in Sergei Parajanov’s masterpiece “The Color of Pomegranates.”

The film tells the story of Torik, an orphan who becomes the apprentice of a saddle maker named Grigor-agha, played wonderfully by Mkrtchyan. The adult Torik, portrayed by Adamyan inherits the business when his mentor passes away, and thus is not too attractive to the young ladies since none of them want to marry someone who specializes in making customized seats to rest on the backs of donkeys.

That’s where the fun begins in this film. It describes perfectly a now outdated Armenian custom where the mother of a young man is expected to present a gift, usually in the form of a small bag full of gold coins, to a family with the intention of asking their daughter to give her hand in marriage to her son. In place of Torik’s mother, his aunt Turvanta, played by Chiaureli, makes the rounds throughout town. She is always rebuked, mocked, or both by any family or individual member she approaches. Torik resorts to drinking to take out his frustrations, while Turvanta never relents in finding his mate for life. Finally he falls in love with a sweet, yet timid traveling call girl, to put it mildly, and vows to make a new life for her—his “angel” as her name Angele, played by Galina Belyayeva, suggests—which she allows willingly, but not before the town tries to demonize the three of them first.

The one thing I love the most about this film is its parody on the entire Armenian engagement process. The setting was somewhere in Western Armenia—the dialogue in the entire film was exclusively in the country’s dialect—just after the turn of the 20th century, judging by the town’s wealthiest young man driving the first and only automobile anyone has seen there. Yet very little has changed in the mentalities of Armenian families regarding who their daughters should marry. The aim is still to attract someone who has plenty of money—in the US at least this would mean preferably a doctor or lawyer—as it is the most important if not the only prerequisite. At the very least the man should have a good occupation that is acceptable as being rewarding to some degree, and naturally he should be Armenian. That last requirement is not being heeded as much as it used to since it can no longer be enforced, especially when you’re living in a country built with multicultural solidarity. Also brilliantly expressed in the movie is the detrimental power of gossip, something that Armenians are masters at wielding. You can easily destroy a person’s credibility and pride by spreading scornful rumor in Armenian society, as this film accurately demonstrates when one family is obliged to leave the town in utter disgrace.

“A Slice of Heaven” has also apparently been recently issued on DVD (as “A Piece of Sky”), which also explains the high quality of this broadcast. I remember seeing part of this film before one or twice on TV and being extremely frustrated by the muffled sound, to the point where I just shut it off. The dialogue this time around was perfectly clear, and there was no audible distortion whatsoever. Hayfilm, now known as Armenia Film Studios, has only recently been privatized in 2005, purchased by CS Media co-owned by Gerard Cafesjian and Bagrat Sargisyan, the same duo who run channel Armenia. So something very noteworthy is happening with keeping these films alive for future generations to savor, something for which we should be very grateful.

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