From the Vault: Armenian New Wave

Desiderius Erasmus, a Dutch scholar from the 15th century, once said, “When I get a little money, I buy books; and if there is any left, I buy food and clothes.”

In an age when people read books on computers and tablets, if at all, and textbooks themselves are being phased out of schools, it’s difficult for people to understand the love some of us have for books.

I recently stumbled upon an essay titled “Filmmaking in the Armenian Diaspora of America” written by Dickran Kouymjian. In the start of his essay, Mr. Kouymjian stated an interesting fact. “As of yet no attempt has been made to write the history of Armenian film in America.” In some sense, Mr. Kouymjian’s essay offers an overview of Armenian cinema in lieu of an actual history book on Armenian cinema.

In his writing, he points out a number of notable Armenian filmmakers that have worked in the United States and discuses our need for a central archive for films and documentation, which he believes is essential if the history of Armenians in film is to be recorded. Mr. Kouymjian’s essay was written in the early 1990s, and after contacting him, I discovered he was pleased that I was interested in the question of Armenian film preservation “even though it is almost too late now.”

I have discussed film preservation in previous articles. I was afraid of the irrelevance of such an archive because of the fact that it might be “too late.” The great Armenian films of decades earlier could potentially be destroyed at this point in time. In general, there is a lack of research in the field of Armenian cinema studies. In my years as an undergraduate student at the USC School of Cinematic Arts, I studied various national cinemas under world-renowned professors who are experts in their fields. I began investigating Armenian cinema at its core and part of what I have been doing with Yerevan Magazine is answering some of these questions.

I am disappointed, however, that two decades after Mr. Kouymjian’s writing, there is still no written record of the history of Armenian cinema. I have pointed out some of these films and filmmakers in past articles, including Rouben Mamoulian and J. Michael Hagopian. I have written analyses about films that have been produced in Armenia and outside Armenia by Armenian filmmakers, including A Piece of Sky (1980), Gikor (1982), and Love Me Tonight (1932); a simple search, however, through a book on the history of cinema, will leave one empty in regards to Armenian cinema. There are no chapters or even brief paragraphs on the great films that were made decades ago. There are, of course, chapters and books on certain filmmakers, such as Rouben Mamoulian, but there are no extensive overviews of the national cinema of Armenia.

Mr. Kouymjian’s essay, however, above all, is hopeful. The author ends by stating, “The future of Armenians in the American film industry seems very promising.” This statement comes nearly two decades before the sudden resurgence of Armenian filmmakers in the United States. 

In our world now, we are undergoing a Renaissance. There is a flood of Armenian filmmakers now making films that will greatly contribute to the lasting history of Armenian cinema. The digital era has made all of this possible, and our national cinema is now going through a revival. I have no doubt that these filmmakers will emerge and find their unique voices as artists. In specific, much like the French had a group of New Wave filmmakers that included Jean-Luc Godard, François Truffaut, Claude Chabrol, and much like the Iranians have a New Wave of filmmakers, so will Armenians. I believe we are in the process of witnessing the Armenian New Wave, where a flood of young Armenian filmmakers will make their way into the world of film.

In addition to these filmmakers and artists, I also believe that somewhere in the midst lies Armenian film scholars. These are scholars interested in documenting the history of Armenian cinema, and being able to write about Armenian filmmakers during this Renaissance and New Wave. I am sure that these are the same people who wholeheartedly agree and live by Erasmus’ quote. These scholars will be the ones that attend graduate school or participate in conferences and present papers on this topic, and make connections to larger national movements and their relation to these films.

These will be the scholars that will do it out of the interest of preserving our history, in a way that has never been done before.