From the Vault: Gikor

There’s a scene in Gikor (1982), where the title character and his father stop and drink water from a running river before continuing their excursion into Tiflis. It’s a moment in the film that, at first glance, might not mean much to audiences, but truly becomes the thesis of the film itself.

Gikor is an adaptation of a short story from Hovhannes Tumanyan. The film is a remake of a 1934 screen version originally directed by Amasi Martirosyan, which is considered a respected centerpiece of Armenian silent cinema.

The film focuses on Gikor (Albert Gulinyan), a young boy who is taken into the city of Tiflis with his father, Hambo (Sos Sargsyan), where he works for a rich trader. The experience is meant to teach Gikor the skills and manners he lacks, but instead becomes a grueling experience for the child.

Sergei Israelyan directs the film, after performing as a cinematographer on a range of films, including Yerankyuni (1967), A Piece of Sky (1980), and A Drop of Honey (1984). The film, as a result, feels more like it comes from a cinematographer’s world rather than a director’s, with its close attention to detail.

The film opens with picturesque images, with landscape cinematography that resemble portraits of its villages. The filmmaker makes use of frames within frames, isolating planes with doors and windows, focusing on certain characters and images. The film also makes extensive use of its zoom lens, as seen with its wide shots that move into close-ups and its close-ups that move into wide shots. These techniques allow for its audience’s eyes to wander and pick up the natural beauty of each frame.

The first half of the film explores a father and son relationship. In their trip together, we learn about the close bond Gikor has with his father, which is then contrasted with Gikor’s hostile relationship with the rich trader, Bazaz Artem (Armen Dzhigarkhanyan). The filmmaker photographs his antagonists in black. The rich trader is always draped in black clothing (except for one notable and striking scene in which he wears all white as a contrast) while his wife is dressed in expensive, elaborate clothing, with her black hair locks distractingly hanging in front of her face.

The film, on the surface, can be read as an examination of social class structures. Gikor comes from a poor village and is surprised to discover that the rich family he will work for actually pays for bread rather than making some themselves. There is a clear contrast between the poor and the rich and the illiterate and educated, and Gikor is always on the opposite side of the fence. The family that Gikor works for, however, is depicted as obnoxious. The family’s two daughters receive French lessons and piano lessons, while the wife and her friends spend their time gossiping and play “lotto,” a game that resembles Bingo. This reaffirms the difference in social class, but also makes comments on the superficiality of these people.

The director – because of his background in cinematography – shows us his attention to detail with his focus on certain images. In the scene where the adults play lotto, the last shot is of the game’s markers, which the director holds on for a few seconds. Sergei Israelyan holds on certain shots that he wants his audience to absorb, and as a result, creates a mesmerizing experience.

The film also uses a cinematographic technique attributed to Chinatown (1974), one that feels natural to its filmmaker and his craft. In a specific scene, Gikor is questioned for his behavior and is slapped unexpectedly. In this scene, we see a jerk in its camera and move from a steady camera to a handheld camera. This jolt in the camera movement plays alongside the narrative shift the film has experienced and creates a clear tonal shift.

In terms of the emotional aspects of the film and its editing, the filmmaker makes clever use of the Kuleshov Effect. The technique is attributed to Lev Kuleshov, an influential Russian filmmaker who discovered emotion could be created by the contrast of images. If we see an actor’s expressionless face, for instance, and follow that with an image of a bowl of soup, the audience will perceive him as hungry. If we use the same image of the actor’s face, however, and splice in an image of a funeral procession, the audience will read him as sad. In Gikor, we see these techniques being explored. In essence, Gikor is expressionless, and although the audience undoubtedly relates to him, it’s less because of his performance and more because of the images played alongside his reactions. In specific scenes, we see Gikor’s impassive face looking through a crevice in the door, and then we see a shot of the rich family sitting down and having dinner. The filmmaker moves in close and shows us the characters enjoying their food, and then cuts back to Gikor. In some sense, his expression is still the same, but we feel for his character because he now looks hungry. This is done throughout the film, with us constantly feeling remorseful and sympathetic to the character, when in reality, we identify more with the secondary images rather than his performance. It’s a technique that works well in this film for the filmmaker, allowing Gikor’s character to be a driving force in the film through his use of editing. In this sense, Gikor’s face becomes a canvas for us to project our emotions onto; because his face is often expressionless, the audience identifies with him on their own terms and feels what they want to feel.

The film, however, has meaning that goes much deeper than its statements on social class structure. This film becomes a poetic metaphor for a longing of our homeland. The film is less about its character’s tragedies and is more about its audience. The film will touch the hearts of those who have similarly left behind their homeland – their families, their homes, and their friends – and have lived away from home. This film provides us with a deep sense of nostalgia for our homeland, our birthplace, and our nation. This notion is reinforced through its repeated use of flashbacks. In several scenes, Gikor looks outside his window, and we are transported back into his village and see images of his friends and family, while in the climax of the film, he expresses his desire to return home to taste the fresh water from his village. The setting of the film also emphasizes this nostalgia. The story of the film takes place in Tiflis, rather than a city or town in Armenia, a deliberate decision that emphasizes Gikor’s distance from his homeland.

Gikor is a film that today’s generation of film lovers will undoubtedly understand and identify with, but it’s a film made for their parent’s generation, who left behind their homeland and longed for their return – even in their final moments – reminiscing about their childhood friends and wishing they could once more taste the water from their homeland.