From the Vault: Grandma's Tattoos

Suzanne Khardalian’s documentary about her grandmother’s secretive life is a puzzle.

Grandma’s Tattoos, which runs less than an hour in length, never feels hurried or rushed. The film explores the meaning behind the obscure tattoos her grandmother had on her hands and face, and unfolds in pieces, revealing information as it’s discovered. 

The Swedish filmmaker, who comes from a large family that includes four other sisters, starts the film with questions. The questions are all concerned with their now deceased grandmother and stories she presumably held from her family. The sisters all recall their time with their grandmother, although neither one of them has a pleasant memory to share. The sisters explain that their grandmother never opened herself up emotionally and was always bitter. The only clue for her silence comes in the form of the tattoos that she tries to hide from her family.

The documentary slowly uncovers the truth of the tragic events that took place nearly a century ago, and although tattoos are generally looked down upon in our culture, the documentary cleverly uses them as means of analyzing our history. The filmmaker is convinced that her grandmother’s tattoos have meaning; however, everyone she meets and speaks with claim the tattoos have no purpose and were done willingly.

In a discussion with her grandmother’s sister, Lucia, the filmmaker discovers that her tattoos contain Turkish symbols, such as their national flag. In this conversation, we realize how Lucia has been manipulating both her family members and herself, as she lies about her tattoos. The filmmaker’s strengths lie in her interviews, and although Lucia never goes into detail about her childhood, she briefly admits that she rather tell people she had them done willingly rather than tell the truth.

Grandma’s Tattoos provides us with bits and pieces of information and clues that make up a larger picture. The filmmaker is faced with more questions than answers, as she begins questioning whether these women are ashamed of what happened decades ago and if they have been lying to themselves to forget about these events. The tattoos have served as painful reminders for these women of a past that they much rather take to the grave with them.

The documentary is also painfully heartbreaking. There is a scene with one of the filmmaker’s sisters, Silva (labeled the emotional sister of the bunch), who begins recounting her time with her grandmother. Silva blames herself for never showing her grandmother love and sympathy. The scene works for a number of reasons; her close-up brings us into her personal space, and instead of cutting away to the rest of her sisters and family, we remain fixed on Silva, as we witness her pain. Silva doesn’t break down and cry; she recalls her memories and slowly begins cracking on the surface, revealing her emotional devastation. The interview in the film with Maria, a 104-year-old woman from Yerevan, is equally devastating. Maria claims she has forgotten 90% of what she saw as a child during the genocide. Maria is surprisingly sharp, and as she speaks painfully about her mother, we move into a wide shot that captures her frail body, which makes her resemble the young child she was when she lost her mother. 

There are several filmmaking techniques, however, that don’t quite work well in this documentary, such as the overlapping narration in the beginning of the film with the photographs of various women. The final interview also feels out of place, primarily because of the content of the dialogue. The filmmaker sits down with her aunt (who happens to be her grandmother’s only living child) and asks her why her grandmother always avoided physical contact, such as hugging and kissing, both from her family members as well as her own husband. The point is clearly made when we learn that this is possibly because of her history of sexual abuse, but the dialogue drags on as the two women discuss sex, making their conversation both awkward and repetitive.

Grandma’s Tattoos is nonetheless a terrific examination of an intriguing side of the genocide that is rarely explored. The documentary makes us aware of women who were taken away from their families and had their lives forever changed when they become slaves and prostitutes at the hands of the Turks. Suzanne Khardalian sheds light on their lives by making women the focus of her film, a remark that is punctuated when she states, “men write down history” as opposed to the women.