From the Vault: Vodka Lemon

In speaking of national cinema; that is, films associated with a specific nation, we are often faced with various difficulties.

It’s really a question of determining the country of origin for a film. If a French filmmaker shoots a French-language film in Germany, would that be considered a French film or a German film? What if the film was entirely financed by Germany?

In 2010, Certified Copy was in such a quandary. The film is a product of France, despite the fact that the film was directed by an Iranian filmmaker – Abbas Kiarostami – in the Tuscany region of Italy. There is French dialogue in the film, but the deciding factor in this instance, is the origin of its finances. Certified Copy is considered French because a French company produced the film. 

This model makes sense of this specific film, but Woody Allen’s films, for instance, are never considered foreign. Vicky Cristina Barcelona, for instance, was financed by a Spanish and French company, but the film is still regarded as a product of the United States. 

Vodka Lemon is another interesting film that we can pull aside for examination, because it’s a film that can be considered multi-national. The film is directed by Hiner Saleem, an Iraqi-Kurdish filmmaker, with a story that takes place in a Yazidi Kurdish village in Armenia. The dialogue in the film is a combination of Kurdish, Armenian and Russian, with very minor instances of French. Vodka Lemon, as a result, is categorized a French, Italian and Armenian production, primarily because of the financiers of this production. In fact, its director has claimed that the instances of French music in the film were included as a satisfaction requirement on the part of the French production company.

In instances such as these, we can better understand national cinema in perspective. It’s never really about the language(s) spoken in the film or the nationality of its filmmaker, but it’s more of a combination of various factors. The country of origin is most often whichever country finances a film.

The villagers in Vodka Lemon are still suffering economically after the collapse of the Soviets. Their independence and break away from the USSR has had adverse effects on their society. This can be seen through the depictions of the film’s protagonists.

The film centers on Hamo (Romen Avinian), whose wife has recently passed away. Hamo spends his time taking a bus to her graveyard, where he visits her and spends time with her. The collapse of the USSR, however, and his lack of a decent pension, forces him to sell his family’s belongings. 

Nina (Lala Sarkissian) lives a similar life. Nina’s husband has passed on for years, and she visits his gravesite as well. Nina works in a bar of sorts, known as Vodka Lemon. Nina and her daughter feel the pressures of the economy as well. Nina’s daughter, for instance, works as a prostitute, and it’s suggested, very briefly and very subtly, that there are a number of other working girls in the village as well. 

There is also an instance of two men sitting together in the snow. The first man asks his friend if he misses when the Russians were still “here,” claiming that even though they didn’t have freedom, they “had everything else.” The friend replies, “The socialists pretended to do everything for us and we pretended to do everything for them.” The themes of national identity are expressed in these revealing moments. In addition, it’s also apparent in the film’s use of locations.

In this film, it’s difficult understanding where exactly Vodka Lemon, the bar, is. It’s in the middle of nowhere, essentially, in between the village and the gravesite. The fact that the physical location is never specified – and the fact that much of the film never really grounds us in a physical reality, is suggestive of the country of origin of the film itself. Vodka Lemon as a film belongs to more than one country or nation, and the bar – and perhaps even the characters – have trouble pinning themselves down to one location or language as well.