4th Golden Apricot International Film Festival

First Ecumenical Jury Report, by Peter Malone
2007 saw the 4th edition of the Golden Apricot Festival in Yerevan, capital of Armenia.  The festival is assuming some importance in the calendar of world festivals.  It is also highly significant for Armenia itself and for its developing film industry and culture.
Armenia – Christian, the Genocide, the Soviet Union, the Disapora.
Armenia is the oldest Christian nation, the population accepting Christianity in 301 AD. Its long history has been marked by conflict and persecution. It borders several Islamic nations, including Turkey and Iran. Many of its cultural and religious monuments have been destroyed by enemies over the centuries.  In 1915 a million and a half of its inhabitants were massacred by the authorities of the dying Ottoman Empire (and Hitler, in 1939, justifying his own policies, asked, ‘Who remembers the Armenian genocide?’). After World War II, Armenia was subsumed into the Soviet Union of republics and experienced a stamping out of religion.  Independence was achieved in 1991 but conflicts with neighbours, especially Azerbaijan, over disputed territories persist.
In recent years, there have been great pushes for letting the world know of the 1915 genocide and a sense of justice and truth for Armenians at home and in their diaspora around the world.
The Armenian Apostolic Church is an ancient church and stands – ecumenically minded - in the Oriental tradition.  There are very few Catholics in the Roman tradition (only 30,000 around the world) as well as very few Protestants.
An Ecumenical Jury
INTERFILM president Hans Hodel had met Harutyun Khachatrian, director of the Golden Apricot Festival, at the film festival Arsenals in Riga 2004 and later in Berlin and Karlovy Vary. Harutyun Khachatrian won an Ecumenical Award for his documentary film Return To The Promised Land in Petersburg 1993. In Antalya 2006 Khachatrian expressed his wish to establish an Ecumenical Jury at the Golden Apricot Festival. At the annual meeting of Interfilm and SIGNIS in Berlin, February 2007, Mr Khachatrian and Festival Art Director, Susanna  Harutyunyan, met with the two organisations to discuss the possibility of an Ecumenical Jury in 2007. The festival offered very favourable and hospitable conditions for the jurors.  It was decided that there would be an Interfilm juror, a SIGNIS juror and, because of the importance of the Church in Armenia, a representative of the Church. This had the blessing of His Holiness Karekin II, the Katholikos of the Armenian Church.
The 2007 jury comprised Hans Hodel (Switzerland), President of INTERFILM, Peter Malone (Australia), former president of SIGNIS, and Fr Gevork Saroyan, seminary lecturer from the Armenian Church.
The visiting members of the Ecumenical Jury found that Yerevan was one of the most hospitable of Festivals.  Accommodation and meals (it seemed almost as many as the films to be seen) was most generous.  The direction of the festival and the many volunteers who helped everyone to be in the right place were always attentive.  A guide for the Ecumenical Jury, Armiine, was always with us to make sure all went well.
The Festival
The opening ceremony showed how important this festival is as a national event.  It was held outdoors in Freedom Square. Government officials attended. But, unlike so many other festivals, the Church played a significant role.  The title of the Festival is ‘Golden Apricot’ (and one has not tasted juicy apricots until one has eaten the Armenian apricots). The Archbishop of Yerevan, in cope and mitre, assisted by priests, deacons and servers with thuribles and holy water went on stage to chant the blessing of the apricots and, by extension, the whole land. The apricots were distributed to all present, a kind of communion in local eco-theology, as our Armenian priest suggested.
The festival has its international competition – this year the line-up included an Ecumenical award winner, the Croatian Tresete (winner in Mannheim, 2006) and a SIGNIS award winner, Nuovomondo (Venice, 2006). Nuovomondo also won an award in Yerevan. There were restrospectives, including films by Chang-dong Lee, including his Oasis which won the SIGNIS award in Venice in 2002. The focus on French Cinema was a festival within a festival. An additional non-competition program comprised five European films.
There is also a international competition on documentary films and a national prize for the Armenian panorama. As well as the first time for an Ecumenical Jury, it was the first time for a FIPRESCI Jury and general secretary Klaus Eder was a member.
At the Interfilm/SIGNIS meeting in Berlin, it was agreed that an Ecumenical Jury would watch the Armenian selection and make its awards to local films.  This meant that the jury watched over twenty films, from shorts and animation to documentaries and some feature films (two were Russian but made by Armenians).  The watching of the Panorama was an education in itself. There were a number of short films about children, their education and opportunities and lack of them. There were what might be called ‘ethnographic’ documentaries.  A particularly interesting film was Children of Adam. It showed an enclave in northeastern Armenia who live in pre-Christian traditions and religion.  The film focussed on a wedding ceremony and the various village rituals.
Religion was central to a number of films including Blessing the Grape, which showed a festival associated with the feast of the Assumption, the time to bless the grape harvest.  Another documentary was a study of the medieval architect, Momik, an exploration of his buildings and, especially, his sculpting of columns and tablets, what the filmmaker described as the results of the conversation between the artist and the stone.
A quite sophisticated film was Hope…Faith… Love, three twenty minute portraits of women: an old lady who grew up in Siberia, who believed in science and astronomy and lived a contented life; the second was a middle-aged woman who taught and helped others but had not married and lived a lonelier life; the third was a young prostitute who explained her choices and permitted the audience to see deeply into her emotional life.
This year there was a special screening of an Armenian feature (out of competition), which had its world premiere on January 25th 2007 at the Grauman’s Chinese Theatre in Hollywood, The Priestess, a larger budget spectacle, a historical novel film. While it starts in Yerevan in the present when a young woman is knocked down in a car accident and undergoes therapy, it also goes back into 3rd century Armenian history.  The woman comes to consciousness and tells her story – that she is a priestess of Mithra, with seer-like powers.  It is she who prophesies the conversion of the Armenian nation and helps St Gregory the Illuminator who is instrumental in the conversion. The writer-director has invented this character but situated her within known history.
Another new Armenian feature was called Incense. It was set in the late 40s to the death of Stalin in 1953 and is a reminder of the heavy handed socialism imposed in that era.  This is a picture of life in a country village, where simple people are made to live in fear and religion is a crime against the state (and where the people have to gather as the local church is to be blown up and listen to jingoistic, idealist socialist rants) reminds its audience that this was a period of repression of freedoms.
The awards
The awards went to two documentaries. All the awards were held in Freedom Square, outdoors – with some light rain falling at times.
The prize went to A Story of People in War and Peace from director, Vardan Hovhannisyan.  The citation read: Film journalist Hovhannisyan spent five days filming resistance (not army) fighters on the Azerbaijan border, sharing their harsh conditions and dangers. 2005. He tracks down and interviews survivors, discovering their consequent traumas (prison, divorce, madness), intercutting them with the war footage.  A vivid Armenian picture of and comment on all wars.
The commendation went to Screamers from director, Carla Garapedian.  The citation read: Screamers are rock concert fans.  Screamers is also code for social protestors.  Journalist, Carla Garapedian, followed rock band ‘System of a Down’ through Europe. Descended from survivors of the 1915 Armenian genocide, they are articulate in their message lyrics and their personal, historical and political views. While Armenia is central, there is focus on other 20th century genocides and interviews from presidents, authors and survivors.  Consciousness-raising, conscience-prodding on politics, economics, cover-ups and silence.
Some views of Armenia
The national and international visitors (who included such directors as Jafar Panahi (OCIC award for The Circle, Venice 2000) , Andrei Zvyangintsev (SIGNIS prize Venice 2003, Ecumenical award, Cottbus 2003 and Templeton award, 2003, for The Return), Bruno Dumont, Leos Carax) were not confined to the cinemas and the hotel.  Visits of local interest were organised.  A reception was held at the Paradjanov museum.  Another reception was held at the Ararat Brandy factory, an impressively organised production and storage plant.
Outside Yerevan, there were excursions to the Mithraic temple at Garni and to the monastery at Geghad where, from early centuries, the monks hollowed out mountains to make churches with baptisteries, cells, and sculpted stone columns.  The Ecumenical Jury had the advantage of some more hospitality from the monks, including their own honey.
Fr Gevork also took the jury to visit the monastery at Khor Virap which looks out on Mount Ararat (which is on the Turkish side of the border) when the sky is clear – which it was not, unfortunately, for our visit.  Here are the caves where St Gregory the Illuminator was interned for many years before the conversion of the nation.  We also visited what might be called the Vatican of the Armenian Church, Echmiadzen, with its Cathedral, its vast grounds and monastery, its new museum of sacred artefacts, its open space (where John Paul II celebrated the Eucharist during his visit).  We attended part of the liturgy and received the blessing of His Holiness.
After a pilgrimage of progression from the pagan temple to the monasteries to the heart of the Armenian church, we ended the journey at the memorial to the Armenian genocide, pausing to contemplate this massacre and how it is not yet acknowledged by so many nations.  Fr Gevork told us that 45 members of his family were killed at the time – and we realised that this is probably the story of every Armenian whether in the world diaspora or living in Armenia.
Since the introduction of an Ecumenical Jury at Yerevan is significant for the festival, this article is an indication of how important it was for SIGNIS and for INTERFILM.
The award winners 2007
Parajanov’s Thaler Lifetime Achievement Award:
- Paolo and Vittorio Taviani, Italy
International Feature Competition
- Best Feature Film – Golden Apricot: Import/Export by Ulrich Seidl, Austria
- Silver Prize: Nuovomondo by Emanuele Criasele, Italy/France
- Jury Special Diploma: Flanders by Bruno Dumont, France
International Documentary Competition
- Best Documentary Film – Golden Apricot: A Story of People in War and Peace    by Vardan Hovhannisyan, Armenia
- Silver Prize: The White She-Camel by Christiaens Xavier, Belgium
Armenian Panorama Competition
- Best Film – Golden Apricot: Screamer by Carla Garapedian, United Kingdom
- Silver Prizes: Time Out by Karen Hovhannisyan, Russia
  A Story of People in War and Peace by Vardan Hovhannisyan, Armenie
- Jury Diplomas: Seven Indian Boys by Ashot Mkrtchyan, Armenie
Graffiti, by  Igor Apasyan, Russia
- A Story of People in War and Peace by Vardan Hovhannisyan, Armenia
Ecumenical Jury Award
- A Story of People in War and Peace by Vardan Hovhannisyan, Armenia
- Commendation: Screamers by Carla Garapendian, United Kingdom
Wishing Tree Prize
- Dinner Time, by Gor Baghdasaryan, Armenia