Invisible republic: capturing Artsakh on film, from frozen conflict to mass emigration

Hayk Bakhryan in Should the Wind Drop (dir. Nora Martirosyan, 2020)

For the rest of the world, Artsakh never officially existed. On 28 September, the unrecognised republic itself finally fell in line, when its president Samvel Shahramanyan signed a decree announcing his government’s total dissolution in the face of Azerbaijan’s brief and brutal assault launched nine days earlier, the endpoint of a debilitating, months-long blockade. The self-declared, majority-Armenian state had held an increasingly precarious hold over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region since its defeat to Azerbaijan in the 2020 war; now even de facto independence has been crushed. While the fallout from this defeat will continue for a long time, the flood of images emerging from Nagorno-Karabakh, of the Armenian population fleeing en masse, has already been overtaken by the latest atrocities committed against Ukraine and now Palestine. The convulsive, ever-rolling news cycle is unlikely to do justice to Artsakh.

What about cinema, though? The notion of “Artsakh film” is a complex one. A self-sustaining film industry never truly developed within the republic due to its international isolation and the ready availability of “mainstream” Armenian culture. And even from without, how to represent somewhere whose existence is not acknowledged? Somewhere that is key to much modern Armenian identity, but which exists distinct from Armenia proper? As practically the entire ethnic Armenian population of Artsakh enters Armenia as refugees – more than 100,000 people – we are also faced with the question, which will only intensify moving forwards, of how Artsakh film sits within Armenian society and culture’s long and complicated history of displacement and diaspora.

how does Artsakh film sits within Armenian culture’s long and complicated history of displacement and diaspora?

The potted history of the conflict has been endlessly rehashed in recent weeks: how two wars (the first from 1988-1994, the second across seven weeks in 2020) created and then decimated the de facto independent Armenian state inside internationally recognised Azerbaijani territory; how Azerbaijan took advantage of its supremacy after 2020 to blockade and then blitzkrieg the now-captive Artsakh population. The importance of this bloody history to each country’s modern national mythology has meant that there have been plenty of nationalistic, militaristic films produced in both Armenia and Azerbaijan (a phenomenon replicated more recently in both Ukraine and Russia) – which is to be expected, but which tells us little about life in Artsakh itself. The forced displacement of hundreds of thousands of ethnic Azerbaijanis from the territory over the course of the first war should not go unremarked, even as we contend with the latest round of ethnic cleansing in Nagorno-Karabakh, this time targeted at the Armenian population.

In the last few years, however, there has been a marked uptick in the number of genuinely insightful films about Artsakh – or at least these films have found a more welcoming reception on the international market. Some of these titles are direct responses to the events of 2020; others fold that brief second war into longer-term narratives. Some predate the resumption of violence, reflecting on more than two decades of (only nominally) frozen conflict. These recent films continue the work begun by a handful of documentaries from the early 2000s that used the growing historical distance from the First Nagorno-Karabakh War as the basis for sombre personal-historical reflection. Phillipe Vartan Khazarian’s I Love the Sound of the Kalashnikov, It Reminds Me of Tchaikovsky (2001) combines amateur home movies with footage from Artsakh as it draws out the links between the destruction of the city of Aghdam during the war and the director’s family’s flight to France during the Armenian Genocide in 1915. A more direct reckoning with the violence of the nineties is found in Vardan Hovhannisyan’s A Story of People in War and Peace (2007), which recounts the director’s time as a front-line journalist (and occasional prisoner of war) during the conflict. Hovhannisyan’s juxtaposition of chaotic archival footage from the war with imagery capturing the tense stillness of the early noughties hints at the traumatic basis of 21st-century Artsakh identity.

Notre Village (dir. Comes Chahbazian, 2022)

More recent documentaries have continued Khazarian’s and Hovhannisyan’s exploration of the false nature of “frozen” conflict. Notre Village, a 2022 feature by the Belgian-Armenian artist Comes Chahbazian, is a case in point. Chahbazian uses the titular settlement of Mets Taghlar in the Hadrut district of Nagorno-Karabakh as a kind of ethnographic case study. In the early nineties, villagers were forced to take up arms to protect themselves against Azerbaijani forces; when war erupted again in 2020, the entire settlement was displaced as the region fell under Baku’s control. The first screening of Notre Village in Armenia in summer of 2022 represented the first time many former residents had seen each other for two years. The first half of the film is structured around the cognitive dissonance produced by the juxtaposition of peaceful, everyday visuals with spoken accounts of underlying trauma. “History forced us to take up arms,” as one of Chahbazian’s interlocutors says. “Our generation had to sacrifice itself.” In the words of one interviewee, a nurse, “it was after the war that I began to be afraid. Afraid of what I had witnessed.” The director, who himself was born in Beirut during Lebanon’s civil war before moving to Belgium, describes Artsakh’s history pointedly as “a state of infinite mourning from which we never emerge.”

In the words of one interviewee, a nurse, “it was after the war that I began to be afraid. Afraid of what I had witnessed.”

This history has proven a lure to documentarians in recent years – a result, perhaps, of the fundamental representational challenge posed by an unrecognised but concretely “real” identity. Sometimes these address the human wages of war directly, as in Lucia De La Torre’s recent short The Dream of Karabakh, which is available to watch on openDemocracy. De La Torre’s moving, compact film largely consists of interviews with Shushan, a middle-aged widow living in Armenia after her Artsakh village was burned down by fleeing residents. Other filmmakers adopt more oblique perspectives. German director Daniel Kötter’s psychogeographical road movie Landshaft was filmed in Armenia’s eastern borderlands during the uneasy interregnum of 2021. Kötter’s film centres around the Sotk gold mine, located on the road that used to connect Armenia to Artsakh, and which was occupied by Azerbaijani forces during the 2020 war. Interviews with locals play over footage of the landscape that is sometimes tranquil, sometimes tense. The war and the grind of resource extraction gradually become two sides of the same coin; destructive processes waged over the population by distant forces. Reflecting both Artsakh’s unrecognised status and the existential threat hanging over it even under ceasefire, Kötter leans into the idea of invisibility. “What I’m often interested in, the actual core of what the film might be about, doesn’t have a visual representation,” he has said. “You leave your house and you are surrounded on three sides by mountains, where the Azerbaijani military is stationed and can see you, but you can’t see them. I then decided to stay true to this perspective, which I adopted myself.”

By some serendipitous coincidence, two of the most striking recent films about Artsakh – Nora Martirosyan’s Should the Wind Drop (2020) and Garegin Papoyan’s Bon Voyage (2021) – are set in the same place: the airport of the Republic’s capital, Stepanakert. In a sense, this coincidence is entirely logical. The airport is a potent symbol of the absurdities that defined Artsakh life. Built in Soviet times, it lay dormant from 1990. Rebuilt in 2009, the airport had a full staff who carried out day-to-day maintenance of the building and runway – but no commercial flight launched from the site for 32 years due to the threat of Azerbaijani missiles. In Martirosyan’s lyrical fictional feature, a French inspector named Alain (Grégoire Colin) is dispatched to Stepanakert to assess the airport’s potential for reopening, while Papoyan’s observational documentary captures the daily work lives of the employees diligently maintaining this zombie institution.

Bon Voyage (dir. Garegin Papoyan, 2021)

In an interview with the two directors for Klassiki, Martirosyan describes her first visit to Artsakh. “I realised that everything I see corresponds to a state, such as the parliament, the infrastructure, the roads, and the cities. But if you look on Google Maps, the country doesn’t exist. I asked myself how this paradox can be shown in cinema and through what kind of a narrative.” Papoyan’s motivation was similar: “By telling the story through the airport, an international symbol, I was aiming to reveal the sheer isolated absurdity of the situation.” Martirosyan’s outsider protagonist treats Artsakh as an object of dry, technical observation: it is reduced to statistics concerning runway length, wind speed, the precise distance to the border. As he engages with the local population – most of all Edgar (Hayk Bakhryan), a young boy whose hustle is selling water collected from the airport that purportedly possesses healing properties – Alain learns the valuable lesson that neutrality is a convenient fantasy. To observe is to participate, perhaps even to change. Papoyan’s direct, cinéma verité approach also emphasises the political significance of observation, accumulating banalities in such a way that they become more than the sum of their parts. The meticulous maintenance of the airport that he documents, despite the Kafkaesque futility of the enterprise, is an indication of the aspiration towards recognition and integration that previously motivated Artsakh society.

Should the Wind Drop received its premiere one day before the start of the 2020 war. Now, the humanist vision of Martirosyan and Papoyan is dashed. Future films about Artsakh – what it was, what it meant – will be made from elsewhere. This was always the region’s fate, in cinematic terms: none of the films cited above were made by Artsakh residents, and among the Armenian directors there are a number of diaspora figures (Khazarian, Chahbazian, Martirosyan). Voices from within the former republic have always been “smuggled” out to a wider world with apparently limited sympathy (one recent Armenian-produced documentary, Garin Hovhannisian’s Invisible Republic, features diary excerpts from the writer Lika Zakaryan, written while she was hiding from Azerbaijani shelling in an Artsakh bunker). The future of “Artsakh film” will continue to navigate old questions of displacement and self-representation, and will do so from a place of forced homelessness.

Explore our collection of Armenian titles here.