“I see Mount Ararat it stands high in the blue sky. With its gentle, tender contours, it seems to grow not out of the earth but out of the sky, as if it has condensed from its white clouds and its deep blue,” wrote the Soviet-era author Vasily Grossman, while on a trip through Armenia in the 1960s. I’d been reading his observations, published as An Armenian Sketchbook, during the quiet, insular months of an extended lockdown in Berlin. My plan to actually make the journey to Yerevan for the Golden Apricot Film Festival had, like most facets of public life and the pursuit of the new, been postponed, in this case due not only to the coronavirus outbreak but also because of inflamed regional conflict. After travel restrictions eased, the first plane I boarded after 20 months flew me to Armenia, and a festival whose dates had been moved to October. I was surprised to experience that magical phenomenon according to which a place seems undiminished, and as large in life, as the one you’d read about and imagined. “It looks like it’s a cloud. Unbelievable,” said an Argentinian filmmaker and fellow festival guest, as we saw the mountain myths were built on through the window of a van driving us to a decidedly out-of-the-way reception. Grossman had barely said it better. 

Yerevan’s history is ancient, but it is by no means a city that feels stuck in the past. It has seen a surge of bars and clubs open in recent years that have a relaxed cool to match bigger European capitals such as Berlin, but are at the same time steeped in local identity – from the carpets covering the floors of the Mirzoyan Library bar tucked away down hard-to-locate courtyard stairs, to the portraits of Armenian poets on the walls of the tiny Rosa cocktail bar; both spots the festival chose for get-togethers. The Golden Apricot festival’s program was also a vibrant, intelligent straddling of old and new, showing both a cinephiliac commitment to revitalising classics, and delight in embracing the most mischievously ribald and politically confrontational cinema of the moment. 

Nadav Lapid is one of the first names one thinks of when considering today’s cinematic vanguard of mavericks – those aesthetically and socio-politically committed to pushing the bounds of what cinema can be and do, using fearless invention to disrupt the hypocrisies and complacency of those abusing power to stifle expression and dissent. So it was a bold signal of the festival’s values that the Israeli director was singled out for a Special Prize Master award in Yerevan for his work to date, with Ahed’s Knee, his latest film and his most subversive howl of protest yet, chosen to open the festival. Lapid had already ventured into the more formally radical, deliriously phantasmagorical territory of psychic disorientation and identity dislocation with his previous, Berlinale-awarded Synonyms (2019). In Ahed’s Knee Lapid, in a defiantly eccentric, post-modern and slyly self-referential trip of associative poetry and digression, again addresses the question of what it means to be Israeli under an oppressive state leadership determined to reject the fullness of one’s true being – this time with a rage so palpable it seems to burst from the screen as if through his very rib-cage. 

Ahed’s Knee

In Ahed’s Knee, Y, a successful arthouse filmmaker from Tel Aviv (played by Avshalom Pollak, as the director’s alter-ego), has accepted an invitation to screen one of his films in Sapir, a settlement in the arid desert of southern Israel, but in order to fulfil the conditions he must sign a form promising to stick to certain checked topics of approved discussion – that certainly don’t include the “abject dumbing down of the country” at the hands of a militantly nationalistic regime, or “a state that vomits out whatever doesn’t conform and never takes it back”. The despairing filmmaker is central, but at the very heart of the film, too, is the problem of Yahalom (Nur Fibak), the deputy director of the Libraries Division at the Ministry of Culture, who has organised the screening and is responsible for ensuring the form is completed. She resigns herself to this duty as a necessary unpleasantry required of her role. She is the opposite of cynical; an ingénue with a genuine passion for culture, who is a fan of the director’s dissenting work. “How can you get mad at someone who fights in fifty-degree heat for folks to read books?” muses Y. It is the borderline that Lapid is interested in here – the point at which rotten ideology infiltrates the actions of a citizen, despite their best intentions, and makes them an accomplice to the death of all that is human and authentic in a society. And the point at which resisting, as an artist, becomes inextricable from ferocity, against a cynical regime that has smothered all space in which gentleness can thrive. The film (a co-production of France, Israel and Germany) is a loud, spectacle-based paroxysm of woozy terror and defiance that through its very existence proves there remains an insistently fought-for outside the reach of censorship over what is produced and consumed by and for the Israeli people. 

Gala premieres at the Moscow Cinema brought a number of other challenging and ballsy films from the year’s festival circuit to the Yerevan public. Among them was Radu Jude’s Berlinale-winner Bad Luck Banging Or Loony Porn, a wildly inventive, ribald and in-your-face challenge to resurgent, virulent nationalism in Romania. In a three-part structure that rejects straightforward narrative in favour of a montage of ideas that demands an audience to actively draw connections and interpret historical parallels, it uses the premise of a sex-tape scandal to expose the hypocrisies of a morally bankrupt state and Church. The Palme D’or recipient at Cannes, Julia Ducournau’s visceral, violent body-horror spectacle Titane, also screened. It’s a film obsessed with surfaces that partially makes up for its disinterest in deep or detailed ideas with how unapologetically, preposterously far it takes its identity-bending premise, which collapses any distinction between the organic and mechanic. Tapping a deeper, more complex weirdness was Annette, a tempestuously dark and surreal, hyper-tragic foray into pop-musical territory by Leos Carax and the Sparks brothers that examines the narcissistic side of ambition in an era of aggressive capitalism and media frenzy. The cinema of Iran, geographically so near, is prominent in festivals in the Caucasus, and it was no surprise that Asghar Farhadi’s talky but tense moral dilemma drama, A Hero, played to a large audience. Perhaps most exciting was experiencing the enthusiasm that met a screening of the remastered Dr. Caligari, included in a section labelled “Twisted Apricot” along with Titane and Paul Verhoeven’s 17th-century lesbian nun romp Benedetta. Dr. Caligari is a hallucinogenic, neon-bright and totally bonkers explosion of bizarre erotica from the late ‘80s, irreverent and underground yet as glossy as the era’s fashion spreads. Directed by Stephen Sayadian, an Armenian-American and one-time creative director for Larry Flynt Publications, its plot involves brain-fluid transplants carried out on a cannibal and a nymphomaniac in an insane asylum. 

Taming the Garden

A Regional Panorama program highlighted films from the Caucasus and the Middle East, and it was this section that the FIPRESCI Critics Award focused on, with Georgian documentarian Salome Jashi’s astonishing Taming the Garden the deserving winner. It is an indictment of greed, which draws wry poetry from the modern world’s absurdity and a Georgian billionaire’s transportation of towering, centuries-old trees from the countryside to decorate his private, artificially watered and manicured garden. The mind-boggling logistics of moving this forest over land and by barge across the sea give rise to surreal images. These scenes encapsulate the boundless entitlement and hubris of the wealthy and their crass destruction of the slow, organic order that beings further down the power-scale rely upon to retain a sense of home and history, within environments in which familiar trees had stood for years. 

The Golden Apricot award in the shorts programme went to Armenian director Christine Haroutounian’s World, a strikingly framed and impressionistic meditation on the body, desire and death, set in a village to which a young woman has returned to care for her ailing mother. Generational cycles of loss and return were conveyed, too, in a more literal, informative mode in Alexis Pazoumin’s documentary short Nagorno-Karabakh: Two Children In the War, which charts the rebuilding process as exiled ethnic Armenians return to Talish, a village on the vulnerable and raw frontlines of territorial conflict with Azerbaijan, through the eyes of very young refugees. 

War, and its painful aftermath, were felt not only in a certain melancholy on the streets of Yerevan, but in a humane and vast-ranging programme that sought to offer audiences cathartic entry points for processing ideas and emotions surrounding military conflict. Grouped under the umbrella heading Post-War were a range of approaches to the subject, from thought-provoking films with geo-political dimensions such as Ahed’s Knee, to the most seminal meditations on war and its psychological legacy ever made, including Elem Klimov’s harrowing, hallucinogenic masterpiece of horrors on World War Two’s Eastern front Come and See (1985), and Martin Scorsese’s vision, from the pen of Paul Schrader, of post-Vietnam isolation and trauma in a morally decayed New York, Taxi Driver (1976). Zahavi Sanjavi’s devastating documentary Imad’s Childhood also screened. It traces the glimmers of progress as a Yazidi family in a camp for displaced persons in Kurdistan endeavour to re-establish, with the help of a psychotherapist, bonds with a severely maladjusted, aggressive and terrorised toddler. The boy had been forced to live for more than two years with ISIS fighters, as they prepared him to become a suicide bomber by de-sensitising him to violence, while his mother was held as a sex slave. It captures how the violence of ethnic hatred continues its impact in peacetime, internalised in the psyches of those it has touched, and fracturing connections down through generations which carry the burden. It is not easy to watch, but there is hope apparent in the behavioural reversals seeded by loving patience.

While the grand, 1930s-built Moscow Cinema was a natural choice for screenings, the festival put imagination into other venue locations, most notably a screening of Viktor Kosakovskiy’s dialogue-free Gunda (2020) outdoors on hay-bale seating under a night sky and brown, hilly surrounds at the Eco Lodge in the Caucasus Wildlife Refuge, located a two-hour drive (complete with aforementioned cloudy mountain view) from Yerevan into the Ararat region. There, a state reserve safeguards biodiversity and rare wildlife species from poachers, and bears rescued from circuses and restaurants live in a sanctuary. A minute of silence for the fallen of Artsakh preceded the screening. Gunda draws us intimately into the experience of a mother farm animal as she raises her brood, with an eye for the minutiae and absurdist drama of everyday existence – a fine choice for an event celebrating not only cinema but the healing and preservation of life and community in many of its unique forms.


The Sergei Parajanov Museum is alone worth a visit to Armenia. It might well be the best museum anywhere of its type, as a living tribute to a single artist. Soviet director Sergei Parajanov, who was born in Georgia of Armenian descent, became one of cinema’s most unique visionaries. He transformed the folklore of the Caucasus satellite states into esoteric masterpieces of visual poetry, most famously The Colour of Pomegranates (1969), based on the life of 18th-century Armenian poet and musician Sayat-Nova. But his subversive tendencies inflamed the suspicions of a repressive state, which had him thrown in jail on the pretext of homosexuality, and behind bars the artist used whatever materials he found at his disposal to create art. A copy of one of the silver coins that Parajanov carved with his fingernails from the lids of milk bottles while in prison is embedded into a prize each year by the festival, and this year Paul Schrader was the recipient of the so-called Parajonov’s Thaler for Outstanding Artistic Contribution to World Cinema. The maverick spirit of Parajanov is clearly close to the festival’s heart, which held one of its receptions at the museum, a repository of objects established in 1988 in a building chosen by the auteur himself when he was still alive, which remains open every day of the year in Yerevan. 

Far from an impersonal white space, the two-storey, homey building holds an eclectic jumble of around a thousand works and surreal objects that merge mediums. They are gathered together with an informality that echoes the seamless invention of Parajanov’s prolific, ceaseless and playful imagination. Displayed are skulls and silver pomegranates, an elephant made out of his childhood suitcase, a baby-doll Gagarin cosmonaut, film costumes and collages of old family photographs. A shrine to the director himself, his photograph labelled “Maestro”, has gold wings fixed to the wall on either side, and lamps, candles, flowers and carved fruit on altar steps below. A city that worships the best of its artists in such a way, preserving so much of the bounty of Parajanov’s creativity as a living legacy in one place rather than leaving it to disperse around the world, is balm for the harsh oppression he suffered when alive. Rather than staid and overly worthy hagiography, the museum in its joyous, welcoming miscellany, keeps alive the director’s sense of vivacious mischief, buoyant humour and anything-goes transgression. It was Parajanov, after all, who in his fearless willingness to offend or overstep rigid boundaries in the pursuit of truth, desire and life, said long before Ducournau, Lapid, Verhoeven, Jude or anyone else whose works fired up this year’s edition, but as if compelling the wildest of their visions: “You must torment people with your artistic delight, scaring mother and grandmother in the middle of the night.” 

Yerevan International Film Festival
3-10 October 2021
Festival website: https://www.gaiff.am/

About The Author

Carmen Gray grew up in New Zealand, and now lives in Berlin. She is a freelance journalist and film critic, and a programmer for the Berlin International Film Festival and the Winterthur International Short Film Festival.

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