The mountains and sloping woodlands of Nagorno-Karabakh make this landlocked region in the South Caucasus a place of undeniable natural beauty. But its idyllic surface is deceptive: the deadly territorialism of humans remains imbedded in its very soil, in the form of unexploded landmines left from conflict in the ‘90s. Fighting erupted in the enclave as the Soviet Union dissolved, and old disputes over identity and sovereignty were reignited. Its ethnic Armenian majority pushed to break away and unify with the Republic of Armenia. After their request was rejected by Moscow, the tensions escalated into war with Azerbaijan. Since the ceasefire, the disputed territory is officially recognised as part of Azerbaijan, but most of it is governed by the Republic of Artsakh, a de facto Armenian-majority independent state. Silva Khnkanosian’s beautifully understated and quietly potent documentary Nothing To Be Afraid Of relies not on a deluge of facts or partisan rhetoric. Sparse in dialogue, it rests instead on the dignity of calm commitment to a perilous but essential physical routine, as deminers work to reclaim the land to a safe condition, as it was before violence corrupted it.
According to the 2018 count, 73,268 mines have been neutralised in Nagorno-Karabakh so far. During this process, 300 people were injured, and 80 died. These figures are some of the little contextualising information handed to us in a stripped-back film that shows little interest in political point-scoring or attributing historical blame, becoming all the more subtly devastating as a result. Now, the mines are simply there, their presence as materially absolute as the core of a mountain, and no amount of righteous fury or diplomatic vindication will remove them — the solid work of human hands is all that can.
War’s status as the very antithesis of culture and the flourishing of collective memory, has never been clearer
It is this labour, painstakingly fragile and slow, that we watch repeated by five women as they clear mines from a mountain pass, the Lachin Corridor. They are local women, but their blue vests bear the logo of The Halo Trust, a British charity and American non-governmental organisation formed to remove the debris that is left behind by war, in particular, landmines. Their gear — welding-type visors, blue vests, and heavy gloves — looks high-quality and protective but as a form of armour, impossibly flimsy, only increasing our sense of trepidation as they perform their delicate operations on the earth. The finality of a forceful explosion hangs over them as a possibility at every minute. The wind gently blows and autumn leaves lie golden on the ground, the landscape continuing with its eternal seasons, as the women go about their precise manipulations: detecting a buried object, marking its parameters, digging up the dirt and any obstructing rocks with a spade, and cutting away plant roots to expose the mine ready for a controlled explosion. It is tense work of relentless concentration.
Laughter and communion
The mood markedly changes as evening comes, bringing relief from the tension of the day, in the form of laughter and communion. The instruments of demining sit closed up in cases, as the more universal tools of life and sustenance are animated into action. Dinner simmers on a stovetop; close-up shots hone in on steaming coffee cups. In this documentary of few words, a joke told by one of the workers gathered around the table stands out all the more: A dragon goes to Moscow, the joke goes, demanding its residents cook their best dishes. He doesn’t like the food, so he eats them. In Yerevan, the same. The dragon arrives in Karabakh — and blows up on a landmine. The absurdity of a pervasive, everyday threat turned upside down as a saving grace becomes, then, a punchline, in the kind of dark-humoured joke that thrives in adversity. The joke’s ending is telling in its sheer abruptness. Stories and rituals — indeed, the whole fabric of culture, and life itself — become cheap, when death stalks the land in such a fickle manner. But in the kitchen, coffee in hand, the warm appreciation of human connection and continued survival become palpable, and moving, in their proximity to mortality.
Antithesis of culture
Nothing To Be Afraid Of, then, is life-affirming — but a nagging unease remains. The west’s Halo Trust seems to have provided the best equipment, and methods for mine clearance, just as foreign powers are the usual sources of the deadliest of military weaponry. But it is the local civilians who are tasked with the danger, their bodies on the line during the clean-up. Perhaps it is simply because it is their conflict. But the issue of who controls access to war-related technology, whether to kill more effectively, or demilitarise spaces, the film plants as a seed in our minds. Along with another: How can digging that so resembles archaeological excavation have become, for a people, an act that simply neutralises death and wards off their own oblivion? War’s status as the very antithesis of culture and the flourishing of collective memory, has never been clearer.