The Nagoro-Karabakh conflict does not make the front page in the media, but it’s been boiling and ongoing since before the Soviet period. It is an ethnic and territorial conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the region of Nagoro-Karabakh and its seven surrounding districts, with the latest developments happening in September this year. In this slow-paced, cinematic documentary, Daniel Kötter moves around through a border valley surrounded by mountains – from Lake Sevan to the gold mine of Sotk – exploring the stories of people whose lives are largely defined by this conflict, living in fear and awareness of ‘the other,’ even in times of peace.
Imprints on the mind
The film has atmosphere and texture and the distinct feel of the landscapes and aesthetics of the Caucasus. The heavy history of the region feels paradoxically both personal and impersonal, put together like a puzzle through each of the stories told, contrasted with the vastness of the quiet and imposing landscapes.
These landscapes make much of the film and remain imprinted in the mind, both visually and as a feeling. The camera follows a slow-moving train or the 1000-dollar-old Lada car in which Kötter holds some of the conversations, driving around these impressive valleys surrounded by mountains.
The conflict in these places goes back to 1918. That means that for over 100 years, it has been leaving its mark in this region, with everyone featured in the film having been born in it. It is an ethnic conflict questioning borders and who owns the land, so in short, it is an us vs them one.
The film has atmosphere and texture and the distinct feel of the landscapes and aesthetics of the Caucasus.
The region was historically populated by Armenians but belonged to Azerbaijan. The first Nagorno-Karabakh war started in 1988 when Karabakh Armenians demanded the transfer of the region from Soviet Azerbaijan to Soviet Armenia. In 1991, Artsakh, officially the Republic of Artsakh or the Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh, was founded. It is a breakaway state populated and run by Armenians but internationally recognised as part of Azerbaijan. Eventually, this first war ended in 1994, with Azerbaijan losing 13% of its territory, including Nagorno-Karabakh.
But even the quiet times – it has seen some two decades of peace after 1994 – were periods of keeping an eye over the other and of ‘expectancy.’ Eventually, in late 2020, a second war followed – which many speak about in the film – and resulted in thousands of casualties and a significant Azerbaijani victory. The border moved again – Azerbaijan getting the territories around Nagorno-Karabakh and a third of the region itself. Artsakh became an enclave within Azerbaijan, its only connection to Armenia via the five km-wide mountain road called the Lachin corridor, which was placed under the supervision of Russian peacekeeping forces.
It would be difficult, if not impossible, to capture this whole history in one film. And that’s anyway not what Kötter is set to do. His art is not in finding chronology but in chasing the existential. In his distinct style, the camera’s range is different than the range of the stories, playing with scale – the scale of nature vs the scale of a human and the depth and range of the human stories. And while the stories are each micro pieces, the sum of them makes the layered and complex reality of living in that region a complexity that contrasts with how still the landscapes stand, how still and unmoved. It is this contrast that cuts the bond between the disputed ownership of this geographical landscape and the people and their fears. Ownership and belonging is a human matter. The humans care about this, these mountains and these valleys, and the sheep that roam them – don’t.
Just like in his previous films – Rift Finfinnee being a great example –Kottler depicts an atmospheric macro portrayal of the place, letting the depth and the weight of history reveal itself in the layers of minimalist shots and storytelling. Essentially, the most present thing in these places is this history. There isn’t much else but mining, herding sheep, and harvesting potatoes. And these spectacular landscapes. But what’s omnipresent is the conflict history.
This is also perhaps why there are no distinct characters in the film, and the stillness and immobility of this place itself is the only visual, its majesty and gloom the ultimate container of the weight of thoughts and the emotions that come out of the people living here. They are the stories they tell make for the ultimate and universal story to be told. And though things changed, eventually, nothing changed in the last 100 years. The conflict is all that is, the fabric of the local human life: that and an eerie sense of something about to come next.
Eventually, Azerbaijan launched a military offensive at the end of September this year. This resulted in the surrender of the self-declared Republic of Artsakh, which is now set to dissolve by the 1st of January next year. In light of these events and facing threats of genocide and ethnic cleansing, nearly the entire population of Nagoro-Karabakh has fled. So, possibly, everyone featured in the film is by now gone.