Vardan Hovhannisyan’s film “A Story of People in War and Peace” premieres at IDFA this November. He tells DOX about his transformation from a sensationalist war-reporter to a sensitive filmmaker

Vardan Hovhannisyan’s film “A Story of People in War and Peace” premieres at IDFA this November. He tells DOX about his transformation from a sensationalist war-reporter to a sensitive filmmaker.

From 1989–1994, Vardan Hovhannisyan filmed the Karabakh war, first as a war correspondent and later for himself in order to understand what was going on. The Karabakh war was fought between the Armenians and Azerbaijanis over the sovereignty of the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave. Ten years after the war ended, he decided to make a film about his experiences in the war, resulting in a unique, powerful film on how war changes people’s lives forever.

Vardan uses some of the footage he shot during the war and mixes it with new material he has shot of himself seeking out the soldiers of his original pictures ten years later. The wartime footage was shot at the front line showing exhausted, frightened soldiers fighting bloody trench warfare. The new material is packed with emotion, the soldiers are clearly deeply affected by being confronted with Vardan who brings back their war memories. He links the two with his own voice-over reflections about war and its consequences for those who fight it.

DOX: “The material you show from the war was shot over only five days, though you were there for four years. How many hours of film do you have and why did you choose to use only that specific material?”

VH: I actually filmed the war from 1989 to 1994. I had approximately 70 hours of Karabakh wartime footage in various formats and many more hours of war-related events (protests, hunger strikes, villagers and village life). Some of the early footage went to news agencies such as CBS, CNN, etc.

I started as a front-line journalist filming ‘hot’ topics in the USSR. At that time, I was young, ambitious and trying to be sensational – so I was stupid. After one year I had been twice taken as prisoner of war. I spent two months in jail as a POW. My beliefs and attitudes about being a journalist began to change. The news wants more blood and sensationalism. I started to hate the journalistic approach. My early footage was bloody and flashy but not meaningful. The prison, the torture I endured and seeing people struggle made me grow up. It pushed me to see the situation more deeply, to understand what war is. In the middle of the war, I resigned from the news agencies and filmed only for myself to understand what was going on. There were many times when I was in the middle of the action, in a visually rich situation, yet I did not film it. Instead, I tried to understand what was going on and why. I put myself in a position to help the people around me by helping the wounded and arranging for the exchange of POWs.

story_of_people_in_war_and_peace-01The main idea, which may sound egocentric, was that I tried to not be destroyed spiritually. For that, one must understand what is going on and be positive and constructive even in the middle of chaos. This is why I choose the specific footage you see in the film. During this period, I wasn’t filming for money, news agencies or my own ego. I was simply being with “my people”. In the worst situation I tried to find positive and constructive issues among the people I was with on the front line. War is so destructive. It creates a lot of chaos externally but also spiritually in your heart. I tried to preserve my spirit and heart by talking to people about their families and themselves to help them survive rather than ‘feeding’ on them and the miserable situation in which we found ourselves.

I don’t believe journalists who say that, “I am there to tell the world what is going on.” I was close to many journalists and I know it is not true. They are there either for money (because it is very well-paid work) or for their own ego. It was the same for me until I was taken as a POW and put in jail at the age of 21. The beating, the torture and most importantly seeing the struggle and death of other people took out of me all of the bullshit that journalists usually say to explain why they are in the middle of a war.

The last days of the war were the most difficult for me. It was a time when I was thinking the most and filming the least. I was trying to survive spiritually, and filming helped me to survive. I tried to do lots of positive things, so I left the war not with the feeling that I was a victim of the war. I had no post-war syndromes.

DOX: “You say in the film that it is painful to remember but even more painful to forget. Do you think it made the persons you seek out feel good to remember?”

VH: It was good to remember, painful memories, but lightening too. The war changed them dramatically. Everyone changed in a different way. Some of them are screwed up with psychological problems, and lots of families split up because values changed. Yet others became stronger and closer to their families after the war.

The war and the memory of the war were very painful but you can’t simply cut it out and say, “I am going to forget about that now.” It is very important how and why you remember. In my case, mine and the soldiers in the film, it is because of the next generation – our children. The whole film is based on a message to the new generation, a memory to help them not to make the same mistake if a new war breaks out.

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