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.

story_of_people_in_war_and_peace-02The research for the film took two years. I needed that much time to find and meet with my mates from the front. The result was very good for the people who were in the film because they felt that they were not forgotten and they got more warmth from the friendship and remembrance, which is very rare in the pragmatic capitalistic nature of our present days. I think this meeting and remembering is mostly a healing process. Altogether we discussed a lot (which is not in the film) how are we living now in peacetime. How not to be broken in peacetime. This is also a process which was very helpful for myself and those in the film. The process of making the film worked in two directions: it was not just me making the film, somehow it was the film and the history of the people in the film making me.

DOX: “And how about yourself?”

VH: I had two choices: protect my country or leave my country because I didn’t want to kill anyone. Yet, I knew that I couldn’t ‘escape’ to another country because I would never be able to escape myself. After the war ended, I felt that I was one of the happiest people in the world. Because the war didn’t make me an animal and, even more, it made a better person than I was before: kinder, softer, more tolerant, not nationalistic. And I was still alive.

DOX: “You show how war ruins the lives of the soldiers: either they are killed or they are mentally hurt in a way that prevents them from ever leading a normal life again. And then at some point in the film you say something like, “I am surprised the people I met have no regrets. They are ready to fight again if they have to – I don’t hope they have to, but this is a lesson I want to pass on to my son.” Did your perception of war change while making the film? And would you be ready to go again?”

people_war-ap_enVH: All wars have common issues while at the same time having unique and different elements. This war was unique in many other ways: first, I am not sure that it fits into the common European perception of war that developed after WW II when the participants in a war are divided into two parts: aggressors and victims. As I don’t consider myself a victim of the war, I don’t think that the people in my film cannot lead a ‘normal life’. They are still living but their values have changed. They need much more honesty now. As my wife said about me (we were married one year after the war), “In the first three or four years after the war you looked like you had no skin,” meaning that I was still very sensitive. So these people in my film are more vulnerable to unfairness and this is their strong and weak point. When you say they cannot lead a ‘normal life’, I would ask, “What is a ‘normal life’?” Consumerism, corruption, false politeness and polite lying? I could argue that what is often called a “normal life” is not normal.

As for fighting again, if I hadn’t had a camera, I might have fought. It was a thin line for me. Thanks to God’s help I did not cross this line. Yet the reason for fighting was so simple and outside of politics and nationalism – it was to protect one’s home, one’s homeland, one’s country. If war started again, I would go again with a camera and I hope that I would not be driven to a point when I would see that the only way to protect my family would be with a gun.

DOX: You made this film to answer your son’s question, but also to give a voice to those we never hear about, those who offer their lives to protect their loved ones. Why is that important?

VH: I want my son to be aware of what war is, of what it means to struggle, of the human values which you must try not to lose. I hope that having that knowledge will help him to avoid the painful experiences that I had. It’s like the ripples in a pond – it’s for my son, my friend’s son, the new generation who don’t know the war and for outsiders. This is why I think it is important to have the knowledge of the bad thing to prevent them from having the experience themselves.

A Story of People in War & Peace
Armenia 2006, 70 min.
Director: Vardan Hovhannisyan
Production & World Sales:  Bars Media
Tel: +374 10 22 67 33