“That’s Armenia”

Midway through Vodka Lemon, a character asks the barkeep of a remote outdoor stand why the concoction that gives the bar its name is called “lemon” when “it tastes like almonds.” “That’s Armenia” comes the answer, with a knowing shrug. Vodka Lemon is filled with such moments of deadpan humor, though its absurdist perspective is tempered by genuine sympathy for the characters’ impoverishment as well as their need for companionship and love.

In addition to its own unmistakable merits, Vodka Lemon offers U.S. audiences a rare glimpse of contemporary Armenia in a feature film. During the seven decades of Soviet rule, the centralized Armenian film industry seldom reached foreign audiences, and economic instability since the country’s independence has curtailed the expected output from privatized studios.

More numerous by far have been films from the Armenian disapora, with Sergei Paradjanov (1924-90) and Atom Egoyan (b. 1960) garnering the most attention, and justly so. Whether we recall the ravishing iconic tableaus of Paradjanov’s The Color of Pomegranates (1969) or the complexly structured meditation on the Armenian holocaust in Egoyan’s Ararat (2002), we have before us world directors of the highest order.

Ironically, Vodka Lemon, filmed on location with the participation of an independent Armenian film company, is itself a product of exile. Writer-director Hiner Saleem is an Iraqi Kurd living in Paris, who returned to Armenia for this, his second film in the country. “I consider all Armenians to be magicians,” he explains in the film’s pressbook, “as I don’t understand how they succeed in surviving. I gather they don’t understand it either. They face life with a continual optimism.”

That same optimism in the face of catastrophic misfortunes can be seen in another recent film from Armenia, Merry Bus (2001), directed by Albert Mkrtchyan. Set after the 1988 earthquake that devastated the country, the film follows characters rebuilding their shattered lives: an orphan boy insisting he be adopted by a middle-aged woman still mourning the deaths of her husband and child. Not the stuff of comedy, but a comedy it is. In surreal moments much like those from Vodka Lemon, the boy “rings” church bells that no longer exist; he and his mother-to-be listen to the “music” of fallen telephone wires; a former decathlon athlete rides his bicycle through several scenes, varying his repeated tale of finishing second at the Olympics; and a bus, bursting with weary occupants, lumbers through the streets, those same occupants giving voice to song in the final scene.

Merry Bus also illustrates the difficulties Armenian filmmakers face in gaining theatrical distribution in the U.S. First shown at the New York Armenian Film Festival of 2002, it returned for this year’s program in San Francisco. Sufficiently accomplished to be the centerpiece of two successful festivals years apart, nonetheless it was never picked up for a theatrical run in this country and is unlikely to receive one now.

Similar obscurity came to the highly praised Symphony of Silence, directed by Vigen Chaldranian. Two years ago, the film was in the running for a Best Foreign Language Oscar. After losing its bid for a nomination, it dropped from sight to await its release on video.

But the attention given to Armenian cinema may be on the rise. This past summer, to observe the 80th year of Armenian filmmaking, the first “Golden Apricot” International Film Festival was held in the country’s capital, Yerevan. Also celebrated at the festival was the 80th anniversary of Paradjanov’s birth; Georgian-born, he spent his last years living and working in Armenia.

The release of Vodka Lemon in the U.S., however brief its theatrical run, is another promising sign. But until we have the opportunity to see more films from Armenia on American screens, look for them in video at Narek.com, which handles dozens of hard-to-find titles. And this Spring, be on the lookout for the sixth Annual Armenian Film Festival at CSU, Fresno, hosted by the school’s Armenian Studies Program.