Into the Light: Preserving Armenia’s Story Through Film
by Megan Joksimović
The conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh is by no means black and white. Nagorno-Karabakh is a landlocked region in the Caucasus, located between Armenia and Azerbaijan. After the fall of the Ottoman Empire, both Armenia and Azerbaijan claimed the region until the Soviet Union established control and created the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast within the Azerbaijan Soviet Republic in 1923 (Harutyunyan 70). In 1988, the conflict re-escalated.
While Nagorno-Karabakh is internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan, Armenians claim sovereignty over the region, which they call Artsakh. For over a century, the Armenian nation has been on defense, and this stance is evident in its cinema, which is neither well-known nor easily accessed by outside audiences. After Armenia gained independence in 1991, filmmakers began making more films related to elements of Armenian national identity. A number of films are also about the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh, which is significant in that the conflict is yet to be resolved, making the films less about obtaining justice and more about getting their perspective recognized. Scenes from these films “reflect the historical events of the conflict, bolster patriotic sentiment, present losses and encourage victories” (Arakelyan and Muradyan). The goal is to document and immortalize the Armenian perspective in order to not forget what the nation has endured.
Nika Shek’s From Two Worlds as a Keepsake (2013) is a perfect example of bringing historical events to light as a means of reflection. The film tells the story of Ashen, a young Armenian village girl in Artsakh. As her family’s dynamics change, so do the dynamics of the multi-ethnic village. Over the course of the film, she is exposed to violence as neighbors become enemies. Shek creatively portrays elements of Armenian nationalism and how Armenians became victims of “Azerbaijani aggression” without explicitly blaming Azeris for the conflict (ANCA – Western Region). Instead, she indirectly blames re-emerging nationalism and ethnic divides, spurring conflict that had been boiling for decades, using politics as a springboard.
The video essay explores how the Armenian point of view is portrayed through Ashen’s eyes. Her perspective is significant because, as the conflict unfolds, she begins to understand the increasing instability of her village, losing her childhood innocence. Towards the beginning of her journey, her uncle speaks about having to prepare for winter in case of war, catching her off guard. While he says this is a joke, she later realizes it is not. Several times, she is reminded about the risks of speaking Armenian instead of Russian. The Armenian language is an integral element of the nation’s identity and speaking it symbolizes their resilience and refusal to be silenced. Upon listening to her father and Russian step-mother argue about nationality and language, Ashen further discerns altering dynamics. In a place where explicit nationalistic sentiments were hidden just beneath the surface yet discretely displaced through something as common as language, it is all Ashen has ever known and she must come to terms with her new reality. Ultimately, the point of no return occurs when Ashen and her friend Rufat watch her uncle be murdered by his Azeri best friend.
Interestingly, parallels can be drawn between scenes from the film and various news footage from the current dispute. Both footage from the movie and the conflict follow the narrative that Artsakh is Armenia, even if not directly stated. Additionally, Gorbachev’s speech about the necessity of finding a solution to heightened Armenian nationalism echoes an interview that Putin gave in October about the tragedies on both sides and the necessity of renewing peace. The Russian Federation has adopted the Soviet Union’s role in the region as a peacemaker and must maintain diplomatic ties with both nations, especially when considering diasporic populations scattered across Russia. In the same scene, the television showing Armenian protests in Yerevan mirrors the diaspora’s recent protests, particularly across the United States. Regardless of where an Armenian protests, he or she still fights for the same justice and the same recognition of their nation’s story.
The last few moments she spends with her mother are crucial to her loss of innocence as Azeris crowd around them, berating them for being Armenian Christians. It becomes clear that the village is no longer safe for them. Today, many Armenians in Artsakh have reached the same realization. In November, an agreement brokered by Russia was signed, meaning that Azerbaijan keeps areas of Nagorno-Karabakh that it took during the conflict and Armenia withdraws from “several other adjacent areas” (Armenia, Azerbaijan and Russia). In response, Armenians are fleeing and burning their homes. Juxtaposed news footage and scenes from the film stress how history is repeating itself and how Armenians’ fight to recognition and peace is cyclical across generations.
Overall, the conflict portrayed in the film reflects the struggles of the Armenian people and significant elements of their national identity – perseverance and resilience. Shek conveys this in a realistic way by highlighting the harsh realities of death and persecution. Her film stands apart from other Armenian films in that it is easily accessible on Amazon Prime and has subtitles. This gives it an opportunity to be seen by international audiences interested in learning about the nation’s point of view. Films like From Two Worlds as a Keepsake exhibit the nation’s desire for recognition in a world that often turns a blind eye. Hopefully this video essay sparks further dialogue of a cinema that is hidden beneath the surface, waiting to be discovered and recognized.
- Arakelyan, Lilit, and Seda Muradyan. “A Reflection of the Karabakh Conflict in Literature and Film.” Jamnews, 29 Sept. 2017.
- “Armenia, Azerbaijan and Russia sign Nagorno-Karabakh peace deal.” BBC News, 10 Nov. 2020.
- Armenian National Committee of America (ANCA) – Western Region. Date accessed 26 Nov. 2020.
- From Two Worlds as a Keepsake. Directed by Nika Shek, 2013.
- Harutyunyan, Ani. “Two State Disputes and Outside Intervention: The Case of Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict.” Eurasian Economic Review, vol. 7, no. 1, 2017, pp. 69-93.
News Footage and Audio
- “Armenian Community In Boston Protests Country’s Conflict with Azerbaijan.” YouTube, uploaded by CBS Boston, 11 Oct. 2020.
- “Armenians Flee Disputed Nagorno-Karabakh Region.” YouTube, uploaded by VOA News, 9 Nov. 2020.
- “Artsakh is Armenia.” YouTube, uploaded by Mary Marmalade TV, 20 Oct. 2020.
- “Life Under the Bombs as Armenia and Azerbaijan Return to War.” YouTube, uploaded by VICE News, 9 Oct. 2020.
- “Putin’s Remarks on Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict.” YouTube, uploaded by The Kremlin Stories, 7 Oct. 2020.
- “Traditional Armenian Folk Music.” YouTube, uploaded by Traditional Music Channel, 3 April 2017.