First soccer, now films. A Turkish film festival in Yerevan is being billed as an attempt by Armenia to encourage the normalization of relations with Turkey, despite the recent stalemate in diplomatic dialogue.
The March 25-27 festival, now in its second year, features 10 short films by young Turkish directors. The films focus on social issues ranging from education and youth to poverty and inner-city problems.
"Such a dialogue is important because we know only one Turkey, the one that we have created based on our dogmatic perception of that country; whereas we have to see the real one - today's Turkey, which we, practically, know nothing about," commented Gevorg Vanian, head of the Caucasus Center for Peace-Making Initiatives, one of the festival's organizers. The event also received support from the British Embassy in Yerevan, the Turkish-Armenian weekly Agos, and the 1,500,000+1 International Foundation, which promotes the memory of slain Turkish-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink.
The building expectations and frustrations in Armenia about the reconciliation process with Turkey appear to have added to public interest in the festival. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
"There is great interest in the festival this year, unlike last year, when we received only one application, and found the other films in the archives of local and international festivals held in Turkey," said Vanian. Seventy-seven films were submitted from Turkish cities ranging from Ankara to Izmir for inclusion in the 2010 festival, he said. Films included Armenian sub-titles or English voiceovers.
Audience members thus far have generally responded warmly to each film that has been screened in the 200-seat hall. "This is a rare opportunity to see how Turkish young artists think and create. We know each other from only one point of view -- the only common issue for us now is the genocide, but we have lots of common issues," commented Anush Mirzoian, a student at Yerevan State Universitys Faculty of Eastern Studies.
The festival, held at the American University in Armenia, is hosting guests not only from Turkey, but also from longtime Armenian foe and Turkish ally, Azerbaijan. Baku and Yerevan continue to struggle to reach a settlement of the Nagorno Karabakh conflict. [For details, see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Azerbaijani film critic Urvin Mehty, who traveled to Yerevan for the festival, asserted that the hostility between Armenians and Azerbaijanis can be broken only if their respective societies do more to understand each other. "Thanks to this festival, I met my classmate, an Armenian who now lives in Yerevan," Mehty related. "We ran into each other right in this hall, and its my highest award from this festival; that's exactly the kind of dialogue we need," he said, making a strenuous effort to pronounce the Armenian word for thank you -- shnorhakalutiun.
Things, however, did not start off that easily, according to Vanian.
The festival was cancelled in 2008, amid public outrage over a Caucasus Center for Peace-Making Initiatives-sponsored program called Azeri Days at Armenian Schools. Entry visas for four festival guests traveling from Turkey were denied, and the travelers' photographs were attached to the walls of Yerevan's airport.
"In order to be able to take them out of the airport so that they could fly back to Turkey from Georgia, I had no choice but to agree to a deal with the authorities and cancel the festival," recalled Vanian.
In 2009, with the launch of Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan's so-called football diplomacy initiative, the film festival got the go-ahead, but not without obstacles. [For details, see the Eurasia Insight archive]. An hour before the festival's start, the electricity was turned off at the Yerevan State Institute of Theatre and Cinema, which was hosting the show.
Vanian says that only after the audience of some 100 viewers marched somewhere else where "they dared to give us a hall, did the festival finally become a reality." A spokesperson for Armenia' governing Republican Party now stresses that such dialogue is welcome. "I do not think anyone from the top vetoed the festival," asserted Eduard Sharmazanov. "Maybe it was a matter of pure misunderstanding. We appreciate such communication."
Only one Armenian politician has so far attended the festival -- opposition Heritage Party founder Raffi Hovannisian.
"With great interest I have come to watch the films by young Turkish directors, and I hope to find [here] a path to truth and reconciliation. ? reconciliation not as an escape from the past and the truth, but as an acceptance of the heritage of that tragic history," said Hovannisian, an outspoken supporter for international recognition of Ottoman Turkeys 1915 slaughter of ethnic Armenians as genocide. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Twenty-nine-year-old Turkish director Deniz Jeyhan -- whose recent film, titled "Silence," explores the topic of family treatment of women -- says that she believes a new page will open in the Armenian-Turkish relationship through events such as the film festival.
"The past is too bitter, I know. I have heard a lot about it and later read about it. I grieve deeply for the Armenian people," Jeyhan said. "However, art is a new field where we can find many common points."
Gayane Abrahamyan is a reporter for the ArmeniaNow.com