A long-awaited documentary film produced by a mixed Armenian-Azerbaijani team has gotten a partial public release, even as the full film remains under wraps due to the sensitivity of the subject.
Production of the film, Parts of a Circle: History of the Karabakh Conflict, began in 2011. It has been facilitated by a UK-based peacebuilding organization, Conciliation Resources, and filmed, written and edited by a team of veteran journalists and activists from Armenia, Nagorno-Karabakh, and Azerbaijan proper.
The full film – in three parts of an hour each – was completed in early 2016. But by that time space for honest discussion about the conflict had shrunk enough so that the producers felt it would be unwise to release the film.
“Even before the 'four-day war' in April of that year we were concerned about the implications of a wide release for some of our partners,” said Laurence Broers, the Caucasus Program Director at Conciliation Resources, referring to the burst of heavy fighting between the two sides that significantly hardened attitudes on both sides.
“Some of the Azerbaijani interviewees in the films had been arrested and tried, including on charges related to peacebuilding work,” Broers told Eurasianet. “We were still thinking these issues through when the four-day war broke out. After that we recognized that the dissemination of the films would need to be low-key and gradual.”
Those films have been shown to invited audiences in the Caucasus and beyond, but have yet to be released publicly.
The producers then began to work on a shorter version, summarizing the entire work and making it easier to consume as a whole. “We felt that was important given the selectivity that is a defining feature of the febrile propaganda war ongoing between the parties,” Broers said.
That 76-minute film was published on the streaming platform Vimeo on May 12. It provides the best documentary treatment to date of the conflict, from its origins in the late 1980s to the impact of Armenia’s 2018 “Velvet Revolution.”
The film is careful, reflecting its production-by-committee origins. Still, it doesn’t shy away from delving into the most sensitive episodes of the conflict like the anti-Armenian pogroms in Sumgait and Baku and the massacre of Azerbaijani civilians in the town of Khojaly.
“[U]nlike many peacebuilding films, Parts of a Circle is not intended to recapture harmonious moments of historical co-existence, vital as these memories are, but to challenge viewers to interrogate their own truths about the past,” Conciliation Resources wrote in a blog post about the film.
That is a task that has become increasingly more difficult, as partisans on both sides have taken more and more uncompromising stances. Conspiracy theories that seek to obfuscate or shift blame for the most notorious episodes of the war have been embraced by governments on both sides.
Even among the producers of Parts of a Circle – part of the tiny minority of Armenians and Azerbaijanis who are interested in reconciliation with the other side – coming up with a common narrative on which all sides could agree was a contentious process.
“Ordinary things, ordinary ideas that you have always taken for granted, suddenly sound totally different when you try to hear how they sound to someone else,” said Ara Shirinyan, an Armenian filmmaker who was one of the contributors, in a short film about the making of Parts of a Circle.
“We discuss, fight, sometimes shout, but in the end we manage to come to a compromise and to a collective decision,” said another of the film’s contributors, Ilham Safarov.
The release of the film was celebrated by analysts of the conflict.
“This is the best documentation of the origins of the conflict,” Olesya Vartanyan, a Tbilisi-based analyst at the International Crisis Group, told Eurasianet. “I hope the film will become broadly seen and many people from younger generations will watch it. I’m not sure it can fundamentally change their mindset, but I would want to maintain hope for this.”
“We've been waiting a long time for this!” tweeted Tom de Waal, an analyst at Carnegie Europe and author of Black Garden, the authoritative book on the conflict. “The release finally of a ground-breaking project, a collaborative joint Armenian-Azerbaijani documentary about the origins and events of the Karabakh conflict. It's compelling viewing, and the making of it is a story in itself.”
What remains to be seen is the reaction more generally around the region. Broers said the group hopes to release the full three-part series “once we've gauged the response to the summary film.”
Joshua Kucera, a senior correspondent, is Eurasianet's former Turkey/Caucasus editor and has written for the site since 2007.