Armenian Genocide Film Takes Centre Stage in London
*by Nora Vosbigian*
On Tuesday, 25 November 2014, the Armenian clubs at the School of African and Oriental Studies (SOAS) and University College of London (UCL) screened an unusual and compelling observational documentary on the Armenian Genocide, “The Blue Book. Political Truth or Historical Fact ,” by Gagik Karageuzian (Ani Sounds, London). The screening took place at SOAS and drew a good number of students. Among the guests were filmmaker Gagik Karageuzian and the historian Ara Sarafian (Gomidas Institute), who featured prominently in the film.
“The Blue Book” is an observational documentary following Ara Sarafian between 2006-2008, when he engaged the Armenian Genocide issue in London, Istanbul, Ankara and Elazig in Turkey. Much of the film was shot in archives, conferences, TV studios, and the killings fields of eastern Turkey. His discussions with Turkish intellectuals, journalists and deniers are particularly interesting, giving viewers a unique perspective into the Armenian Genocide as a contemporary issue.
The screening of “The Blue Book” led to a fascinating discussion and we will report on it separately.
Following the London screening, Gagik Karagheuzian agreed to an interview with Nora Vosbigian about his film.
N.V.: How do you know Ara Sarafian and why did you approach him to make such a documentary?
G.K.: I met Ara in the late nineties. I wanted to make a documentary film about the Armenian Genocide and its denial. My background was very much in the observational style of documentary filmmaking. At the time I didn’t think I would be able to film on this subject in Turkey, but once I met Ara I realised that with his involvement this was possible. We needed to find the right approach to the subject. In 2005 the Turkish Grand National Assembly (TGNA) presented a petition to the British Parliament saying the 1916 Blue Book on the Armenian Genocide authored by British parliamentarians was based on lies and the British should apologise to Turkey. Ara had republished the critical edition of the Blue Book in 2000 and he was the expert on this subject. So I asked him to allow me to make an observational style documentary about his efforts to respond to the TGNA accusations. The filming started in 2005 and the final sequence was shot in 2009.
N.V.: Did you expect him to agree to such a documentary and what were your expectations?
G.K.: When I met Ara he was interested in working with film makers on the issue of the Armenian Genocide, but he was very careful who he worked with. When I told him I wanted to make films on this issue he suggested we work on a few smaller projects first, to get know each other’s working style. By 2005, when the TGNA petition arrived in London, we had already been working together for six years and had been to Turkey twice to make other films. When I approached him about making the Blue Book documentary, the issue was not whether we could work together but could we sustain working on a demanding project like this. I knew I wouldn’t be able to take a film crew with me, I had to be subtle and not attract attention to me while he was dealing with Turkish and other politicians and historians. I knew he was apprehensive, but he also knew these events were very important and needed to be documented. So both of us felt we had to take on these risks.
N.V.: What were Sarafian’s conditions for your co-operation? Was he easy to work with?
G.K.: Ara’s main concern was that filming did not interfere with his work. For example, my presence stopping people from talking to him, because they did not want to be on camera. Also he did not want to “act for the camera” – he wanted a very honest depiction of the events. Not only did I feel these demands were possible, this was the style of film I wanted to make!
N.V.: What were the dynamics of actually working with Sarafian? How were decisions made to do things? Did he discuss what he was doing with you? How were you prepared for shooting your footage on a day to day basis?
G.K.: As I mention earlier, when I started filming the Blue Book, I had already worked with Ara on other smaller projects, so we had established a working relationship. He would explain to me what was going to happen in any particular day, and whether it would be interesting to film it or not. I would discuss with him what I had filmed and what would be useful to portray what was happening. For example he would ask if he should agree to an interview with a particular journalist, I would say it could be useful way of summarising the events of that day and give us an insight into the thinking of the people at that place and time.
N.V.: How much footage did you shoot, and how did you come up with the final cut?
G.K.: I filmed Ara from 2005 until 2009. The total footage shot during this time came to about 100 hours. I made two versions of the Blue Book. First one subtitled “Witnessing History” (77 minutes) focused on his overall approach in dealing with the TGNA petition and the denial of the Armenian Genocide. The second version which I am releasing this year, “Political Truth or Historical Fact” (54 minutes) still shows the denial process but concentrated on the 2006 symposium where Ara came face to face with the Turkish historians and politicians who deny the Armenian Genocide.
N.V.: What were some of the memorable moments, on or off camera?
G.K.: While filming in the Kharpet region, where Consul Leslie Davis had witnessed the remains of massacred caravans of Armenians, we got a flat tyre. I stayed with the car while Ara went off with a local 18 year old to find a jack to prop the car up. It turned out that the uncle of the 18 year old had the right jack, but he refused to help, advising his nephew, the son of the mayor of that village, not to help this “gavour” (infidel, unbeliever). Ara said the boy told his uncle that he could not help how he (the uncle) behaved but he, as a good Muslim, had to help a person in need. He managed to find a jack from elsewhere and helped us change the tyre. In my experience, this 18 year old was not in the minority in the region or in most areas that we visited in Turkey. Most of the people that we met, when they realised we were Armenian, expressed sorrow at what had happened in 1915.
N.V. What do you hope to achieve with such a film?
G.K.: I have seen many films dealing with the Armenian Genocide. Obviously all of them portray Armenians as victims. While this was true of Armenians in 1915 and immediately after the Genocide, it is not true of Armenians today. We are not victims. My intentions as an Armenian filmmaker is to show this. Ara Sarafian’s approach to his work and his ethics, I find, are empowering. I hope to share these experiences through this documentary. In fact, I recently re-edited the original cut of “The Blue Book, Political Truth or Historical Fact,” to bring focus to the issue of empowerment as part of the upcoming 100th year Armenian Genocide commemoration.
For more information about “The Blue Book. Political Truth or Historical Fact,” see www.anisounds.com
* Gagik Karagheuzian is an independent British-Armenian film-maker and the director of Ani Sounds.
* Ara Sarafian is a British-Armenian historian and the director of the Gomidas Institute (London).