Risks Worth Taking: An Interview with Armenian Activist Georgi Vanyan

by  translated by Katie Sykes  /  November 7, 2016  / No comments

The CCPMI did what other NGOs were afraid to do and started dialogues between Armenia and neighboring nations. Were you aware of the risks of starting those dialogues? Why were dialogues worth the risk?

Of course I knew about the risks. I would analyze them before every project. The safety of all the participants in an event was always my responsibility as project director.

It’s worth taking risks for dialogue and reconciliation with your neighbors, which lets you finally feel secure in your own home. But this should never be felt to be a sacrifice. There’s nothing more dangerous than aiming to make sacrifices, and I’m convinced that sacrifice never leads to peace or to the resolution of problems. An individual or a group of people can make a choice, decide what to do, what not to do, what to refuse, and what goal to aim for. But deliberately making sacrifices–losing your life, your health, your work or even just wasting your time–and in particular, turning these sacrifices into a rallying cry or an advertisement, means working for war and conflict, for falsehood. Any war or collective conflict is, in essence, a lie and a falsehood. Sometimes, in its next stage, this kind of lie and falsehood can automatically presuppose dialogue and the resolution of problems and can lead to change, but that’s not the case here. We’ve gotten bogged down in lies.

Openness and transparency help to overcome or at least minimize these risks. Every meeting and every action should be open to everyone. Dialogue shouldn’t be restricted to an elite. Dialogue and reconciliation are not closed domains for professionals only.

Every human being travels his own path to reconciliation, to freedom from lies, falsehood and false convictions. But reconciliation at the social level should involve open and radical actions, actions that are capable of provoking a cultural revolution.

What’s the most important project that you’ve worked on in the CCPMI?

Everything has been important for me, not only my projects, but everything I’ve done. Conferences, meetings, to which workshops I’ve been invited.

But if we’re talking about one project which we did a particularly good job of, which went off as planned and maybe even better than expected, that would be “23.5,” the Festival of Turkish Film in Armenia. Unlike all our other projects, this one involved filmmakers from Turkey, a country where there are culture, ideas and people who are politically engaged. They look at the world differently, and act differently. The system of fear and powerlessness which has taken hold in Armenia and the Armenian collective mentality started to break down when artists from Turkey got involved. There was a lot they didn’t understand and didn’t know, but their presence was enough to get us premises and more than a thousand audience members for a festival which had been banned in Armenia. The festival was banned, and everybody understood that there wouldn’t be another one. I’m not sure, it could be that there were totally different reasons not to use brute force and cause a big scandal, perhaps some high-level political directive.

But for me personally, the Festival of Turkish Film in Armenia was a special project. Mostly because, for once, despite the risks and despite the ban, from 2009 to 2010 we managed to go through the whole cycle: establishing a shortlist of films chosen by a jury, viewings in various towns, choosing a winner, the awards ceremony, opening the next festival. I’ll say it again, my contact and exchange with Turkish society through these creators of short films was my most successful experience of collaboration, support and solidarity. I have very fond memories of all the Turkish participants in “23.5”; I’m grateful and profoundly indebted to them.

The Tekali Process began in March 2011 as a need for a neutral region where the CCPMI and its participants could productively engage in conversation and implement important initiatives to the region. Why was it important to have this neutral region where these groups could meet and events could take place?

The territory of Georgia, just like the territory of other states, isn’t neutral territory. It’s a free territory for meetings between Armenians and Azerbaijanis. There’s a terminological mix-up here. The point is that it’s not neutral territory, but a free territory. If a citizen of Azerbaijan travels to Armenia, or a citizen of Armenia travels to Azerbaijan, then the state he’s travelling to provides special guarantees of his safety, in the form of a quite highly-trained professional guard. In other words, it’s assumed that an Azerbaijani might be insulted, beaten or killed on the streets of Yerevan simply because he is Azerbaijani, and that the same thing might happen to an Armenian if he ventures into Azerbaijani territory. The provision of this guard obviously means that the government of the country in question will be following your every move, recording every meeting and limiting all your rights; it’s basically like living in captivity. So, any other country is free territory for meetings between Armenians and Azerbaijanis. Limiting citizens’ movement on each other’s territories is idiotic game-playing on the part of the Azerbaijani and Armenian authorities. If we consider all other territories to be neutral, then that means we accept that there is a genuine terrorist threat on ethnic grounds. There isn’t; it’s just political maneuvering, part of the information war which our presidents are both fighting against each other’s peoples.

As for the Tekali Process, the essence of its ideology is that Georgia is not a neutral territory, particularly in questions of reconciliation.

During the war, all the countries of the region, Georgia included, can declare their neutrality and say that they fundamentally don’t care who gets Karabakh.

But can these countries really remain neutral when it comes to the question of reconciliation? Shouldn’t these countries’ societies actively participate in peacemaking initiatives? Shouldn’t these countries’ authorities compel both sides to enter into peaceful negotiations? After all, the Karabakh conflict is a local and extremely savage conflict which poses a threat to the whole region. It’s not a world war, where you have to choose your allies, or declare your neutrality and so guarantee your safety. It’s a savage, local conflict, a conflict dictated by Putin; a conflict realized by criminal groups.

The Azerbaijani Film Festival

How did you come up with the idea for the film festival? Was it in any part influenced by the Free Theater you started at the beginning of your career?

The idea behind organizing festivals of Turkish, Azerbaijani and Georgian films in Armenia was to use already existing, stereotypical methods of cultural exchange in a new way, to eradicate hostile stereotypes. Each of these festivals had its own separate message, its own separate program and its own separate function. In the Armenian context, all three of these festivals were like a bomb going off. They really stirred up public opinion, and if it hadn’t been for the interference of Armenia’s special forces and the media and public figures they control, these festivals could have led to the beginning of a dialogue between isolationists and globalists within Armenian society. And that wouldn’t have been a bad basis for change. But unfortunately, in Armenia it’s extremely difficult to organize an event if the authorities have forbidden it. We found premises where we could show the Turkish and Georgian films despite all the pressure, but in the case of the festival of Azerbaijani films, they began a country-wide campaign against us, the goal of which was not just to close down the festival, but also to close down our organization and get rid of me as a public figure.

I didn’t analyze all the risks carefully enough–or at least, that’s what all the representatives of our sponsor organizations thought, and even some of my friends.

I don’t think that. The festival was just an excuse that let them forbid me to organize open, public events. Workshops, private conferences–sure, I can still do those even now, but without press releases, and with a limited audience.

As for the idea of the Free Theater, that’s more relevant to the Tekali festival. When we were holding two festivals combining films showings with drama masterclasses, my colleagues and I discussed the idea of making an “open space” which might attract people working in all areas of the arts–visual, dramatic, musical–to establish a creative base in Tekali, with yearly art fairs held in Tekali. Then, Tekali and the Tekali brand could help to advance specific creative projects, and the artists could help to advance the Tekali Process and support peace, integration, human rights and freedom in the South Caucasus.

How were the films selected?

There was different selection criteria in every case, depending on the aim and context of the festival. If we’re talking about a general criterion, then that would be humanism in the idea and humanism in its execution.

What was the response of the audience to the films?

Well first of all, viewers voted: everyone who watched the films had a vote. And people really liked this unusual process of direct democracy. They were so attentive to detail. In this context, what interested them wasn’t so much the artist’s intentions or the actual film itself, but life on the other side of the wall. And when viewers shared their impressions, they mostly talked about life, about people’s ordinary daily life, about their problems, joys and sorrows, about the hopes and expectations of people in Armenia, comparing their life and their thoughts with the life and thoughts of people in neighboring countries. During our festivals, films became a kind of mirror for the audience. Despite the fact that everybody had different criteria for choosing a winner, the Armenian public chose the film Silence as their favorite–a film with a very symbolic title and subject, silence, which both covers over and simultaneously encourages violence.

Audience reactions to the films in the Georgian festival were different again. At that festival, we showed films about the Karabakh War, but not films created especially for peacemaking or politics; they were commercial films. And there was a lot there that was new and unexpected for Armenians.

What was the filmmakers’ experience of the festival? Were any of them affected by the controversy behind the festival?

No. Armenian ultranationalists had led such an active campaign against the festival that any pressure on the films’ creators in Azerbaijan, Turkey and Georgia would have looked like an act of solidarity with Armenian Nazism. There was criticism, of course, but no pressure or persecution.

What were the initial goals for the festival? To what extent were they met?

The original aim was to spark public discussions of taboo topics, and create opportunities for everyone to discuss these topics with everyone else. The films let us bring different people together in one place and create a relaxed atmosphere for emotional exchange.

Through the festivals, we tried to find a way of promoting more open dialogue within Armenian society, so we could discuss our problems with our neighbors. Most of all, we were trying to stop the government and its organs having a monopoly on the right to express the opinion of the “people”on its moral position, its place and its mission. That was more or less the idea, and the festivals were a way of achieving that.

After the ban, the festival began to serve a different purpose, both within Armenian society and on the level of global advocacy, even if the aim was formulated as relating to the problem of freedom of speech during the conflict and the problem of racism and Nazism in Armenia. More people found out about the festival once it had been banned than would have known about it if it had been running for five or ten years. Perhaps even that happened for a purpose.

I’d obviously like to bring the festival back and find people who could help me figure out how to make use of this experience.

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