A Lost Soviet Armenian Film

Amo Bek-Nazaryan as an actor in the pre-Soviet Tsarist Russian cinema.

Armenian filmmaker Amo Bek-Nazaryan as an actor in the pre-Soviet Tsarist Russian cinema.

During Soviet times, the cinema industries of Georgia and Armenia proved to be veritable powerhouses not only within the USSR but internationally as well.  Great filmmakers such as Tengiz Abuladze, Sergei Parajanov, Artavazd Peleshyan, and Otar Iosseliani and performers like Sofiko Chiaureli and Frunzik Mkrtchyan effectively put the Caucasus on the map as a major hub for international film.  Indeed, the region’s filmmaking industry became so renown that it elicited the praise and admiration of several major figures in world cinema, including none other than Federico Fellini himself.

Armenian filmmaker Amo Bek-Nazaryan in the 1920s.

Amo Bek-Nazaryan in the 1920s.

Yet the development of the film industry in the Caucasus did not occur overnight. Rather, it was a long process that has its origins in the Tsarist period in which two of the major figures of Caucasus film in the 1920s made their careers. These were none other than the Greco-Georgian filmmaker Ivan Perestiani and the Armenian cinema pioneer Amo Bek-Nazaryan. Both started their respective careers as actors but soon moved into filmmaking, becoming enthusiastic advocates for the new, exciting film medium.

Following the 1917-23 Russian Civil War and the establishment of Soviet rule in the Caucasus, the new Soviet leader Vladimir Lenin instituted the New Economic Policy (NEP), a hybrid economic system fusing together socialist and capitalist ideas. This period proved to be a major artistic and creative period in Russian and Soviet history.  This was the era of constructivist agitprop and futurist literature.  Jazz music, imported from America, was growing in popularity.  Everything seemed to be moving faster.   It was also during this time that the USSR established itself as a major force in international cinema.

Sergei Eisenstein, the "mad genius" of Soviet film.

Sergei Mikhailovich Eisenstein, the “father of montage” and the “mad genius” of Soviet and Russian film.

Great filmmakers like Eisenstein, Pudovkin, Dovzhenko, Kuleshov, Vertov, and others all manifested the enthusiasm, energy, and speed of their time into their new, avant-garde, innovative, and groundbreaking work. Both Perestiani and Bek-Nazaryan were inspired by the example of their Russian and Ukrainian peers and set to work on forging a major film industry in the Caucasus. Notably, the early cinema industries of the Georgian and Armenian republics were very much interconnected, so much so that Georgian directors directed Armenian films and Armenian directors directed Georgian films.

Avant-garde poster for the first Armenian feature film, Namus (1926)

Avant-garde poster for the first Armenian feature film, Amo Bek-Nazaryan’s Namus (1926).

Bek-Nazaryan quickly emerged as the major force of Armenian film at the time directing the first-ever Armenian feature film, Namus in 1926 (watch the full film restored by arte in France with Russian intertitles on YouTube here).  The work served as a critique of patriarchy in the Caucasus. Both he and Perestiani defined their styles by utilizing the avant-garde techniques of the day to advance the plots of the stories they sought to tell onscreen.

Unfortunately, the zeal and creativity of the NEP ended with the rise of Joseph Stalin in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Gradually, artists were forced to conform their work to meet state-defined “socialist realist” standards. Eisenstein, Kuleshov, and others soon fell out of favor with a regime intent on creating standard artistic style. In the end, directors like Bek-Nazaryan had to abandon their embrace of the avant-garde for socialist realism, but still worked within these artistic confines to express a uniqueness and creativity nonetheless.

Still from the completed portion of Amo Bek-Nazaryan's The Second Caravan (1950)

Still from the completed portion of Amo Bek-Nazaryan’s The Second Caravan (1950) of Artyom Karapetyan with Lidochka Dranovskaya.

One of the most fascinating and little-known Bek-Nazaryan films of the Stalin era is The Second Caravan (Երկրորդ քարավան, Второй караван) from 1950. One of the reasons why this film is so little-known is the fact that it was never released, though at least about 106 minutes worth of footage was finished at the time the project was cancelled. The film’s plot concerns Armenians living in the US city of Chicago who decide to leave the capitalist world after World War II for the “socialist paradise” of Soviet Armenia. The intent was to use the film to encourage Armenians living abroad to emigrate to Soviet Armenia (an official policy sponsored by the USSR after the war) and to also gain favor with Armenian communities in the Diaspora. The film was co-directed by Bek-Nazaryan with Ruben Simonov and the script was written by Konstantin Simonov and Zakhar Agranenko. Shooting took place in Yerevan, Moscow, and Kiev. Pyotr Beitner and Dmitri Feldman were assigned to do the film’s art direction and cinematography respectively and the composer Aram Khachaturyan wrote the score for the new film.

Tatik Saryan (left) and The Second Caravan

Tatik Saryan (left) and Artyom Karapetyan (right) in The Second Caravan

Tbilisi-born Armenian actor Artyom Karapetyan made his film debut in the unfinished work. In 2006, he recalled his experience of auditioning for the part of the lead and of his first meeting with Bek-Nazaryan, who he described as a “large, middle-aged man with a handsome face.”  Karapetyan specifically recalled how he “tried to stay relaxed” but was effectively “paralyzed” by that the mere fact that he was in the very presence of the man who directed the first Armenian sound film (“the immortal film Pepo“). After the auditions, the Armenian actor was elated to discover that both he and the actress Lidochka Dranovskaya got the leading roles of the new film. He also discovered that his mother was to be portrayed by none other than the actress Veriko Andzhaparidze, the wife of the Georgian filmmaker Mikheil Chiaureli and the mother of Sofiko Chiaureli. Additional stars in the film included Vsevolod Aksenov, Sergey Martinson, Tatik Saryan, among others.

Still from The Second Caravan

Still from The Second Caravan.

Unfortunately, Stalin was less enthusiastic about the film’s production. When informed about its title, the vozhd supposedly frowned and asked “is it about camels?” After this, the film was canceled in 1950 mid-way through production. Bek-Nazaryan was personally hurt by Stalin’s decision, though he did his best to keep his feelings hidden from friends. Following the cancellation of The Second Caravan, the acclaimed Soviet Armenian filmmaker notably refrained from directing any films until after Stalin’s death in 1953. Today, Bek-Nazaryan is widely regarded as the father of Armenian film, though The Second Caravan remains something of a lost classic.

One thought on “A Lost Soviet Armenian Film

  1. Pingback: A Lost Soviet Armenian Film | The Yerevan UnderBelly

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