Visiting Garine Torossian’s Cinematic Armenia

stonetouchtime.jpgI missed my chance to see Garine Torossian‘s newest film, Stone Touch Time, on MoMA’s big screen as part of the Canadian film festival last March, but fortunately I caught the flick in Toronto as part of the HotDocs festival in April.

I wanted to chime in about a filmmaker that is a long-time friend and someone who easily illuminates dark visionary corners that are both ponderous and meditative.

stonetimetouch2.jpgSince 1994, when her Girl From Moush short (see it at the end of this post) marked out a new terrain for experimental storytelling, Torossian has continued to forge a path unlike any other. Stone Touch Time is Torossian’s first attempt at a narrative feature film. Her diploma film at the Canadian Film School in Toronto, Hokees (2000), was a narrative experiment that wasn’t able to build on her established cinematic language and actually seemed crippled by it–but that’s another discussion.

In Stone Touch Time, Torossian finally breaks through into narrative success while not turning her back on her experimental heritage. The film is part of a continuing dialogue she enjoys with the work of fellow Armenian Canadian filmmaker Atom Egoyan, and directly engages with his 1993 film, Calendar.

calendargarine.jpgLike Calendar, Stone Touch Time follows diasporan Armenians (all women in Torossian’s case) as they travel to Armenia. One arrives for the first time, another (played by Arsine Khanjian) offers her views after a number of visits.

The beginning of the film starts with some of the stereotypes of visitors to Armenia, with the compulsory shots in Zvartnots airport (this airport has a special place for Armenians, and maybe it is only Armenians that start their Armenian journeys in the airport? I can’t imagine someone starting a documentary about London in Heathrow, usually airports are associated with departure, not arrival).

What makes the film noteworthy are the diversions in the script from conventional stories about Armenia, though the Armenian Genocide and the 1988 Gyumri Earthquake are given a great deal of attention. There is a segment on feminist artist Arevik Arevshatyan, as she talks about her work in a culture not accustomed to empowered individuals willing to challenge the mainstream.

Halfway through the film it becomes evident that Torossian hits her stride as the film transforms into a brilliant documentary about Armenia and its idiosyncrasies and quirks. Unlike Calendar, Stone Touch Time doesn’t seek to mythologize the Armenian identity or focus on the alienation some Armenians feel from their own “homeland”, it prefers to unravel complex reactions to a journey that is as much psychic as physical.

vertov.jpgThere is an element of Dziga Vertov’s 1929 Man with a Movie Camera in this film, I doubt it is fully conscious on Garine’s part but the aesthetic texture of the silent movie classic somehow feels absorbed into her growing cinematic language (including the eerie similarity of the Vertov image I’ve posted and one of Garine with a camera in her film above)…the similarities are plenty but most obvious is the meandering camera and the visual distortion that results from double exposure in Vertov’s case and overlapping in Torossian’s feature (watch the Vertov classic here)–perhaps she should’ve called her film Woman with a Video Camera.

With Stone Touch Time, Garine has proven her gift at responding to the challenges of narrative in an open and malleable way. No longer are her films driven by their reliance on aesthetic innovation to drive their structure, they are growing more sensitive to storytelling as an important aspect of filmmaking.

The Armenia Garine projects onto the movie screen is not a conventional place, but its charm resonates with you as a land filled with endless humanity.

Girl From Moush (1994)

Coincidentally, the Calendar poster I’ve posted above was the original one designed by Garine Torossian for Egoyan’s film.

 

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