Sunday, May 26, 2024

Interview with Michael A. Goorjian – Director of Amerikatsi

For filmmaker Michael A. Goorjian, Amerikatsi was a passion project of sorts. As a member of the Armenian diaspora, he found it easy to relate to the film’s protagonist and wanted an opportunity to display Armenia’s rich cultural heritage on screen. The film is set during the post-World War II era and tells the story of Charlie Bakchinyan, an Armenian repatriate who is imprisoned on bogus charges after he attracts the attention of a local government official’s wife. He experiences deep depression while being locked up in solitary confinement but his mood improves when he discovers that his prison cell’s window allows him to look in on the day-to-day lives of a young couple. He finds himself vicariously living through them and develops a deeper understanding of Armenian culture by attempting to relate to their struggles. 

Zita Short had the opportunity to interview Mr. Goorjian about the film. 

Zita Short: Obviously this project has personal significance for you, as a member of the Armenian diaspora. Can you tell me a little bit about your family’s history and what inspired you to start working on this project?

Michael A. Goorjian: My grandparents were both survivors of the Armenian genocide and in being Armenian and being an artist, I have always felt that I needed to do something related to my heritage. A lot of the focus in film has been in and around the genocide, which is obviously an incredibly important topic. For me, it took a while to find the story that I felt I could tell. I wanted to tell a story that was hopeful. I wanted to spread information about the beauty of Armenian culture. 

As a people, we have suffered through so much and the film takes place during a turbulent period in the history of Armenia. I have heard it described as a “wound upon a wound.” There was the genocide and then thirty, forty years later you had members of the diaspora returning to Armenia and being sent to labour camps in Siberia. Even though the film takes place in that landscape, the story itself deals with survival and tells the story of people who choose to continue on in the face of difficult circumstances. 

ZS: Were there any Armenian directors, such as Rouben Mamoulian or Sergei Parajanov, that you drew inspiration from?

MAG: There’s a sequence in the film that serves as an ode to Parajanov. One of the main characters is an artist and he’s putting still lifes in the window for the prisoner to sketch and you even see glimpses of pieces that feature barbed wire being used as a frame. This was something that Parajanov had done when he was in prison. We don’t have a lot of filmmakers but everyone from Atom Egoyan to Mamoulian has inspired me. I have tried to let those influences help my film, I guess. 

ZS: Why do you think that so few English-language productions have focused on Armenia’s rich history and culture?

MAG: I think it’s partially exposure. The film industry there basically fell into disarray after the Soviet Union collapsed. We are also a split group and a split ethnicity because there is a divide that exists between the diaspora and those who still reside in the East. There are Syrian-Armenians, Persian Armenians, Lebanese Armenians, so many different types of Armenians. In making this film, we were able to bring all of these different groups together and had the opportunity to work in Armenia. The whole film was shot there and not many films are shot there. I think there haven’t been many because the genocide is such a huge event in our culture and has overshadowed other aspects of our history. It’s also notable that Armenia was a Soviet country, so its exposure in the West was always going to be limited. Hopefully that changes. 

ZS: Despite having a dark subject matter, the film is an old-fashioned crowdpleaser. Did you consciously attempt to echo films from the 1930s and 1940s while making the film?

MAG: The tone of the film really came from a few things. In ;ooking at the Soviet era and the Soviet system, one notices that there is so much absurdity inherent in the political climate of this period. For me, taking that and playing into the absurdity is a way of directly tackling it. I really wanted to make a film that would be able to reach as many people as possible, including young people. I wanted to make something accessible. I always wanted to capture the tone of the time and the characters. It ended up having this Old Hollywood feel. I wish there were more movies like that nowadays. I have had so many people come up to me at festivals and say “I wish there were more films like this.” I mean, I love heavy, dark, cynical movies. However, I think there should also be a place for light entertainment to flourish. 

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