Glorious past and unknown future of the national studio

Films helped to spread a patriotic and political agenda under Marxist-Leninist ideology. Thus, the Soviet Union authorities concentrated and raised funds to create a centralized filmmaking structure and set up film studios and administrative structures even in the most remote regions of the USSR. In the 1930s, most of the capitals of the Soviet Republic, including Yerevan, had their own film studios. The collapse of the Soviet Union, however, left most Soviet-era filmmaking studios, including Armenian “Armenfilm” (“Hayfilm”) in crisis. After 25 years the fate of the studio is still unknown.

Text: Ruzanna Baldryan / Photos: Satik Stepanyan

The Soviet era

The history of the Hayfilm studio goes back to the 1920s. After nationalization of all the privately owned film theatres in 1923, the Armenian Council of People’s Commissars (Sovnarkom) announced the establishment of the State Cinema organization (Goskino) as part of the Commissariat of Political Education. The stockholding company State Photo and Film studio (Gosfotokino) was established in Yerevan, which was later renamed to Haykino (Armenkino). Some of the pearls of Armenian cinematography were produced during the first years of its existence. The first silent films, including “Honor” (“Namus”, 1926), “Zare” (1927), “Shor and Shorshor” (1928), as well as the first sound film “Pepo” (1935) were produced at this film studio. Haykino was renamed several times and was eventually named Hayfilm studio after Hamo Beknazaryan in 1966.

Much of the history of the Armenian cinema was written during the Soviet period and is related to this film studio. Throughout its history, Hayfilm created around 400 short and feature films, as well as animated films. These films were presented at numerous international film festivals and were awarded prizes. Hayfilm attracted many famous actors, film directors, producers, and screenwriters.

The independence and privatization of Hayfilm

The collapse of the USSR hit the Armenian filmmaking industry hard. Brutal waves of privatization turned cinemas and film clubs into assets that were transformed into shopping centers, or worse, were looted and left inactive. Making films was an extremely risky investment. Although some films were created at Hayfilm in the 1990s and early 2000s (“Aghet” (1993) and the 2001 film “Land of Sacred Rituals”) there were not many platforms to show films in Armenia and the film market was shattered.

One of the most circulated ideas during this period was the privatization of Hayfilm. For some, film was equal to a business tool. The Hayfilm director at that time, Gevorg Gevorgyan, thought that privatization could contribute to the development of tourism, hotels and transportation. However, filmmaker Karen Gevorgyan was sure that “they take Hayfilm since they need its archive and territory”, and cinematographer Davit Muradyan was urged against treating Hayflim the way ArmenTel was treated. These concerns were based on the sad fate of other post-Soviet film studios that were privatized. It is important to note that at the time, the fate of 400 employees of the film studio was unknown, filmmaking opportunities were unclear and there was a risk of the new owners becoming bankrupt.

The film studio was planned to be turned into a Hollywood style film studio. In 2005 Hayfilm was sold to the CS Media City holding, a company co-owned at the time by US-Armenian philanthropist Gerard Gafesjian and his business partner Bagrat Sargsyan—against protests from many of the country’s filmmakers. The new owners of Hayfilm pledged to renovate the infrastructure, equip the studio, and recover films and fund the production of four feature films per year.

A decade of idleness

Except for the digitization of around one hundred films, none of the commitments werehonored. Moreover, as uncovered by the Specialist Committee of the National Film Centre, there were serious violations of standards in the digitized films, and worst of all, the wrong coloring was used. Color conveys mood and atmosphere of a film, if done wrong it can turn drama into comedy and distort cultural heritage. To illustrate this point, one can refer to the case of Ted Turner. When the broadcaster announced his plans to color 100 black-and-white films from Hollywood’s golden era in the 1980s, it resulted in social outcry.

The reckless attitude of CS Media towards the preservation of films, as well as failing to fulfill its commitments, resulted in the urgency to re-nationalize Hayfilm studio. In 2015 the Armenian government retook control of the Armenfilm studio. Currently, 100% of Hayfilm’s shares belong to the state and are under the control of the Department of State Property Management by the Government of the Republic of Armenia. The film studio survives on state support and the rental of two pavilions.


What now?

In May 2017, the RA Government confirmed its plans to privatize Hayfilm again. According to them, this will attract investments and make the studio financially sustainable.

Many filmmakers, including film programmer and producer Melik Karapetyan, think that there is no need to revive Hayfilm. Saving the moribund building, which is old, makes no sense. It has no functioning studios or halls and has no quality props that are attractive to rent. It is not appealing for business, and moreover, it is a burden on the state budget: the government cannot provide funds for its maintenance and renovation. According to Melik Karapetyan “If by “salvation of Hayfilm” we perceive its rich cultural heritage- films, it should be managed differently.” Although the previous owners distorted films during the renovation process, these were copies; the original reels are kept in Moscow. He suggests to “Create a state-backed body similar to the National Film Preservation Board in the United States, which will annually select films for restoration, preservation and commercial exploitation of digitized versions.”

Newly elected president of the Union of Cinematographers Harutyun Khachatryan, who was an ardent opponent of Hayfilm privatization from the beginning, in his latest talk, stated that it is difficult to restore Hayfilm. Due to the careless attitude of the former owners, its furniture, recording equipment, facilities and props have been gone now for years. The best way to save Hayfilm is to privatize it. As a president, he plans to focus on film archive issues of Hayfilm instead.

On the contrary, Satik Stepanyan, editing and sound director and cinematographer, thinks that the film studio has the potential to develop based on a business plan. The building used to have one of the best sound recording studios, pavilions, black and white film development lab and other supporting facilities for filmmaking. Although the studio was looted and most of its infrastructure is damaged, Satik thinks that investments and new technical equipment can revitalize the studio.

Film is an amazing form of art. It also helps to educate, develop tourism, business and create employment. Maybe Hayfilm indeed has the potential to revive the best of Armenian filmmaking traditions and develop the industry. However, unless the Law on Cinematography is finalized, there is no state policy and holistic approach towards the industry, which could regulate the field and protect filmmakers and studios in the future.