KOMITAS. THE GENOCIDE (NON-) SURVIVOR

KOMITAS. THE GENOCIDE (NON-) SURVIVOR

An obsessive lover, wise teacher, taciturn hermit, hospitable joker, maddened priest and tens of other epithets and adjectives, characterizations and statuses that symbolize the same person – the pioneer of ethnomusicology, the founder of a national school of music and one of the most vibrant and famous characters in Armenian culture – Komitas, who continues to make new appearances not only on stages and electromagnetic waves, but also on the big screen from time to time. Komitas as a film character – explained by film critic Karen Avetisyan.

Text : Karen Avetisyan

 

 

Realized

Just recently Arman Nshanyan wrapped production on a new film about Komitas called “Songs of Solomon” with the eponymous character portrayed by probably the most popular Armenian actor of recent years Samvel Tadevosyan and the film itself produced by Nick Vallelonga, the producer behind the Academy Award winning “Green Book.”

The film is scheduled for a 2020 premiere on the eve of April 24th, Genocide Memorial Day in Armenia. Before that day comes, let’s throw a quick and general glance at Komitas’s presence in Armenian cinema, at films that made it to the big screen and those that never saw the light of day.

Vigen Chaldranyan on the set of “Alter Ego”

 

The most recent feature length film to center around Komitas is Vigen Chaldranyan’s “The Priest’s Silence,” where he is not so much a character, but a concept, a coordinate system and cultural genome, a red line in the film and the post-Genocide history of Armenia. The main character of the film is Edgar Novents, a modern-day writer and university professor, whose mind is completely occupied by the idea of creating a novel about Komitas. And in order to give authenticity to his future literary work, Novents dives deep into the life of Komitas, as if becoming his present-day alter ego. Along the way he meets a filmmaker interested in transferring the priest’s life to the big screen, who in turn is director Chaldranyan’s alter ego or better yet – his cameo.

“Alter Ego” shooting

 

“Alter Ego” is the films international title, while the ego itself is a syndrome, which is associated not only with director Vigen Chaldranyan, but also another filmmaker Don Askarian, who made his “Komitas” in 1989. Askarian’s take is a biographical video poem, hugely influenced by Tarkovsky, Parajanov and European poetical cinema of the late 1960’s with a spiritual odyssey that’s typical for these kinds of films. It seems like Askarian was not only inspired, but had a rampant desire to “parajanovize” himself by “sayatnovazing” Komitas. Askarian brought his pretentious symbolism to its peak in the film “Avetik,” also making a film about Parajanov himself, and afterwards abandoning his ambitious style in favor of a more “earthly” and “lively” one.

Parallel to “Avetik,” Lyudmila Sahakyants was starting production on her own film about Komitas, which was probably the first such effort in independent Armenia and the first time Komitas was played by a foreign actor, a Lithuanian film star from the Soviet era Regimantas Adomaitis.

Lyudmila Sahakyants’ “On the Threshold”

 

Sahakyants’ film is a mystery play combining live-action and animation, shot in the same period as Jan Schwankmaier’s “Faust” with a similar combination of genres, styles and techniques, and yet in a totally different context of Armenia’s post-independence, the war in Karabakh, the blockade and difficult social realities, as a result of which the film was officially completed a full decade later, still incomplete when compared to the director’s original vision, yet nevertheless edited by the director herself and fully accompanied by Avet Terteryan’s music, who’s 6th symphony, namely its most famous and emotionally striking part also breaks “Alter Ego” in Chaldranyan’s film. In fact, Terteryan’s music has been used in films about Komitas more often, than that of Komitas himself, who’s fate has been at the basis of both realized and unrealized noteworthy films.

 

Unrealized

Back in 2013 Russian-based producer Valery Saharyan notified the public of a big project about the Armenian Genocide being developed with the participation of international superstars and a plot centering on Komitas’s life. The role of Armenian Genocide survivor Komitas was supposed to go to an actor, who had recently shuffled off his Academy Award winning performance of Polish musician and Holocaust survivor Władysław Szpilman in Roman Polanski’s “The Pianist.” Adrien Brody had already read the script and agreed to do the lead part.

Adrian Brody in “The Pianist”

 

The role of the police commissioner, who narrates the film, was to be played by either Jean Reno or Gérard Depardieu. Alain Delon was supposed to appear as the head of the Parisian psychiatric hospital, where Komitas was kept, while Dustin Hoffman was going to play the role of another patient, chess player Spielmacher. Over the years the project has been presented to various filmmakers, including Emir Kusturica, but as of yet it remains unrealized or better yet – frozen indefinitely.

Director Henrik Malyan

 

 

A script of Malyan’s “Komitas”             

 

A similar fate had been dealt to the attempted “Komitas” by one of the more famous Armenian filmmakers Henrik Malyan. With its grandiose subject matter, the volumes of pre-production work and the director’s suffering it seems that “Komitas,” where Sos Sargsyan had been approved to play the titular role, was supposed to be Malyan’s magnum opus, realized in the early 1980’s, before the Soviet Perestroyka, when director Edmon Keosayan had already made “The Star of Hope,” the widescreen epic with a 200 minute runtime about national heroes Davit Bek and Mkhitar Sparapet, on the one hand paving the road for others interested in more national themes, and on the other hand inducing a lot of headaches to the Soviet establishment, the Armenian part of which was headed by Karen Demirchyan, who’s diaries reveal that he urged Malyan not to emphasize the Genocide in the film too much. Whether Demirchyan was trying to avoid patriotic themes in general or just did not want Komitas to be presented with the massacres as background (which was predominantly his context both prior and after in various cultural incarnations) has remained a mystery.

Historical epic “The Star of Hope”

 

However there is another interesting theory, according to which during archival research Malyan discovered “the other side of Komitas,” where the priest, usually portrayed as a saint, appeared in humanly and earthy colors with earthy beloveds, amorous ties, and not least of all as a victim, yet not so much of the cruel Turkish bloodshed, but of ridiculous church intrigues, collegial reluctance and faint-heartedness.

As a man of a deductive artistic approach in cinema, Malyan decided not to take that risk, but whether it was the fear of discovering Komitas from a humane point of view that kept the film from being made or the reluctance to break a cherished stereotype, which is typical of Armenian culture, will also remain a mystery.

The fact is that Armenian filmmakers usually direct their attention to Komitas at times of severe crisis, when his halo of a Holy Priest and Maddened Martyr is yet to be broken. The halo itself on the one hand has developed an enormous cultural straiten, yet on the other hand it hindered an artist’s ability to speak of Komitas not as a “means,” but as a fully fleshed out, transparent and vulnerable “end.”

As was said before, the upcoming film about Komitas will have its premiere on April 23rd, 2020, which probably means that having miracously survived the Genocide in real life, cinematic Komitas has to involuntarily become its “victim” once again.

“Komitas” by Don Askarian

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