Azeri Film Fest Causes Storm in Armenia

Attempt to build cultural bridges sparks anger, though it’s unclear whether protests were genuine or stage-managed.

Azeri Film Fest Causes Storm in Armenia

Attempt to build cultural bridges sparks anger, though it’s unclear whether protests were genuine or stage-managed.

Giorgy Vanyan of the Caucasus Centre of Peacemaking Initiatives. (Photo: Photolur)
Giorgy Vanyan of the Caucasus Centre of Peacemaking Initiatives. (Photo: Photolur)
Saturday, 28 April, 2012

A controversial festival of Azerbaijani films has finally taken place in Armenia, but not before the venue had to be switched following angry protests.

The Caucasus Centre of Peacemaking Initiatives, CCPI, an Armenian organisation, was planning to show the films in several towns in the north of the country on April 12 and 17.

CCPI director Giorgy Vanyan said the screenings were intended to promote tolerance and peace.

Relations between Armenia and Azerbaijan have been consistently poor since the war over Nagorny Karabakh, which ended in 1994 with a truce but no lasting peace deal.

Feelings of mistrust and resentment run so high in both countries that most forms of engagement with the neighbouring state are seen as akin to treason.

The four short films included in the festival were made in 2007-08 by different directors, and did not touch on the Karabakh conflict. “The films address social problems and human rights issues in Azerbaijan,” Vanyan said.

After the screenings were announced, however, protesters took to the streets of Gyumri and then Vanadzor.

In Gyumri, Vanyan was forced to cancel the April 12 showing at the Asparez Press Club, to get the crowds outside to disperse. Video footage posted on YouTube showed him surrounded by heated protesters. One man tries to attack him but is dragged away by others.

In Vanadzor, some 200 people held a march against the April 17 screening and its hosts, the Helsinki Civil Assembly, HCA, throwing eggs and stones at the proposed venues.

Demonstrators and other opponents of the festival accused its organisers of betraying Armenia by showing films from Azerbaijan.

“I believe that no normal Armenian with a sense of decency and clear view of things will want to see a festival of Azeri films in our country,” Yury Ghulyan, a lecturer at Vanadzor’s teacher training institute, said. “In Azerbaijan, they abuse and slander our country and our good name. So it’s just pointless bringing Azeri films to show them here.”

Karen Vrtanesyan, who blogs on Azeri-Armenian relations, has long opposed the festival. On his Facebook page, he claimed that peacebuilding events of this kind were unilateral, and that in Azerbaijan, “hate propaganda” directed at Armenians was on the increase.

Referring to events in the village of Maraga during the Karabakh war in April 1992, he said that “on the eve of the 20th anniversary of mass killings of civilians, no country would allow a ‘cultural event’ by the side that conducted these pogroms. The issue here is not tolerance, but a premeditated assault on the public’s feelings.”

The reactions were to be predicted. This film festival was supposed to have taken place in late 2010, but the strength of public opposition meant no venue could be persuaded to host the screenings. (See Azeri Film Festival Cancelled in Armenia .)

CCPI eventually succeeding in rescheduling the Gyumri screening, holding it before a small audience in a restaurant outside town.

After the April 16 scuffles in Vanadzor, the New York-based advocacy group Human Rights Watch urged the Armenian authorities to investigate the “mob attack” on HCA’s office.

The CCPI said it had been the victim of a “campaign of intimidation, slander and disinformation”, and said the protests were not spontaneous, but staged by local government officials.

“This public opposition was incited,” Vanyan told IWPR. “There is no constitutional order in Armenia – it has been replaced by a ‘patriotic’ court martial.”

Artur Sakunts of the Helsinki Civil Assembly, who took the decision to call the Vanadzor screening, said police had been notably absent when his office was besieged by protesters.

“Although we called them, police took no action to prevent threats to our employees’ safety, or to stop the incitement to violence and public disorder, despite the fact that we called them,” said a statement from his office.

Sakunts said that in both Armenia and Azerbaijan, “the regimes use cheap populist devices to divert public attention away from the real problems facing their countries”.

Officials in the two towns denied any connection to that protests. Gagik Simonian of the Vanadzor municipality said the local authorities were only informed of the planned protest on the morning of April 16, shortly before it took place.

“They were acting in line with the law, so there wasn’t anything we could do about it,” he said. “But we are in no way connected with these events.”

Opponents of the festival insisted they were acting on their own.

Tigran Kocharyan, a blogger, said Azerbaijanis “at the highest level” insulted Armenians with no come-back, whereas “tolerance is demanded only from the Armenians”.

“You need two sides to hold a dialogue,” he added, noting that in the last two decades, Azerbaijan had never held an analogous festival of Armenian films.

Since making concessions would be seen as a sign of weakness in Azerbaijan, he said, then “yes, we must give an appropriate response to everything they do.”

Levon Barseghyan of the Asparez Press Club said the protesters may well have had genuine concerns about the festival, but he pointed out inconsistencies in the level of outrage.

“These same people who were protesting, shouting, and punching Vanyan never complained about the Turkish and Azeri films that were shown in Armenia as part of the Golden Apricot festival, or indeed other screenings. Nor did they protest against cultural exchanges,” he said.

Sara Khojoyan is a reporter for ArmeniaNow.com.

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