Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

New Dawn for Armenian Cinema?

Privatisation of state film studio could herald revival of a once-thriving industry.
By Naira Melkumyan

Armenia’s crumbling movie industry looks set to be revived after years of neglect as wealthy businessmen vie for the right to buy the state film studio.


Two ethnic Armenian millionaire businessmen - Ara Abramian and Jerald Kafesdzhan, based in Russia and America respectively – are bidding for the Armenfilm studio and the right to continue the country’s long tradition of filmmaking.


Abramian, who chairs the Union of Armenians in Russia, is believed to have the upper hand at the moment, having offered a seven million US dollar package – one million for the studio, with a further six million investment in digital technology.


The privatisation of the studio has prompted a new debate on the state of the Armenian film and television industry.


Rudolf Vatinian, chairman of the State Theatre and Cinema Institute’s cinema department and a member of the Armenian Film-makers Union, told IWPR that Abramian’s bid was especially interesting.


“I think that establishing new links with Russia and the introduction of digital technology – especially in television production - will revive viewers’ interest in Armenian cinema,” he said.


The 80-year-old industry has been in steady decline for a number of years, having reached its peak in the Seventies and early Eighties, when around ten films a year were produced alongside countless documentaries and made-for TV productions.


In recent years, however, the output has dwindled dramatically. A social crisis in the early Nineties, which followed the collapse of the Soviet Union, led to state assistance drying up almost completely. When funds stopped arriving from Moscow, Armenia’s fledgling government was unable to spare any money.


“This lack of finance led to a breakdown in the industry - specialists left and the technology became badly outdated,” said Vatinian. “This is a shame, as cinema is the ideal democratic language to represent the Armenian people abroad.”


For 2004, 600,000 dollars has been earmarked for the state cinema budget – a tenth of the amount given to the television industry. As a result, the quality of films produced is low.


Susanna Arutiunian, president of the Armenian Cinema Specialists and Journalists Association, said, “The state cannot provide for the national film industry – it does not even have a cinema department, and only one person is available to dealing with everything.”


Moreover, there is no legal framework to regulate the industry in Armenia – deliberations on a cinema law have been ongoing for several years.


The low funding has led to a marked deterioration in the technical equipment used. According to Arutiunian, the Armenfilm studio only has one serviceable film camera – and there is a long queue to use it.


Filmmaker and director of the Yerevan studio Tigran Khzmalian said, “When you try to produce a film under such conditions, where you lack the money for a decent sound recording, the result will be nothing of quality.”


Granush Akopian, chairman of the parliamentary commission for science, education and culture, admitted, “Armenian film production is in a miserable state, as it has received very little investment in the last ten to fifteen years.”


At the moment, only three cinemas operate in the country – all of them in the capital, Yerevan – and have no difficulty attracting customers.


Tamara Movsisian, spokesperson for one of them, the Moskva cinema, told IWPR that new and classic movies are in great demand. “In forty years we have acquired a loyal audience, which takes a real interest in Armenian cinema,” she said.


Analysts say that the revitalisation of the film industry is especially important to prevent the next generation from rejecting Armenian history and culture in favour of formulaic Hollywood films.


“We have rich history, and yet I don’t know of any historical films being made in Armenia. Instead, the younger generation is growing up watching foreign films,” said moviegoer Stepan Avakian from Yerevan.


In spite of the continuing economic problems, the sale of the state studio could herald the beginning of a cinematic revival, and there are talented young people on hand to take advantage of that.


“Once upon a time, our national cinema had a place in international filmmaking. Our main objective today is to regain that position,” filmmaker Mikael Dovlatian, one of the most exciting young directors in the country, told IWPR.


Naira Melkumian is a freelance journalist based in Yerevan.

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