First published in the Aug. 6 print issue of the Glendale News-Press.
Although the documentary “Motherland” is largely centered around events from two years ago, it was prescient that it screened this week at the Glendale Laemmle Theatre.
“Motherland,” directed by journalist Vic Gerami, chronicles the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh War, but as Gerami pointed out during the Thursday screening, it’s a conflict that hasn’t yet ended. Hostilities flared up again this week, as Azerbaijani forces reportedly attacked Artsakh Defense Force troops in violation of the ceasefire and territorial concessions.
Still, Gerami — an Armenian American activist who hosts “The Blunt Post with Vic” on KPFK 90.7-FM — expressed during the screening that, in a theater full of elected officials, scholars and allies, there may yet be hope for the Armenian cause.
“This is such a dynamic room and it gives us hope,” he said following the film, “because seeing some of the things I’ve seen, you have to have hope, because otherwise you just go crazy.”
Clocking in at just over two hours, “Motherland” explores the Armenian history of Artsakh in the context of Russian and Soviet imperialism and draws a link from the Armenian genocide perpetrated by the Turkish-dominated Ottoman Empire and the wars Azerbaijan waged against the breakaway Artsakh Republic — which, for nearly a century, had been under Azeri administration.
After Artsakh Armenians declared independence and successfully defended themselves in the 1990s, the film contends that the hereditary dictatorship in Baku — currently led by Ilham Aliyev — cultivated an Azeri national identity of dominating their Armenian neighbors and consolidated control of Azerbaijan’s oil and gas resources to amass personal fortunes, buy political goodwill across the globe and construct a technologically sophisticated military.
Broadly, “Motherland” advances a narrative that Azerbaijan, through political maneuvering and strategic donations, began laundering a positive global image in 2011 with some sort of national identity campaign eyed for 2020.
The COVID-19 pandemic and American presidential election, Gerami contends, provided ample distraction for Baku to launch its offensive, which killed more than 5,000 Armenians. The film takes aim across the political spectrum — from Republican President Donald Trump for enabling Aliyev, Democratic President Joe Biden for opening up arms sales to Baku and ostensibly progressive organizations like Amnesty International for “both-sidesing” the conflict with false-equivalencies.
The film, edited by Chris Damadyan, slickly weaves history and present events together with archival and crowd-sourced footage, crisp graphics and charts and interviews often filmed by producer Henrick Vartanian.
Interviewees included a number of American politicians — chief among them U.S. Congressman Adam Schiff of Burbank, New Jersey Sen. Bob Menendez and New Jersey Congressman Frank Pallone — as well as foreign leaders and academics.
The crew also traveled to Armenia and Artsakh to record the testimonies of refugees and veterans of the wars.
“I caught myself looking up, going like ‘What did he just say?’” Vartanian said of filming those veterans. “That was quite an emotional experience to hear from the soldiers.”
The documentary also necessarily includes the blurred-out cellphone videos taken during the 2020 war that depict Azerbaijani soldiers committing atrocities against Armenian soldiers and civilians — executions, scalpings, beheadings — to illustrate what they say the world as effectively looked away from.
Damadyan recalled that, during the editing process, a source had compiled and provided an archive of all the publicly available videos from social media.
“Just going through that, I don’t know how many times I had to walk away from the computer and dry my eyes and wash my face and gather myself back up,” Damadyan said.
Mayor Ardy Kassakhian, who hosted a question-and-answer session with the film’s creators after the screening, said that he’s watched every documentary about Artsakh and hailed “Motherland” as the “most encyclopedic” of them.
“You put literally everything that we try to explain to people into this film,” Kassakhian told the filmmakers. “You got very rare interviews with individuals that no one else has gotten interviews with.”
Gerami admitted that the first cut of the film ran in at more than three hours and that a lot of “painful cuts” were required to bring it down to feature length. During the Q&A, Gerami said he strove to avoid wading into Yerevan politics because, at the end of the day, he asserts it is a story about the genocidal aspirations of two hostile neighbors and how the world has placated them.
“At the core of this film, it’s about freedom, the right to self-determination and human rights. It’s universal, and I was not going to muddy it getting into the politics,” Gerami said. “I made this film for non-Armenians. We don’t want to preach to the choir, although I think a lot of Armenians can benefit from watching this, too.”
This week’s screening — sponsored by Kassakhian, Assemblywoman Laura Friedman and state Sen. Anthony Portantino — was just the second, and Gerami is currently seeking a distributor for the documentary.
He is also aiming to host additional screenings, as local as Glendale Community College and as widely as Congress. Gerami noted that it was important to bring the film to Glendale, no less to a theater adjacent to Artsakh Avenue.
While reflecting on the filming, Vartanian noted that this was his first trip to his ancestral home, an experience he’ll never forget.
“The sun was different. The light was different, the color, everything,” Vartanian recalled. “The fact that the signs were all in Armenian, I kept giggling. ‘I can read that. I know what it means.’”
At this, Kassakhian quipped, “They have that on Colorado Boulevard, too.”