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Film Brings Visibility to Artsakh War

First published in the Dec. 31 print issue of the Glendale News-Press.

Panicked screams of family members and the frightening boom from a bomb crashing down and jolting her awake is the memory Lika Zakaryan holds of the day that she found herself where she never wanted to be — at the center of a war.
“‘They are bombing! They are bombing! … Wake up! Let’s go downstairs!’” her mother and sister shouted, alerting her to the danger. “I woke up and was shocked, and I didn’t want to believe that it was war.”
That moment on Sept. 27, 2020, marked the beginning of the Artsakh war, when Armenia became the target of an Azerbaijan-led offensive to take control of the semi-autonomous, mostly unrecognized nation of Artsakh located between the two republics, largely in a region called Nagorno-Karabakh. The 44-day war killed thousands of Armenians and displaced at least 120,000 more.
The majority-Armenian population of Artsakh previously declared independence after the dissolution of the Soviet Union and, with Armenia’s support, warred with Azerbaijan until a 1994 ceasefire set territorial boundaries, which then fell as a result of the 2020 conflict.
Throughout the war, Zakaryan, a budding journalist and photographer at the time, wrote in a bunker amid explosions and enemy shelling to document the state of her homeland — offering a glimpse into an Armenia under siege.
Raising awareness of the war became her purpose, and Zakaryan’s determination to give Armenia a voice through her personal accounts and photographs of the war captivated online readers worldwide. Those included her future creative partners, film director Garin Hovannisian and producer Alec Mouhibian, who lives in Glendale.
A documentary was a natural avenue for the duo and their team to help shed light on the war. After discovering Zakaryan, who became the film’s protagonist, they connected with her to pursue the project and capture what she was experiencing on the ground.
The result, titled “Invisible Republic,” was recently screened at the AMC Americana, and was part of the Glendale Library, Arts & Culture’s Be the Change series, through which a discussion was held at Glendale Central Library.
One challenge with making the film, Mouhibian said, involved trying to tell the story in a way that does justice to the full scope of tragedy without having the capacity to show it all.
“This is a war where thousands of young men died … and they all have a right to be mourned, and they all have a right to be discussed and be shown. But there’s no room in a movie to show thousands of young men — just like there’s no movie that can capture the enormity of the psychological damage that living through and after a war inflicts on people,” Mouhibian said.
“So, there are limits to what movies can do, but I hope that in this world of endless news and hysteria that people still have room in their hearts to comprehend a real nasty and evil element of life as revealed in a war like this one,” he added.
Though Zakaryan said she never set out to create a diary, her written words, some of which are published on CivilNet, became her way of saving an archive of events for those following the war and for future generations to look back on. In her first diary entry published on the website, she wrote: “In a few years, we’ll watch and read, tell the children and grandchildren.”
Mouhibian agreed with that sentiment, noting: “I’m satisfied we were able to include Lika’s voice and put her experience center stage in the telling of the war’s history.”
Zakaryan eventually embraced the notion of a diary. Originally, she said the term came as a recommendation from a friend, adding that the word “diary” helps to dispel fear.
Akin to Anne Frank’s diary written during the Holocaust, Zakaryan’s entries were filled with firsthand moments put into words. Her entries, beyond being highlighted in “Invisible Republic,” have since been turned into a book, “44 Days: A Diary From An Invisible War.” It is published by Creative Armenia, with proceeds benefiting its Artists for Artsakh program.
Mouhibian described Zakaryan’s entries as “a breath of fresh air” during a period that he recalls barely sleeping because he was scouring for war updates on social media, where he originally came across people posting about her diary.
One entry that initially struck a chord with Mouhibian focused on the way countries outside of Armenia blamed the war on “both sides” — statements that elicited resentful responses from the pair, who were reacting to the conflict from thousands of miles apart.
“Hearing about ‘both sides’ was hard to take,” he said. “It was difficult for me to tolerate, but especially frustrating for someone like Lika, who had bombs falling on top of her, from not both sides but one side. … The war was conducted by Azerbaijan with a military advantage, in partnership with Turkey. The battle was severely unmatched, and it was hard to see the world talk about it in wishy-washy, noncommittal terms.”
The Artsakh war ended when all parties involved signed an accord on Nov. 10, 2020, ceding a significant amount of Artsakh land back to Azerbaijan’s control.
“It’s not a movie that many of us are happy we had to make or a story we were happy to tell,” Mouhibian said, “but it’s a story that must be told because it’s not only about a republic the world doesn’t recognize getting attacked from all sides, it’s about the state of modern war and the way people perceive it — the way people under it perceive it and the way observers perceive it.
“In many ways, it’s a precursor of the geopolitical nightmare that the entire world has been dealing with and how the larger countries have gotten involved,” he continued. “I see it as a very difficult, but important depiction of the reality of war in our time.”
Mouhibian believes a lot of people in the Armenian community are afraid to watch the documentary, because they don’t want to relive the trauma and pain they felt two years ago. However, he has witnessed the opposite effect on those that have experienced the film.
“The Armenians that have shown up to watch it, I think, have been walking away with a certain peace,” he said. “It reminds them that you can look the ugliest, darkest moments of history right in the face and still survive.”
As for non-Armenians in the audience, Mouhibian said he aspires — through what is shown on screen — to move them and open their eyes to the harsh realities Armenians endured.
“I hope they care about the people that live in Artsakh, and I hope that they realize that their lives are worth protecting and that the ‘coercive diplomacy’ a country like Azerbaijan is conducting over a poorer and less powerful country like Armenia is something that the greater powers in the world shouldn’t tolerate,” Mouhibian said.
Zakaryan said she felt an immediate trust in the documentary when deciding to tell her story and the much wider story of the war in this way, believing it was the right thing for herself and Artsakh.
“I like the film, and I like the way it is complete in a sense that a person who knows nothing about Artsakh can watch it and understand what really happened,” Zakaryan said. “I hope people take away with them empathy and motivation to do something for this small land.
“It is an honor for me to be in this team with these amazing human beings and to be one of those who can speak on behalf of Artsakh and Artsakhian people,” she added. “For me, this can be considered as a life goal: to be useful to Artsakh in a special way, documenting its worst days and sharing them with the world.”
Reflecting on the project, Mouhibian said the film is a testament to the resiliency of the Armenian people.
“It’s really rough and really sad, but it’s also invigorating,” Mouhibian said. “It is, above all else, a window into how the human soul never ever gives up — even when defeat is absolutely guaranteed. As terribly as this war ended for the Armenians of Artsakh, and certainly as it was absorbed by everyone interested in that region, the fact is that history isn’t over yet, and the human heart still has a chance.”
Zakaryan’s book can be purchased at 44daysbook.com, and to screen the documentary through Virtual Cinema, visit invisiblerepublicfilm.com.

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