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International Film Festival Puts Armenia On Region’s Cinema Map

A weeklong international film festival has opened in the Armenian capital, giving a rare opportunity for the country’s film critics and movie buffs to sample some of world cinema's latest offerings.

The Golden Apricot film festival, which has been held in Armenia every year since 2004, opened on July 11, with a gala ceremony attended by several star guests, including renowned Italian actress Claudia Cardinale.

Observers say in recent years the festival has become a boutique event featuring atmospheric jazz concerts and star-studded cocktail parties.

Stars honoring notable Armenian film personalities, reminiscent of Hollywood's Walk of Fame, were installed in front of downtown Yerevan's Moskva Cinema House, one of the festival's main venues.

Participants and guests were received by President Serzh Sarkisian and the opening ceremonies were attended by Prime Minister Tigran Sarkisian and Yerevan Mayor Gagik Beglarian.

“I am happy to be in Armenia,” said Cardinale at a press conference on July 12.

The 72-year-old actress was featured in Verneuil’s 1991 film "Mayrik" ("Mother"), which tells the story of an Armenian immigrant family's struggle adjusting to life in France after fleeing the Ottoman-era massacres at the beginning of the 20th century. The film opened the festival on July 11.

“I was lucky to play the part of the mother in Verneuil’s film and get acquainted with Armenian history,” said Cardinale, who was honored at the festival for her contributions to world cinema.

Some 120 films, selected from some 500 applications from 70 countries, are scheduled to be shown at the Yerevan festival, which ends on July 18.

“The Golden Apricot is not only a cultural but a political event, as it helps reflect upon various international issues,” the Canadian-Armenian director Atom Egoyan said on July 11.

The Toronto-based filmmaker won wide acclaim for his 2002 film, Ararat, a historical epic about Armenians in Ottoman Turkey. The film presents the mass killings of Armenians in the early 20th century as a systemic genocide, a claim that is hotly contested by Turkey.

“The festival gains popularity year by year. It’s a unique brand of Armenia,” added Egoyan.

Building Bridges

The festival also featured an Armenia-Turkey platform, which gave Armenian and Turkish filmmakers an opportunity to meet.

Armenia and Turkey came close to mending fences last year after they signed diplomatic protocols aimed at ending nearly a century of political animosity.

Strained historical relations between the two neighboring countries is primarily rooted in the 1915-1918 massacres and deportations of Armenians in the crumbling Ottoman Empire, which many scholars call the first genocide of the 20th century.

Turkish-Armenian rapprochement stalled in April, despite international efforts to keep the normalization effort alive.

The platform grew out of a series of cinema workshops organized by the Armenian-Turkish Cultural Initiative.

The initiators of the program are the Anadolu Kultur Association from Turkey and the Golden Apricot Yerevan International Film Festival from Armenia.

Fatih Akin, a 37-year-old German-born filmmaker of Turkish origin, said of the Turkey-Armenia relations that the conflict between the two neighbors is primarily based on fear that he said “must be overcome" for the two neighbors to live in peace.

“This is the fear of truth. And cinema is that force that can help overcome this fear, just like rock-and-roll once managed to clear lots of barriers,” he underscored.

French-Armenian film director Serge Avedikian -- who won a Short Film Palme d’Or at this year's Cannes Film Festival in Cannes for his 15-minute animated documentary, "Barking Island" -- also spoke of ways of overcoming fear between Turks and Armenians.

At a cocktail party for the press on July 13, Avedikian said joint work was possible with certain Turkish organizations that genuinely wish to cooperate and overcome this fear.

“There is a great fear not only among artists, but also between the peoples about how normal relations can be established,” he said. “I think art and especially cinema could play a great role, because politicians are doing their bit, and artists, if they are really free and do not work under government pressure, are doing theirs, which I think can be very useful.”

Avedikian’s film is set to close the festival program on July 18. "Barking Island" tells the story of 30,000 stray street dogs in Istanbul who were rounded up and slaughtered by the Turkish government in 1910 -- a not-so-subtle reference to the massacre of Armenians by the Ottoman Turks.