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New Film Explores Identity, Memory, And Borders In Troubled South Caucasus

Elmira Ismayilova says she was always aware she was viewed as an outsider.
Elmira Ismayilova says she was always aware she was viewed as an outsider.
Elmira Ismayilova is Azerbaijani. But ask her native land and she will tell you Yerevan.

The Armenian capital is where her grandparents and great-grandparents lived for decades, the city where she became an actress, got married, and raised children.

But despite her family’s deep roots in Yerevan, Ismayilova says she was always aware she was viewed as an outsider.

"My son was playing in the yard with other children -- Armenians, of course. Suddenly, I saw him coming up the stairs in tears," she recalls. "I asked him why he was crying. He said, 'They called me a Turk.' I said there was no need to cry and that he should be proud to be a Turk. I took him by the hand and went downstairs.

"Our neighbors, of course, said not to worry about it: 'They're just children. They don't know what they're saying.' I said in Armenian, 'If you didn't say this at home, your children wouldn't repeat it in the street.'"

Ismayilova, a veteran actress with the now-displaced Yerevan State Drama Theater of Azerbaijan, is just one of the subjects grappling with the questions of home, identity, and memory in a new documentary called “Memories Without Borders,” which looks at the legacy of conflict in the lives of ordinary Azerbaijanis and Armenians.

'Secret' Armenian Heritage

The 50-minute film, sponsored by the European Union and the London-based NGO Conciliation Resources, comprises four segments filmed separately in Istanbul, Baku, southern Armenia, and Nagorno-Karabakh. (See the film in full below.)

In one, a young man living in Turkey speaks of his family’s shame at their “secret” Armenian heritage.

In another, an elderly filmmaker living in the southern Armenian border city of Goris recalls the time when, as a young border guard, he momentarily trained his rifle on a Turkish soldier, overcome with hatred.

In the film, Armen, who was raised in France, discovers his Armenian roots and returns to Nagorno-Karabakh.
In the film, Armen, who was raised in France, discovers his Armenian roots and returns to Nagorno-Karabakh.
In yet another, Armen, a brash young man raised in France, discovers his Armenian roots and returns to Nagorno-Karabakh to raise a family and reverse his family’s long history of escape and assimilation – a history that began with his grandfather fleeing his home in Bursa to avoid the Ottoman massacre.

"Why would I want to go to Bursa? To feel the loss of the property my grandfather had there? Why would I do that?" Armen says. "My grandfather left the country during the genocide. I also left and headed for another country. You can't restore what you've lost, but you can create something new."

Raw Wounds Of History

The collaborative project -- shot by Armenian, Turkish, and Azerbaijani filmmakers -- touches on the raw wounds of history that continue to afflict relations in the deeply divided region.

These include the mass killing and deportation of ethnic Armenians by Ottoman Turks in the early 20th century, a campaign now known by many historians as the Armenian genocide.

They also include the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh, the Armenian-majority separatist region located within Azerbaijani territory that became the source of a brutal war in the 1980s and '90s, causing thousands of deaths and forcing the displacement of tens of thousands of Armenians and Azerbaijanis.

WATCH: "Memories With Borders" in full

Ismayilova herself is among those displaced. Her troupe fled Yerevan during the Karabakh war. Today, it ekes out a living as a traveling theater in Azerbaijan.

"No one wants to live in exile pining for their homeland," she says tearfully during the film.

Laurence Broers of Conciliation Resources says the idea for "Memories Without Borders" first came about in 2009, when Turkish President Abdullah Gul attended a football match in Armenia -- a tentative move toward detente that was quickly derailed by continued anger over Karabakh.

"This was the time of the Turkish-Armenian opening and also the very evident role of the Karabakh conflict in foiling that initiative," Broers says. "So we had the idea of a professional dialogue through film, looking at the human story angle of the Turkish-Armenian-Azerbaijani axis -- how legacies of unresolved violence are reflected in everyday lives. We did want to avoid a kind of aggressive finger-pointing. There's enough of that out there."

Avoids Taking Sides

While the characters in "Memories Without Borders" are often angry or emotional about their nation’s history, the film carefully avoids the questions of outright blame and responsibility.

The point, says the filmmakers, was to show people on all sides of the conflict that while their views of history may be irreconcilable, they are on common ground when it comes to the consequences.

The film was screened last month in London, Paris, and Brussels and has been featured in film festivals in the United States and Canada. It’s also been quietly introduced to audiences in the South Caucasus, where one of its Armenian producers, Nouneh Sarkisian, says it’s generated a passionate response.

"We don't want to show an artificial reality," she says. "We want to show the truth in reality. And that's why we just found people [to portray] who are ordinary enough to be understandable but also have some uniqueness and have something to share in the framework of their conflict experience.

"I think people in Armenia are open enough to watch this kind of film. And even if they have some kind of negative reaction -- and we had very different reactions -- they are ready to discuss this in a more or less calm [way]."

'Public Diplomacy'

Broers likens the South Caucasus audiences to fans at a football match -- "Everyone wants their team to win in the end."

But he and the filmmakers acknowledge that exposing even small audiences to the film is a step toward better dialogue, particularly as state rhetoric over Karabakh grows increasingly bellicose in both Yerevan and Baku.

Sarkisian and her Azerbaijani colleague, Ilham Safarov, say they hope the film will eventually be shown on local television stations.

Safarov says even those who may be unmoved by the film itself may be impressed by what he calls the "public diplomacy" of Turkish, Armenian, and Azerbaijani filmmakers collaborating together on a single, harmonious project.

"Public diplomacy isn't only about realizing projects, it's also about establishing personal relationships," Safarov says. "And I think it's a very important thing when we can realize projects by developing trusting, normal relations and friendly professional ties.

"But to talk about the entire society in general, in both Armenia and Azerbaijan, of course our relations with each other are basically negative. You have to admit it. All you have to do is look at newspaper articles, watch the news, or read the Internet."

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