On Saturday 30th October 2021 LUX shows Black Bach Artsakh (2021) within a screening series of cinema-gestures by Ayreen Anastas and Rene Gabri, curated by Azar Mahmoudian as part of the multi-chapter program of moving image practices, Sensible Grounds. Here the artists reflect on the film’s subject matter.
April 24th 2021
A Note on the History of April 24th
We take this chance, as we write you this letter on April 24th 2021 to share something critical and vulnerable which only communities formed through friendship and care can attend to.
Exactly 106 years ago, on this day the Turkish Ottoman authorities gathered up Armenian artists, writers, intellectuals, anyone who could potentially be a political voice or a path for others to know about the impending genocide. All of them were told that they were merely being taken to answer some questions, most of them taken in their evening clothes would be killed in the subsequent weeks and months. And so too would half of all existing Armenians in the ensuing years as well as hundreds of thousands of Greeks, Assyrians and Yezidis.
After these massive ‘crimes’, a world order and new borders emerged from the Soviet Union to the ‘modern’ Turkey extending to Europe, the existing near and Middle East and North Africa, all based on the divided ‘spoils’ and the denial of this massive operation aided by the German military to systematically annihilate an indigenous people and ‘undesired communities’ from their ancestral lands, their traditions, their forms of life. And not losing the economic perspective, to take everything from them before killing them.
This means that even if like the Second World War, the First World War was centered and anchored by Genocide. The history of this critical mass act of violence, which would orient and give birth to so many new nation-states and borders, was, until recently, officially denied or largely suppressed by nearly all states in the former East and West for preserving their geopolitical interests. The paradoxes, aporias, ironies, lessons are too many to name in such a short note. We could say in passing for example that one cannot imagine Israel and its inception based on ethnic cleansing of Palestinians and then denial and erasure (the Balfour declaration being made in 1917) without such a proximate (both temporally and geographically) model. And how can one begin to even think about the Kurdish struggles of today without relegating the complete destruction of Armenian life from those overlapping and shared regions to oblivion? What would a just relation and a non oblivious relation to these crimes and ongoing violence constitute?
The Nazis and Hitler himself were truly inspired by not only the ‘achievements’ of the Turkish authorities who brought to life this post-genocidal wonderland ‘Modern Turkey’, but also Ataturk and his cohorts’ capacities to construct this Turkish mono national state by denying, erasing, falsifying the history of these mass killings and expropriations.
A Note on the Invasion of Artsakh
So when this Fall, the Azeri state, run for most of its existence by a family – with the aid of Turkey, NATO’s second biggest army, mercenaries brought as ‘cannon fodder’ from the Syrian killings fields, Israeli made drones, munitions and weaponry “battle tested” on Palestinians – invaded an Armenian region autonomously governed and self-recognized as the Republic of Artsakh since the fall of the Soviet Union – for Armenians throughout the world, what was happening was clear to see in continuity with those events and the longue durée of violence that their communities had to resist, persist and exist.
But that clarity could be no match to more than a hundred years of denialism and the infrastructures which have educated so many, including many Armenians themselves, to not sufficiently respect the unwieldy and violent forces which such structured and glorified ignorance must continually produce (our Kurdish comrades know this fact very well). Like any criminal that must cover up the trace of their crime continually by living and even celebrating the lie. We are living today in the circles of celebrated lies.
The entire history of colonized and enslaved peoples is under the duress of such structured forms of ignorance even if they take the name of ‘modernization’ and ‘development’ as the modern Turkish state did emulating the European colonial nation-states.
In the face of the most unspeakable acts of violence which were unleashed in Arstakh this last fall, the effect of such ignorance were more evident than ever. If there are any peoples within Armenian history who could claim the longest stable presence in their ancestral lands, it would be the people of Artsakh. And here they were, an impoverished community of 150,000 inhabitants being invaded by the most ‘modern’ weaponry and brutal ancient forms of state violence and terror, from endless drone killings, cluster munitions, white phosphorous bombs to beheadings, mutilations and torture. All the mainstream press could do was proliferate what-about-ism and both-side-ism, the by now familiar means for muddying the waters, displaying their objective ignorance boldly, proudly.
The silence of States and their energy, financial and geopolitical interests were also to be expected. What was for many less expected, after 100 years of efforts by surviving Armenians spread across earth to seek recognition in their communities for these brutal crimes and their continuation – through the construction of infrastructures of oblivion, obfuscation, denialism, and justified, even glorified violence – was the silence of so many friends and comrades. One really understood the depth of the ignorance that such regimes of denialism can produce even among other communities who have suffered similarly and continue to struggle against oblivion and the violence of states founded on genocide and ethnic cleansing.
A Note on Black Bach Artsakh
Speechless in the face of this violence, what we could produce was a film which could be a force of healing and a means of finding or coming to voice. It is not a document as much as it is a testament. As a testament it addresses questions which are raised by those who inhabit this world we have named Black Bach Artsakh, thinking with them from the perspective of those who have been deemed homo sacer in their histories, in the horizon of a life beyond these regimes of oblivion.
It is composed of thirteen parts, each working with encounters from Artsakh recorded in 2007, exactly 13 years after a bloody war for self-determination after efforts to do so through plebiscites were met by state organized violence by the Soviet Azeri and later newly independent Azeri authorities. And 13 years before this recent invasion in the Fall.
For the friends who would like to attune more to this world that currently exists in a state of even greater vulnerability and precarity – with Russian ‘peacekeepers’ stationed there to demarcate their imperial sovereignty over this region, Turkish and Azeri military occupying most of what had been liberated 26 years ago, and all internal and external interests who only seek to profit for themselves from this precarious situation – we have made a film which attempts to hold or open a space to perceive what is at stake and how it may relate to all of our relations to what is called past, to living in states founded on genocide, on colonization, mass theft, and the eternal forces waged by everyday peoples affirming life, resisting such violence waged by within those states of denial.
A Note on Dissemination
In wanting to share this film with you, we are searching for ways of dissemination and also recognition that go beyond the social infrastructures for art which have been developed and largely serve those same forces of denialism and transactional self-serving, preserving, legitimizing reifying operations.
We are imagining a subterranean distribution and circulation of this film – another infrastructure, a kind of Underground Railroad for vulnerable film-worlds. This sharing with you, is a first step in that direction.
If you are interested, we will share more about this concept. Since the film itself is in a vulnerable state invoking a vulnerable state of things, we do not want to distribute ‘openly’ but hand to hand and through a process of sharing based on friendship, affinity, care and trust.
For us what we would like to share with you is a world and our attempts through whatever could be an artistic practice and a relation to, use of cinematic means to leave a testament to our encounters with its inhabitants.
The music of JS Bach was for us a force of healing and support during the Fall when this violence was unleashed. As such, its healing qualities, Bach‘s remedies, became a structuring element and accompaniment in our journey toward an idea of a healing arts and toward what some could even call, as the first and last horizon of every art, redemption.
April 25th 2021
No film attempting to confront wounds that have been hidden away and yet so profound in the effects on the common life of so many peoples can be an easy process.
No film trying to confront war while also confronting what the very notion of war attempts to cover over, hide, will be easy to hold together.
No film attempting to explore the afterlives of genocide and the consequence of its denial as it manifests in a particular place, in this case Artsakh, can be an easy effort. Especially since the more recent histories of conflict are so easy to overwrite that seemingly more distant past.
In this way, it is not necessarily an ‘easy’ film/world to enter. Its very matrix of genesis is not with or from ease, but rather unease and even a dis-ease that plagues earthly life.
How to live with the afterlives or ghosts of genocide?
How to inhabit worlds which we cannot see or even perceive, but whose denial and suppression creates conditions for repetitions of the same violence whether upon the same bodies historically marked for elimination or substitute bodies, communities.
Part of the challenge of this film in this particular time is that it is at once in dialogue with those most familiar and intimate to these suppressed histories and yet attempting to open up this internal dialogue that is at once with oneself, with communities who feel implicated in these afterlives and at the same time with those who want to enter this film-world as a way of making contact with or being touched by it.
It develops slowly and in layers following somehow also the geography of Artsakh. It unfolds slowly a sense of place, in each stage, choosing different means. Moreover, much of what is seen or heard has different resonances which for those who are less familiar with the history of Artsakh or the region and its peoples, especially Armenians, may remain more opaque, even if always somehow palpable.
There is on the one hand what transpires as pure ‘narration’ or as a set of events recorded and there is concurrently, a historical plane, both more proximate and distant. Furthermore, there is an immanent plane which remains ever present in the film as well as one which may concern the film most, which we could call an eternal one, the latter two being related but distinct. These different planes are invoked by different voices and processes in the film and whatever could be called its suppleness and layerings unfolds in the reverberations between these planes and how they resonate in the bodies which perceive them and come into contact with them.
There is no viewing guide or even the ambition to guide the one who is invited to enter and care for this world by keeping watch over it. Yet, one thing is clear, given its orientations and the spring from which it emerges, it would be inadequate to compare it to film in its normative sense. It is more an offering of a space-time-environment, for a way of relating, to a place, to a people, to a history or histories, to a condition using the film form. And yes though this film clearly has its friends, its precedents, its film or artistic ancestry, they are few and far between.
We don’t know how this film can be watched. But we know that the kind of watching we are after is more closer to a vigil and a vigilance of a world threatened by destruction and erasure, than it is a watching of a film. And yet, where it also lives as a film: it is here that the meaningless wealth and power of those rulers and regimes, comes to some limit. It is as a film that this world can find a safe space to continue, to send its signals and communicate what seems incommunicable for a future past or past future. And however partial and fragmentary in nature, these fragments open a kind of cycle of thoughts, percepts, affects, which call for themselves to also be confronted with what art or film has done with itself in its histories and uses.
As healing has been at the center of the exigency to bring this film-world together, then surely those seeking healing, especially in their communal being, may find more remedies and affections from it.