Optimistic atmosphere surrounds fest

YEREVAN, Armenia — The second Yerevan Golden Apricot Film Festival brought a strong response from the international fest crowd, portending a bright future for the event, held July 12-17 in the Armenian capital. Though still small in scale, it has already positioned itself as a regional contender in the Caucasus and a link with Russia and the Mideast.

A small country fraught with tragedy, Armenia was involved in a bloody war with neighboring Azerbaijan until a cease-fire was declared in 1994. An energy crisis at the time forced some 20% of the population to emigrate.

But now the atmosphere is optimistic once more. The center of Yerevan pulsates with buildings under construction and late-model cars. Youth line up at the Moscow cinema to see new movies and push their way into workshops with international filmmakers.

Audiences turned out en masse to welcome star directors Abbas Kiarostami, Krzysztof Zanussi and Nikita Mikhalkov. Two guests with Armenian backgrounds, actress Arsinee Khanjian and Canadian director Atom Egoyan, who headed the international jury, were especially popular.

The government’s interest in the festival made itself keenly felt. Armenian president Robert Kocharian received a delegation of foreign guests in the presidential palace, seeking their opinions on how the local filmmaking industry might be developed. Vartan Oskanian, the minister of foreign affairs and fest’s honorary chairman, assured festgoers that the Golden Apricot would be “an annual event at the crossroads of civilization.”

The film selection, though chosen from last year’s festivals, was widely regarded as top-notch. With few U.S. films on view, European and new Russian cinema took home the lion’s share of the awards.

Aleksandr Sokurov’s revisionist study of emperor Hirohito and Japan’s surrender at the end of WWII, “The Sun,” earned the feature film prize, while Pirjo Honkasalo’s “The 3 Rooms of Melancholia” dealing with Chechnya copped the prize for documentaries.

Documentary filmmaker Harutyun Khatchatryan was a passionate fest chief, putting together a 140-title show acclaimed by the international juries. His own new doc, “Return of the Poet” about local bard Ashugh Jivani, was one of two feature-length Armenian premieres on view. The other was the psychoanalysis drama “Mariam” directed by Edgar Baghdasaryan.

The shortage of local films is fest’s Achilles heel and may prove its chief stumbling block to growth.

“People are so hungry here for film,” notes Egoyan, who led a directing workshop in the National Art Gallery that was packed to the rafters. “You can feel the spirit of renewal which has allowed people to rise from the complete devastation of ten years ago. There has been a huge generational shift that is essential for the emergence of a film culture.”

“We managed to tap into the audience,” agrees Arsinee Khanjian. “A giant step has been taken.”

Apricots, along with grapes, are Armenia’s national fruit. The festival’s whimsical apricot theme was elaborated on in dinner menus, apricot vodka, and even a religious ceremony held in a church for the ritual blessing of the apricots.

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