Nowadays, there is no dearth of documentaries recording the horrors of war. What distinguishes Vardan Hovhannisyan’s film about the 1989-1994 conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan is his own participation in the hostilities as a soldier and his followup study of survivors, including himself. Neither personalized video diary nor objective reportage, “A Story of People in War and Peace” unfolds with a remarkably matter-of-fact, almost serene contemplation on the profound changes wrought in individuals both by war and by the subsequent peace. Well received at fests — snagging Tribeca’s new documentary filmmaker prize — pic is skedded for broadcast throughout Europe.
Helmer Hovhannisyan, as he informs the viewer in his voice-over English narration, traveled worldwide as a respected frontline journalist and cameraman before ethnic warfare broke out in his backyard.
Instead of covering the struggle for international news agencies, he traded in his camera for a rifle and fought for his country, only filming his fellow soldiers during a five-day stretch of murderously intense fighting in 1994. This footage later haunted him, and a question from his son caused him to revisit the images he hadn’t looked at for more than a decade.
Hovhannisyan embarks on a pilgrimage to discover what happened to the gaunt, sunken-eyed men he videotaped 12 years previously, bringing with him photos captured from that tape as well as the computer-loaded video itself. While what he finds is perhaps predictable, the outcomes seldom correspond to the original personalities or aspirations of the long-ago soldiers he interviewed in foxholes or recorded as they lugged dead brothers through enemy fire.
Thus the peace-loving family guy who tenderly spoke to his beloved children via Hovhannisyan’s camera has become an embittered career soldier on a sniper-infested border, his wife and kids having left him. The teenage war hero, formerly an unhesitating, intrepid leader of men and killer of 100 enemy troops, no longer knows how to accept his past or proceed with his future.
Hovhannisyan follows his subjects in their present-day circumstances, through quaint little burgs or sweeping pastoral vistas, interspersing these tranquil scenes with the jumpy, hand-held chaos of the old service tapes. But rather than imposing some particular dramatic rhythm on the juxtaposition, the filmmaker tries to figure out exactly which soldier, say, is now the village mailman. Hovhannisyan brings the viewer into the process with the same casual ease with which he includes his rediscovered comrades in the creation of their shared “story.”
Tech credits are inconspicuously fine, Vahagn Ter-Hakopian’s post-bellum lensing as impressive in its serenity as is Hovhannisyan’s in its wartime immediacy.