By Giuliano Vivaldi
Amongst Russian documentary filmmakers there is arguably only one, Tatyana Daniliyants, who restores a vivid, lucid and healthily bright anthropological glance on the city. Not the city of Moscow (although a very early, and very rarely shown, film of hers ‘U’ did feature that city) but ‘southern cities’. If Venice was pictured through the labour of its artisans and craftsmen in her Venice Afloat, then Yerevan comes alive through music or, more precisely, through musicians (one of with a certain amount of irony, given Armenia’s landlocked status, named his band The Armenian Naval Orchestra). This symbiosis captured between a city and the labour or the voice of its inhabitants means that Daniliyants’ films are not city films in a conventional sense of the city symphony film but a film about the lived in and the living, breathing city. This is something rather unusual in Russian documentaries which, more often than not, demonstrate a preference for either individual portraits, taut psychological explorations of inner worlds, or may explore a milieu without linking them to any wider sense of the topography of this milieu. Private, inner spaces are all too rarely are opened up into broader civic spaces. Fortunately Tatyana Daniliyants represents a noble exception by rescuing the viewer from that claustrophobia of these rigid psychological portraits, instead placing her protagonists very much within the cityscape.
Danilyants’ latest film Six Musicians and a City is an exceptionally successful representation of place. Not place alone, but place and destiny, place and history as some extraordinary chronical footage demonstrates. Central to the film is the image of a city recovering, overcoming the trauma of earthquakes, wars, blockades and near famine of the late 1980’s and early 1990’s (and also the genocide of a century ago). A film dedicated to physical survival and the survival of voices, the endurance of history and culture.Moreover, the city is present in many guises: the center and the periphery, the city as memory, the city as architectural and cultural history, the city as nature, the city as coincidental meeting place, the city as fleeting impressions as well as the bar and club life of the city, the city as one imbued simultaneously with nostalgia and forward looking drive. All this is the backdrop to the six musicians’ tour of Yerevan. For a documentary filmmaker choosing six protagonists could well be a risky strategy but here it is a winning strategy precisely because of the diversity of how they illuminate the city and are themselves reflected in this topography.
The six musicians come from different generations, have different musical styles and reveal different Yerevans. So, for example, Arto Tuncboyaciyan the avantgarde folk musician and leader of the ‘Armenian Navy Band’ reveals to the viewer his origins as an Armenian singer in Turkey and the influence that growing up there had on his music. His links to the city and even to the Armenian language while tenuous than others, he, interestingly, reveals most powerfully a sense of what the survival of Armenian culture meant in adverse situations. Indeed the very concept behind the naming of his band along with his explanations of his music as an outlet of his situation in the exclusionary reality of Turkey places his music as an articulation of the universal moment of Armenian culture. This is not to say that the other musicians were any less international. Malkhas, a jazz player and festival organiser and a wonderful racconteur, along with Forsh, a bard and a composer both ‘made it’ internationally (whether in the United States or Argentina), revealing the ease with which Armenian culture travels internationally and given their return to their native land and contribution to Yerevan, hints at how the role of the emigrant in Armenian culture seems less dramatic than that of one in, say, Russian culture. The duduk player, Jivan Gaspariyan, also an international traveller with his music, represents perhaps the most traditionalist musician and nostalgic glance on the city. Yet he, even with his memories of the city (imbued as they are with a melancholic nostalgia for a smaller, bygone Yerevan) does not dismiss the contemporary, larger Yerevan. One of the most extraordinary portraits is of the bard Lilith Pipoyan who finds inspiration in many different eras of Armenian musical and poetic history and illuminates not just those times but also presents us the Soviet and the peripheral Yerevan alongside a Yerevan based in its milennial history. Grandiose Soviet distilleries appear alongside the ancient Yerevan fortress and we are then later shown peripheral Yerevan’s Constructivist buildings. It is the youngest musician, Michael Voskanyan, an ethno-jazz musician playing the ‘Tar’ instrument, to represent the youngest generation of musicians. Interestingly his choosen spaces are the least ‘city-like’ of all, finding shelter in those green, natural spaces still found in Yerevan.
While all epochs of Armenian history are represented here, it is the trauma of the late eighties and early nineties which plays a central role in the film. Through different generational perspectives (those who lived through it as adults and those only recently born at the time) and also through different optics – at times tragic, mournful backdrops but also sometimes lightened with romantic anecdotal memories like that of Malkhas of his traipse through Yerevan on a gloomy and murky early winter morning to be greeted with a rumka of vodka at the currency exchange kiosk. Each account of the nineties – that ‘lost time’ for Armenia – is accompanied by found footage of the time (and this is one of those extra layers of the film that makes it such a rich and rewarding viewing experience) , contrasting it with contemporary Yerevan shown in all its splendour, managing to avoid glamour but clearly demonstrating a love for its aesthetic beauty . Notes of criticism or restrained sadness of Yerevan’s transformation are heard – Malkash’s story of the transformation of the Kopeechka bar into Martini as well as Jivan Gasparyan’s comment that Yerevan has become more a city of businessmen than of artists- although this is not a film that dismisses the transformation. Far from it, as scenes later in the film show , for example, Malkash’s stories about his own contribution to a recent cultural renaissance in the Yerevan jazz scene and the touching scene of Gasparyan walking around the city with his son.
Tatiana Daniliyants’ extraordinary film is witness to the individuality of her gaze in the Russian documentary scene. A conglomeration of geographical influences – Armenian descent but then a very long presence in Venice, even an Algerian childhood alongside work with Polish cinematic maitres- may partially account for this opening up of cityscapes, and her unique ability to re-explore the civic without the more rigid psychological tenseness that accompanies much of the ‘Russian school of documentary filmmaking’. The film is such a testament, too, to the vibrancy of Armenian culture ( it is, indeed, such an indelible presence in Russian culture, too, one can roll off the names of Valery Brusov, Andrey Bely, Osip Mandelstham, Vassily Grossman and Andrey Bitov as an indicator of how much Armenia has meant to Russian culture). Indeed, for Daniliyants, one could argue that the conduit (her own ‘naval ship’ if we are to think of Arto Tuncboyaciyan’s prescient and pregnant metaphor) was that truly monumental Armenian figure of Soviet cinema, Sergei Parajanov whose visit to Venice was the subject of an extraordinary recent exhibition of Daniliyants’ art work and of a small film of hers. The Parajanov whose photo hangs along with those of that extraordinary actor Frunzik Mkurtichyan and others in the Martini bar appearing at the beginning of the film- part of that great conglomeration of Armenian artistic figures, the subject of Malkashes recollections and nostalgia. Let’s hope that Moscow will get this treatment some day (whether in documentary or in feature films): a city glance with a lightness of touch rarely seen since the 1960s and, coincidentally, it southerners, like Marlen Khutsiev and Georgij Danelija, who managed this in such memorable films as Walking the Streets of Moscow, Ilich gate and July Rain.