By Mónica Delgado

This film, which is part of the Forum Expanded section of the Berlin International Film Festival, caught my attention due to requests for the withdrawal of the film in the program and the censorship of political activists on social networks, calling it pure propaganda about a war, with claims against the justification of ethnocides, ethnic cleansing and fascism. It is the documentary Black Bach Artsakh, by the filmmakers Ayreen Anastas and Rene Gabri, from Palestine and Iran, respectively, whose scope of recording, with camera in hand, travelling by roads, in the style of a road movie, is located in a war zone, and opens in the midst of a current context where both sides (Armenia and Azerbaijan) are in a momentary ceasefire. But is it, as noted on social networks, a propaganda film?

The filmmakers are located in the Nagorno Karabakh region, with an Armenian majority, the center of the conflict after its separation from Azerbaijan in 1988. Because to the type of interviews, the selection of characters and scenes in which they appear -also recorded in 2007- , also because the anti-war tone and, above all, the point of view, this documentary is filmed from the side of Artsaj, an Armenian territory that has de facto sovereignty and claims for its independence. Hence the title of the film, which generates a relationship between the music of Bach and the territories of Artsakh (Artsaj), as devices that help to build this disputed world.

Black Bach Artsakh is divided into thirteen acts, many of them in a poetic key to the rhythm of Bach cantatas. A voice-over, which recites and reflects in a reflective language on the nature of war, colonialism, uprooting, identity and the yoke on the peasantry, while images of landscapes, inhabitants or diverse places appear to reinforce this climate of pastoral introspection. And there are also acts where children, adolescents, old women are registered in their environment and are interviewed about the war and about their reticent relationship with Azerbaijan, and of course, with Russia.

From what has been described, the filmmakers assume the elements of a documentary from a particular side, which seeks to show and talk about victimized people, where there is doubt around the consequences of a conflict, because of certain perpetrators, but at the same time there’s a choice for marking a position in favor of the defense of nations, as watertight and millennial compartments. The sequences, at least two, dedicated to orthodox Christian cults (compared to the Muslim majority Azerbaijan outskirts) have already set the tone for the reading that could be given to this exclusive idea of the plural, perhaps of nationalists whiffs, protected by traditions or inherited territories.

Both Ayreen Anastas and Rene Gabri, both based in the US, have already worked together on artistic projects of similar political impulse. And last year a film by them, Born of the * * * On Zarathustra’s Going Under from Cairo to Oran, was also presented within the framework of Berlinale’s Expanded Forum. There, within a hybrid film, they ventured into interpretations of the figure of the Nietzschean hermit. And with this new film, they extend their creative framework, with an ethical and provocative turn in a particular context, which in Black Bach Artsakh starts from the reflective essay, the pamphlet, and the revisitation of Bach as a liberating sound layer in front of the war.

Beyond the controversy aroused in networks, and Artsaj’s vision of adhesion and defense (which is also accompanied at the end, in the part of the credits, by similar harangues in favor of territories with independence rights, from Palestine to Chiapas) , the film seems to exhaust itself in its “goodness”, in showing this terrain as a bucolic Arcadia, where at times Bach’s cantatas are heard emphatically (and why not, unbearably) in their praise of God or divine salvation.

With echoes of a committed political cinema, rather than propaganda in itself, an orientation to victimize is perceived, where there is an objectification of the subjects observed and interviewed. And perhaps it takes on more meaning and value when one sees through it the portrait of a community, of a troubled, resistant territory that still hopes to find peace. This loss of “the innocence of the camera” is too evident in his purposes.

Forum Expanded
Direction and script: Ayreen Anastas, Rene Gabri
Photography: Rene Gabri
Editing: Rene Gabri, Ayreen Anastas
Music: Johann Sebastian Bach
Sound design: Ayreen Anastas, Rene Gabri
Sound: Rene Gabri
Producers: Rose Sélavy, Parks Luksemburg
Armenia, 2021, 150 min