From her apartment overlooking Tumanyan Street in the heart of Yerevan, steps away from the renowned Opera Theater and Freedom Square, Adrineh Gregorian is surrounded by the ancient culture, traditions and architecture that define one of the oldest cities in the world, and yet simultaneously enveloped in a thriving spirit of modernity, technology and innovation—a nation in the midst of an historic renewal.
Buzzing with expats and repats taking a stroll after work with friends and welcoming locals always willing to share food and drink with a stranger, Yerevan offers a sense of community spirit and a simpler, more enriching life that has made a lasting impact on Gregorian. She intended to stay for ten months, but seven years later, this Los Angeles native has embraced the vibrant Armenian capital as her own. “There was never any other option,” she explains. “I love the feel of a small big city where everything is in walking distance. Armenia really values quality of life versus quantity. And I knew I would never have an opportunity to be part of the initial stages of a country, a once-in-a-lifetime chance to be part of a process of a country developing into its own, so I couldn’t pass that up.”
Part of the appeal of experiencing that transformation firsthand also involved the opportunity to help educate others and raise awareness about women’s issues and human rights, two topics she has passionately pursued since studying international diplomacy at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. In 2008 Gregorian was awarded a United States Fulbright Grant to study reproductive healthcare in Armenia, focusing her research on sex-selective abortion, an international burden that has affected Armenia deeply over the past twenty years. Sometimes referred to as “gendercide,” cultural and patriarchal pressures on women in Armenia to maintain family lineage, property inheritance and financial support, among other reasons, have resulted—according to a 2012 UN report—in an average of nearly 115 boys being born for every 100 girls, a rate second only to China globally. This unbalanced sex ratio, experts warn, will likely have severe consequences for the country’s already struggling demographic future.
Gregorian spent a few years traveling across Armenia, listening to and convincing women to open up about a taboo in Armenian society. “These women never really have a choice what to do with their bodies, they are taught at a very young age that being a woman is undervalued and therefore having a female child is not honoring your family. That really angered me that society as a whole undervalues females.” Inspired to change society’s cultural perceptions and practices with respect to women, Gregorian produced a short documentary film, Bavakan [Enough]—a reference to the tradition of naming second or third born girls Bavakan. Premiering at the Cannes Film Festival’s Short Corner in 2013, the result helped galvanize Armenian society, from villagers to college students to human rights organizations. The voices of the four women featured in the film were also heard around the world as Bavakan would eventually be screened in more than 28 countries, and land Gregorian an invitation to speak during the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women. The film garnered a Best Film Award at the One Shot Film Festival in Yerevan. In the year since the movie premiered, with the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) assuming a lead role among collective efforts to reduce the discrepancy, Armenia’s sex at birth ratio dropped from nearly 115 to 113 boys for every 100 girls.
We were able to educate people. They took a step back and said wait a minute, something is not ok here and they reprioritized their values.
At the same time, Gregorian was nearing completion on another documentary—again with the goal to influence positive change through film. Back to Gürün is a personal journey about Gregorian’s travels to Turkey, where she met a young Turkish man and discovered their grandparents both hailed from the same village in the Sivas province of Anatolia. For the first time, they set out together to visit their ancestral hometown, not as adversaries but as two people with a shared common heritage, whose honest dialogue as individuals explores the theme of resolution—in stark contrast to the discourse of two countries marked by severed diplomatic ties and a closed border. Back to Gürün won the Armenia-Turkey Cinema Platform award in 2013 and more recently, a Special Jury Prize at the Golden Apricot Film Festival.
Over the course of traveling and shooting the film, Gregorian’s passion for storytelling as a medium to generate empathy in a wider audience, and ultimately drive social change, grew stronger. “What I understand undoubtedly is that in every single individual there is a story that can transcend age, race and sex, and can help create connections across all these boundaries. I love the work I do here,” she adds. The reward for her, she says, is being able to provide a platform or voice to people who might otherwise not have one, and changing people’s perceptions in the process. Storytelling “has the ability to change the way one person sees the world. And if you have the ability the change it even in one person than I think you’ve succeeded.”
Gregorian credits much of her own motivation to succeed to the education she received at the AGBU Manoogian-Demirdjian School in Los Angeles, where she graduated in 1995. The teachers, she recalls, really “cared so much about us. They wanted us to succeed academically and they did their best to make that happen. I remember nothing from calculus but everything about the importance of working hard or the little lectures teachers would tell us about being kind, responsible, getting good grades and thinking about future careers—values that still affect my life today.” She is most grateful for her cherished network of lifelong friends she met at the AGBU Manoogian-Demirdjian School. “They inspire me, enrich me, envelop me with love and security and are still my best friends today—that bond can never be broken. That’s the biggest gift AGBU could ever give me.”
When Gregorian is not working on her films, she helps run a non-profit organization devoted to women’s issues, Sose’s Women Org. She is also a talented and accomplished painter whose portraits have been exhibited in museums and galleries in the US, Armenia, Turkey, Georgia and Italy.
She is currently working on a number of non-profit and media outreach projects, including a plan to promote sex education in Armenian schools.
Banner photo by Ara