The Golden Apricot International Film Festival has transitioned from a project of four visionary friends to a globally recognized crossroads of culture in just one decade. Each year, for one week in July, Armenians and foreign guests gather in the capital to view a diverse selection of films. Renowned filmmakers Atom Egoyan and Harutyun Khachatryan, the Honorary Chairman and General Director of the festival, respectively, spoke to AGBU News Magazine about the mission of Yerevan's premier summer cultural event.
AGBU: What drove you to start the festival?
HK: It was fear that made me start the festival. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, everyone became business people and the film industry began to vanish. People were watching cheap Latin American soap operas and the tradition of going to the theatre was dying out.
I only trusted three close friends to help me. No one supported us in the beginning...back then I felt I was only giving, but now I feel I am receiving.
AGBU: What has changed since the festival was launched ten years ago?
AE: At the beginning we were not sure if we'd be able to make it from one year to the next. Now the festival is self-sustaining. We have an incredible group of people that keeps coming back year after year. They love the sense of friendship, the film selection and being in Armenia... We're offering a way of seeing new films as well as a portal for people to get to know the country.
AGBU: How has the festival impacted the local film industry?
HK: The initial idea was to support the Armenian film industry and attract interest from international audiences. During the first three years of the festival, there were only two or three films submitted by local directors—this year there were 46 Armenian films presented. A selection of Armenian films will also be screened later at Golden Apricot programs in different cities around the world.
AGBU: Does the festival have a niche?
HK: At the moment, we are considered to be one of the best festivals for art house films. We are not showing commercial films. For directors making art house films, Armenia is the ideal place for them to screen.
AGBU: Who is the desired audience?
AE: We have three [target audiences]: local, regional and international. There was a workshop where we invited young filmmakers from Georgia, Iran and Russia, using Yerevan as a crossroads. Historically, Armenia has been at a crossroads. In some ways, this has been our curse, but culturally we are at a huge advantage. As Armenians we've had to be open, otherwise we wouldn't have survived. I think it's the premier cultural event in the country for non-Armenians.
AGBU: This year many Turkish films were featured, including The Swing of the Coffin Maker, set in Azerbaijan. Do such submissions cause controversy?
HK: I'm happy that we are confident enough to include an Azeri film in our program. The selection is based on aesthetics. If it's a good film, we include it.
Of course there are people who are intolerant, but I believe that what our festival accomplishes is more patriotic than small-minded nationalism. This is why we always invite people from Turkey. They take back their good impressions about Armenians. We are absolutely open to the world.
AE: It doesn't cause controversy to invite the films, though we certainly had controversy a few years ago when a Turkish film won. But in a way it also shows how open we are. Anyone who deserves a prize should get that prize.
One of my strongest experiences at the festival was a few years ago when Nuri Bilge Cey- lan was showing Once Upon a Time in Anatolia. I thought it was one of the most amazing pieces I had seen. I called him and we embraced here in this lobby and I said "Thank you for making this film.' I was quite emotional that I was thanking a Turkish filmmaker in Yerevan for bringing his work here.
I have a very complex relationship with the politics with which we have to live. Maybe I have a harder line than most people in being vigilant about this history, but at the same time, artistically I support the idea of openness and moving beyond these situations. It is a delicate negotiation.
AGBU: How do you engage the young generation?
AE: Tumo for me was the biggest revelation of this trip. We had a lengthy conversation at Tumo about trans-media, so we were making connections to the festival. What's exciting about Tumo is that you see that there are all different kinds of technology becoming available. Not just about traditional filmmaking, but also through trans-media and gaming.
AGBU: What is your advice to young filmmakers?
Yerevan's centrally-located Moscow Theater served as a viewing venue as well as festival headquarters.
Charles Aznavour cuts the ribbon to mark the opening of the Golden Apricot International Film Festival, now in its 10th year.
AE: Filmmakers have to be absolutely true to themselves. Don't make films that you think others would like to see. Make the films you feel are most personal to you because those are the only films that have a chance of finding an audience. Find a way of using the camera to tell your own story.
AGBU: What are your plans for the upcoming years?
AE: The big question is whether we will start inviting more producers and distributors...we know that will be the next stage of this growth.
HK: Our main ambition is to develop the Armenian film industry for the next 10 years and do everything possible to create the unique character of the Armenian film industry.
For small nations and small countries, film is the most important tool to show your country to the world. Years ago, I went to the Antalya Film Festival where I won a prize. While I was there, (Prime Minister Recep Tayyip) Erdogan gave a speech and said that Turkey and Azerbaijan no longer needed weapons; the film industry is their biggest weapon.
Armenian cinema can be a powerful weapon and it should be supported.