An Armenian-American finds himself under Soviet lock and key in this charming period feature
Dir/scr: Michael Goorjian. Armenia. 2022. 121mins
For a film set in post-war Soviet Armenia, Amerikatsi radiates a surprising amount of joy. This charming story of an American-Armenian who returns to Armenia 30 years after fleeing the 1915 Armenian Genocide, only to find himself quickly imprisoned under spurious charges, has a deft, audience-friendly lightness of touch, focusing on Armenia’s people rather than its difficult history. Nevertheless, it firmly makes its points about displacement, cultural cleansing and the difficulties of returning home.
Has a deft, audience-friendly lightness of touch
Amerikatsi, which premiered at Woodstock Film Festival in 2022, had a limited US release in September, but its place as the first Armenian film ever to be included on the best international Oscar shortlist should raise wider awareness of this lovely film. It’s also important to note that this period piece has an ongoing relevance; just last year, over 100,000 ethnic Armenians were forced to flee their Nagorno-Karabakh homeland.
The film opens in 1915, when the Ottoman Empire is imposing a genocide on ethnic Armenians. We see most of this horror unfolding during a small peep hole in a trunk, through which a small boy peers, terrified at what he is witnessing. This restricted view, clever framing which prioritises observation over inclusion, will emerge as a key theme of Armenian-American actor/writer/director Michael Goorjian’s well-crafted, personal film, which is dedicated to his own grandfather.
The action then moves on 30 years, to a time when thousands of displaced Armenians accept Stalin’s post-Second World War offer to return to their homeland, now under Soviet rule. This includes Charlie — the boy we saw hidden in the trunk — who escaped as a kid, but returns to Armenia as an adult in 1948 (now played by Goorjian). Having spent the previous three decades in Poughkeepsie, upstate New York, the recently-widowed Charlie is a fish out of water indeed, his Armenian roots not nearly strong enough to make him anything other than a stranger in this land; particularly as he speaks neither Armenian nor Russian.
Yet the endearingly optimistic Charlie is determined to reconnect with his homeland and, when events conspire to bring him into the orbit of a Russian military commander Dmitry (Mikhail Trukhin) and his Armenian wife Sona (Nelli Uvarova), it looks as though Charlie’s luck is in. But Dmitry — and, by extension, Soviet promises of prosperous repatriation — cannot be trusted, and he sees to it that Charlie is locked in prison for the dubious crime of ‘cosmopolitanism’; wearing a fancy tie in public.
The sequence in which Charlie is imprisoned is, like most of the rest of the film, played for humour, cultural misunderstandings and the language barrier being used to genuinely funny effect. The tone is underscored by a largely peppy score by Andranik Berberyan, which pulls in elements of Armenian folk music, and production design which picks out the brightness that radiates from Charlie. It is also shot through Goorjian’s performance; displaying pitch-perfect comedic timing, he plays Charlie as a genuine, open-hearted man who wants nothing more than to heal from unimaginable loss with the balm of home soil.
In prison, however, that becomes increasingly difficult. The Armenian prisoners are routinely humiliated and assaulted (off-screen) by the Soviet guards, who initially take pleasure in humiliating this “dumb American.” The light begins to fade from Charlie’s eyes, until he realises that, from his squalid cell, he can see over the prison’s damaged wall and directly into the home of one of his Armenian prison guards. By dramatic coincidence which will come to bear later in the film, the man, Tigran (Hovik Keuchkerian), is Sona’s brother-in-law.
As he observes the daily lives of Tigran and his wife (Narine Gigoryan), Charlie finds new purpose in their interactions; he eats when they do, takes pleasure in their family gatherings and, gathering rudimentary materials from the prison yard, paints along with Tigran. (Who, it transpires, has to indulge his passions in secret, artistic creativity being considered an anti-Soviet activity).
Moments in which Charlie watches these scenes of Armenian domesticity are beautifully shot, the dankness of his cell contrasting with the humble warmth of the guard’s simple home. Largely keeping at a remove, Ghasem Ebrahimian’s camera only indulging in the occasional close-up, their lives are felt through Charlie’s heartfelt responses. He is the audience along with us, his cell window a rudimentary framing device, through which he is watching the most ordinary of dramas play out.
Yet to him, this simple, unassuming life is an epic production; everything he has wanted, and everything thought lost — just as it remains so for the Armenian diaspora, and displaced souls the world over. When the two worlds eventually collide, and the focus shifts, the sense of shared hope and humanity leaves a powerful impression.
Production company: People Of Ar
International sales: Amadeus Entertainment firstname.lastname@example.org
Producers: Patrick Malkassian, Sol Tryon, Arman Nshanian
Cinematography: Ghasem Ebrahimian
Production design: Nerses Sedrakyan, Avet Tonoyants
Editing: Michael Goorjian, Mike Selemon
Music: Andranik Berberyan
Main cast: Michael Goorjian, Hovik Keuchkerian, Nelli Uvarova, Mikhail Trukhin, Narine Gigoryan