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The Critical Corner - 01/31/2005

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GARDEN DWELLING
by Tina Bastajian
Turkey/USA, 2004, 29 min, Beta SP)

Armenian News Network / Groong
January 31, 2005

by Bedros Afeyan


If you find yourself between the moon and New York City on February
the 5th, 2005, at 6 PM, you might want to go to the NYU Cantor Film
Center in the Village and give "Garden Dwelling" a go. There you will
listen to 25 minutes of snippets of Armenian, garbles of Turkish,
formal Arabic mangled between a Turk and a Lebanese Armenian, neither
of them aware of that which they do not know, some French in the hands
of a Lebanese Armenian woman and now a French "archeologist," or so it
seems, and lots of English spackle to attempt to hold these mutterings
together.

The only certainty in this film, shot in 2003, is that you may not
fall in love with it.  Garden Dwelling is the newest episode of
cultural or ethnic attempted self-discovery served up by the American
Armenian film maker, Tina Bastajian. There is such a hefty dose of
what happens when someone is so far away from being Armenian, so
uncomfortable, ill informed and confused about identity and facts,
about depth and ownership, so tentative and superficial, so alien and
unapproachable, that all you can expect is the depiction of just that.
Failed contact, cracked hopes and vision, half measures, half
fissures, nothing leads to nothing, and other adult moans and groans
in the name of the long march "home."

There is a lot of self-loathing in all this too. It is a voyage of
four hapless Armenians, the two vocal ones being from the middle east,
with a curiously weak grasp of any and all languages they speak,
trying to get the Turks to say something, to contradict themselves, to
lie, to reminisce, to confess, to come clean about what "they" did to
the Armenians 90 years ago. Alas, the Turks are too clever for that or
too above it. It does not matter what they say and what they make up
and what they lie about. More tragic than this is the futile
enthusiasm by these make shift, make do detectives to unearth "the
truth" while looking in all the wrong places. Every Turkish slip of
the tongue then thrills them like a clever prosecution attorney having
painted his hostile witness into a corner. Every attempt at false
(pathetic) Turkish propaganda makes them speculate and theorize
grandiose paranoid webs of what these clever Genocidal Turks might be
up to once again...

As if this is not enough to raise many an informed eye brow, one of
these characters even phones in extremely negative impressions of
Yerevan and Armenia, which is recorded on an answering machine
stateside, served up in this movie as an antidote to the marches in
Turkey. And what antidote this? He hates Armenia! He finds Armenians
there totally taken by their daily economic needs and oblivious of the
larger political struggles that are so near and dear to Diaspora
Armenians' hearts... uh huh! And then what? Then we get to hear how
X-Soviet Armenians (this fellow meets) complain about the Turkish
border being closed and the hardships this causes and how it is all
the fault of diasporan Armenians who still talk about the recognition
of the Genocide of 1915. When reminded that the boycott and border
closing are actually the results of the war of liberation in Karabakh,
those Yerevantsis clam up... The Lebanese Armenian narrator constantly
concludes that he preferred Turkey to Armenia... His explanations are
unconvincing. There is good shock value to it though...

Lost souls, belonging nowhere, quixotic, visiting ancestral homelands
as American tourists, speaking to randomly chosen, available, yet
illiterate Turks about the past and their history! What a brilliant
strategy! What could possibly come of such desperate acts? What can
anyone expect at Ani, Anatolia or Istanbul? Scholars and historians
pondering the tide of duplicity and ferocity that 90 years ago was
their trade and well, not much has changed? Should the passing remark
on the plight of Kurds and the injustices they suffer today lift this
25 minute romp to a level of respectability it sorely needs? Or is it
the protagonists' stated opposition to the US war on Iraq that is
supposed to give this story sufficient political correctness to be
included in a series in NY on Middle Eastern film studies?

No. What we have here is a lot of talent and ambition, alienation,
general bitterness and a misguidedness that cries out for help. There
is a choice an American Armenian can make. I will learn my ancestral
language and my history and culture. I will grow as an Armenian even
on these foreign shores and I will build and enrich my culture. I will
do it without denigrating it or selling it short (or out). I will not
make something of what I do not know and can not penetrate. I will not
simply call it odar or alien or different and strange and patronize
the whole bunch of them. I will try and preserve and nourish my
culture, even if I do it as a diasporan and not a native of our
ancestral lands.  This is the hard way. Alternately, caught up in a
bona fide yankee world and yankee world view, I can TRY and look back
and over my shoulder at what it means to THEM to be Armenian, and I
can stick to my blurred vision and confused ears which hear the
melding of languages and styles, all of which don't amount to much on
these purifying and cleansing rocky shores, with new paint and polish
erasing the blood, effacing the faith and force that kept us alive for
millennia. Movie after movie, attempt after attempt to say: Look! Look
how strange these customs are? Aren't these people weird? Why are they
so obsessed with a genocide, with a language, a cuisine, a set of
ancient Christian morals, when they can be HAPPY, they can be GIDDY,
they can be FREE?

Actually, she knows better than to state this, Ms. Bastajian. What she
relishes is the "nothing means nothing" vein of utterance. See? It's
all nonsense! See? It's all make believe. So these folks like their
customs and those other folks like theirs, and so the strong killed
the weak, since they had the ways and means to do it and since the
weaks were just not assimilating. So... this is the crucible of
history and these are the facts. Why bother? Flip the channel!

This din is always there when video clips are intermixed with straight
video from a TV screen, with hand held cameras and super 8 footage and
on and on as if it were an homage to Atom Egoyan, complete with the
Akhtamar ookhtaknatsoutiun (and close ups of the ancient church's
walls riddled with bullet holes which are a permanent record of the
fact that the Turkish army has used it as a shooting range and for
target practice), the ad libbed dialogue, the half baked translations,
the innuendoes, the ennui, the malaise, the accents and foreign turns
of phrase, all huddled masses, all lost, all yelling "foul!" 90 years
too late, as surrogates for the cries that were undone then, and are
less than genuine now, however sober witnesses they may be of our
will's decay and decorum, our internal debates and delirium, our
palpitations and potage of self pity, unsalted, dauntless and dawdled.

There is a choice to be made. Learn and know your culture or go door
to door, left and right, here and there, unprepared, and seek what you
have not the means to absorb or attend to, even if history were on
your side, nations not dead set against your wishes and expediently
stroking the beast, hoping it does not rise up to strike again.
Whether an ostrich or a chicken, it is no fate for an Armenian in this
day and age. 90 years after the final solution. We should arm
ourselves with much more than a camera and a dictionary we can not
read in order to maintain or build upon the blood shed so that one
day, we can blend in and disappear while dancing the hala or eating
dolma straight from the (film) can.


--
Dr. Bedros Afeyan is a theoretical physicist who works and lives in
the Bay area with his wife, Marine. He writes in Armenian and in
English and also paints and sculpts. Samples of his work can be found
on his personal web pages at: http://208.177.152.139/

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