Director: Suzanne Khardalian
Producer: HB PeA Holmquist Film
Length: 58 min., Sweden
Date of release: September 2011
STOCKHOLM, Sweden—“Grandma Khanoum was not like everyone else. As a child I remember her as a wicked woman. She despised physical contact. This was a grandma who never hugged, gave no kisses. And she wore those gloves, which hid her hands and the tattoos. They hid her secret.” This is how Suzanne Khardalian describes her grandmother.
Khardalian is the director and producer of riveting new film called “Grandma’s Tattoos” that lifts the veil of thousands of forgotten women—survivors of the Armenian Genocide—who were forced into prostitution and tattooed to distinguish them from the locals.
“As a child I thought these were devilish signs that came from a dark world. They stirred fear in me. What were these tattoos? Who had done them, and why? But the tattoos on grandma’s hands and face were a taboo. They never spoke about it,” explains Khardalian.
“Grandma’s Tattoos” is a journey into the secrets of the family. Eventually, the secret behind Grandma Khanoum’s blue marks are revealed.
“Grandma was abducted and kept in slavery for many years somewhere in Turkey. She was also forcibly marked—tattooed—as property, the same way you mark cattle. The discovery of the story has shaken me. I share the shame, the guilt, and anger that infected my grandma’s life. Grandma Khanoum’s fate was not an aberration. On the contrary, tens of thousands of Armenian children and teenagers were raped and abducted, kept in slavery,” she explains.
In 1919, just at the end of World War I, the Allied forces reclaimed 90,819 Armenian young girls and children who, during the war years, were forced to become prostitutes to survive, or had given birth to children after forced or arranged marriages or rape. Many of these women were tattooed as a sign that they belonged to abductor. European and American missionaries organized help and saved thousands of refugees who were later scattered all over the world to places like Beirut, Marseille, and Fresno.
The story of “Grandma’s Tattoos” is a personal film about what happened to many Armenian women during the genocide. It is a ghost story—with the ghosts of the tattooed women haunting us—and a mystery film, where many taboos are broken. As no one wants to tell the reel and whole story, and in order to bring the pieces of the puzzle together, the director makes us move between different times and space, from today’s Sweden to Khardalian’s childhood in Beirut.
In the film we meet Grandma Khantoum’s sister, 98-year-old Lucia, who lives in Hollywood. Lucia, too, has those odd tattoos. She is willing to tell us only a part of the story. We also meet with Aunt Marie, Grandma’s only still-living child in Beirut. But Aunt Marie doesn’t know the whole story either. Grandma has never told it to her. It was forbidden to talk about the “unspeakable.” Aunt Marie has the same unpleasant memories as the rest of the family.
It’s finally Khardalian’s mother who tells the story about Grandma Khanoum, and about the Kurdish man who was supposed to her grandma escape the killings but instead decided to abduct her and keep her as his concubine. Grandma was only a child then. She had just turned 12 The words “Mummy, mummy help me” is the sentence that haunts Suzanne and her family.
About the Director
Suzanne Khardalian is an independent filmmaker and writer. She studied journalism in Beirut and Paris and worked as a journalist in Paris until 1985, when she started to work on films. She also holds a master’s degree in international law and diplomacy from the Fletcher School at Tufts University, and contributes articles to different journals. She has directed more than 20 films that have been shown both in Europe and the U.S. They include “Back to Ararat” (1988), “Unsafe Ground” (1993), “The Lion from Gaza” (1996), “Her Armenian Prince” (1997), “From Opium to Chrysanthemums” (2000), “Where Lies My Victory” (2002), “I Hate Dogs” (2005), “Bullshit” (2006), and “Young Freud in Gaza” (2009).
PeA Holmquist Film is a production company established in 1973.The company has been producing films mostly for Scandinavian TV channels often with Scandinavian co-producers. Several films have been sold all over the world.