By Arto Khrimian
On Sun., Jan. 27, the New York chapter of the Hamazkayin Educational and Cultural Society held a screening in the Pashalian Hall of St. Illuminator’s Cathedral of the documentary film “Enemy of the People: Armenians Look Back at the Stalin Terror,” directed and produced by Zareh Tjeknavorian.
Dr. Ara Caprielian, the chairman of Hamazkayin of New York, during his welcoming remarks expressed his gratitude to Rev. Fr. Mesrob Lakissian for making the Pashalian Hall available for such cultural events. He then introduced Zareh Tjeknavorian to the audience.
Tjeknavorian was born in Fargo, N.D., but grew up in a cosmopolitan and international environment, as his father, composer and conductor Loris Tjeknavorian, toured in various countries. Zareh Tjeknavorian thus lived in San Francisco, New York, Iran, London, Germany, Paris, and Armenia. He graduated from the Tisch School of the Arts, New York University, in 1992, with a bachelor’s degree in film and television production.
“Enemy of the People,” narrated by Eric Bogosian, is Tjeknavorian’s most widely known documentary film, and depicts Stalinist oppression in Armenia. National Geographic Magazine recommended it as one of three must-see films about Armenia, along with “The Color of Pomegranates” by Sergei Parajanov and “Ararat” by Atom Egoyan.
In the documentary, Tjeknavorian interlaces black and white archival film with his original color footage of interviews and scenes. It opens with a scene of Joseph Stalin’s funeral procession. Thousands of mourners wait in line to pay their last respects. Then, a direct quote from Stalin eerily encapsulates the historic perspective of his terror: “The death of one man is a tragedy. The death of millions, only statistics.”
During Stalin’s reign, from the early 1930’s until his death in 1953, a terror campaign swept the USSR; nearly 25 million people were executed or exiled to “gulags,” or forced-labor camps, in remote areas of the Soviet Union. Armenia suffered dearly from Stalin’s terror, as nearly each citizen was turned into either an informant or a victim. The latter were accused of being “enemies of the people.” Stalin demanded conformity for the good of the state, rationalizing that since he represented the state, to be against him meant to be against the revolution. Thus, Stalin coerced the entire society into becoming accomplices to his crime.
The heart-wrenching interviews with survivors of the gulags and the children of the prisoners who perished reveal that common working people, along with innocent intellectuals, were persecuted and exiled, and many disappeared without a trace. Against the archival footage depicting the torturous labor in the gulags, the film juxtaposes new footage that shows the unearthing of human bones from an obscure mass grave in a newly developed residential area in Armenia. Later, the documentary shows one of Stalin’s “glorious” speeches, in which he promises—to a fervently applauding crowd—to protect the Soviet people: “[I will protect] the working class, the peasants, and the intelligentsia.” Those people, particularly the intelligentsia, were the very same people whose lives were destroyed by his paranoid oppression.
Although “Enemy of the People” is a documentary, Tjeknavorian, with his artful filming and skillful editing, succeeds in adding subtle drama and suspense to his work. At the finale, the audience wishes it were much longer than 58 minutes.
“Frankly, I was green when I made this film,” he said during the question-and-answer segment of the program. This was his first full-length film, commissioned by Louise Simone of the Armenian General Benevolent Union (AGBU). “I would do it a little differently today.” Tjeknavorian also explained that he had no choice but to edit out some of his favorite parts, so that it could be shown on public television.
Yet, he is quite happy with the entirety of the work, which includes more than 200 interviews and about 100 hours of documentary footage. He went to the most remote corners of the Soviet Union to film the places Armenians were exiled. Tjeknavorian also interviewed former members of the Peoples Commissariat for Internal Affairs (NKVD) and the Soviet secret police, as well as officials. His contacts helped him find surviving Armenian victims. Those interviews are of historic value now that most of the interviewees/witnesses have passed away. Among very many valuable interviews, he mentioned an interview with Elena Bonner (Lusik Alikhanyan), who was a human rights activist in the Soviet Union and the wife of the renowned physicist and dissident, Andrei Sakharov. “That interview was very interesting, but I could not include her in this film because it would not fit into the storyline,” he said.
Tjeknavorian also mentioned the attempts made by certain apologists to whitewash the truth about Stalin’s terror, also known as the Great Purge, and to absolve him of his despicable crimes. Such efforts, however, eventually turn out to be futile in light of the truth and the verdict of historians.
Tyrants such as Talaat Pasha, Hitler, and Stalin were avid students of history, and they cautiously promoted a positive, admirable image of themselves during their reign. Now that history has identified them as the greatest villains of human kind, can we hope that future tyrants will think twice before committing another purge or genocide?
At the conclusion of the program, Caprielian invited Fr. Mesrob Lakissian to the podium to give closing remarks. Fr. Mesrob expressed his pleasure at seeing such a poignant film, congratulated Zareh Tjeknavorian on his accomplishment, and presented him with a beautifully crafted miniature replica of the Armenian Genocide Commemoration Monument erected in Antelias, Lebanon. He also praised Caprielian and the Hamazkayin Board members for organizing the function. In response to Caprielian’s expression of gratitude for making the Pashalian Hall available without charge for such events, Fr. Mesrob said, “We renovated the Pashalian Hall for that very same purpose. Anytime you organize a cultural event, the hall is yours. This is also your cultural home.”