Your path to Canada was a circuitous one. How did you come to be living in Canada?
I was born in Beirut, Lebanon in 1970 to Armenian Lebanese parents. When I was still a child, the Lebanese Civil War broke out and in 1979 my family moved to Canada to avoid the escalating violence.
Why did you want to become a filmmaker?
Growing up in multicultural city, Toronto, my interest in art began at a young age. It was inspired by my family’s love of craft and workmanship, particularly by the women in my family who were avid embroiderers and weavers. Surrounded by the living arts, I grew up both part of and in between many worlds (Armenia, Lebanon and Canada) and felt free to explore each through my creativity. During those formative years I was also exposed to the legacy of genocide and human rights atrocities living with my grandparents who were survivors. The experience made me sensitive to the need to acknowledge memory and heal the wounds of history.
At age 12, I started to draw. For a few years I wandered into the worlds of fashion and theatre but felt they both limited my creative ambitions. In high school, I discovered my school’s dark room and began photographing my fashion and theatre designs, which were composed of plastic and found materials. I found the mystery of the dark room to be alluring and enjoyed the freedom photography allowed me. Through the influence of my brother, who was studying film at the time, I started shooting on super 8 and video 8.
By age 19, while I was attending York University in Toronto, I started to make use of footage, collaging film stock I constructed a cinematic language to represent issues and ideas important to me. Identity, pluralism and human rights were central themes. My early films focused on the still image transformed by movement and time. Over the years I incorporated dance and text in my work, so there isn’t one source of inspiration. As a filmmaker, you have the opportunity to draw from different disciplines and art forms. It is one of the most unconstricted art forms. It lets you channel a range of disciplines and experiences to compose something beautiful and, hopefully, express it in a new and original way and to give it your personal, individual representation of the mystery of life.
Are there any specific filmmakers who inspired you to engage with this art form?
As far as a specific filmmaker or a seminal film that I find inspirational, there are many, but in the forefront is Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal. For me, it is about understanding the mystery of life and that film summed it up poetically and philosophically. Seeing it made me feel that I can take that journey in film and when I shot my first images of moving picture I felt I was slowly going to find what I was looking for: my own private Eldorado or paradise or home.
In what ways would you describe yourself as a Canadian filmmaker, aside from the obvious fact that you are Canadian. Do you see your works as being reflective of certain ‘Canadian’ sensibility?
I don’t see a certain ‘Canadian sensibility’ in my films, as Canada is a very diverse country with a multiplicity of sensibilities. My view is that being Canadian is a unique differentiating experience, whether it is from the United States or France or from militarized or oppressive societies. Perhaps Canada helped nurture this feeling of being different or out of place which has helped define my identity. I love the openness of Canada in that way. I have always thought that living in Canada has given me the opportunity to explore not just other places, but also the “other “ in us. That is one thing that’s wonderful about Canada in addition to the vastness of the landscape, its trees, the seasons. If all of these somehow have made their way in some form or shape into the Canadian sensibility that you ask of, then certainly they have made their way in some form or shape in me and my films.
How has the Canadian documentary tradition affected your work, many of which have documentary aspects/elements to them?
I am drawn to Arthur Lipsett’s work. His documentaries have a very personal voice and his visual editing is unique. What resonates and stays with you after watching his work is the sheer honesty of how he captures reality, not just the exterior physical reality around us, but the inner psychological aspects of humans, too. Not an easy thing to capture and represent honestly.
More obviously, perhaps, how has the Canadian experimental film tradition influenced your work? Who are some of Canada’s avant-garde that you admire?
I never really thought I was making experimental films until I was told that it was experimental. I did what came to me instinctually, which is actually something quite natural and lived. The idea of experimental suggests one is doing something in a chemistry lab and that the outcome is less than certain. I do not want to suggest that I had a pre-determined, detailed work plan. I never did, which is what gives film its poetic texture. But I certainly had a notion of what I wanted to do, even if my films are made in an aesthetic tradition with close attention to how they should look, and how they should sound and feel like. I felt closest to Arthur Lipsett’s work. But there are so many whose works I have enjoyed viewing. Yet I am not approaching filmmaking through the inspiration of only filmmakers. I also approach it through people who work in different genres or art forms; whoever speaks to me at that point of my life.
Is there something specific about Canada that has enabled so many film artists to make such daring work?
I’m not sure. Some argue that the market should be the main determinant of a work’s worth. That is not something specific to film but also to other art forms. Yet that reality of achieving mass appeal has also contributed to a loss of craftsmanship and perhaps less interesting (and sometimes more challenging) work. The fact that we have the arts councils in Canada helps filmmakers explore away from the pressure of market forces. Getting funding certainly helps to be more daring and free, otherwise the private funders would be involved in the creative process and they have much narrower economic imperatives. I do not want to suggest that the issue is black and white: there are many commercially funded films that do manage to escape the boring, predictable paradigm and prove to be both daring and financially rewarding for those involved in the project. But then the project becomes the outcome of a huge collective effort rather than the singular vision of the artist.
A lot of Canadian filmmakers start with shorts and then move on to features. Have you ever pondered making a fiction feature film, or does narrative seem too limiting to your imagination?
Narrative didn’t come instinctively to me. It is a different organizational process, which I appreciate more now. It is more collaborative and it requires more planning in advance of shooting. It will take a bigger place in my future work, that I know. I have asked myself, why now? Part of it is that I am also interested in other stories that reside outside my personal experience and so they are easier to organize emotionally and intellectually. Part of it is that it is a new challenge, a new way of drawing in the person watching the film. We all like a good story told artfully.
Many of your works have their genesis in your response to the works of others in other artistic disciplines (photography, dance, music, animation). Tell me about how each of these other artists inspired you to produce your own remarkable cinematic images.
It was their work that I admired and sometimes them personally: what they had to say, how they worked, the material they used, the jokes they told, the films they made. I was drawn to their world and through my films I thought I could access and decode their universe. If all of this sounds very conscious and thought-out, it wasn’t, but when I think about it now, there is a dialectical dialogue that results in some kind of new synthesis, whether the source of that dialogue was admiration for the other artist as an individual or his work. Paradjanov, I never had the pleasure to meet, but I have visited his museum in Yerevan, and it is difficult not to be inspired by his prodigious talents from puppet-making to collages to sculptures of fish made of glass shards to his films. It is the evolution of everything: we see and learn, we experience and exchange, we select (hopefully with good taste), we don’t take, and then we synthesize and create anew. Babies (not just films) are made this way, too.
Do you regard these pieces as intimate conversations with those others artists and their works? Are they collaborations, or do you see them as your personal visions?
I can see how some may see them as intimate conversations but they are also many other things. It is not such didactic process for me. Collaboration can take different forms, but my gut says they are personal visions. A personal vision, though, still has to work with a universe of references and the ones I have chosen are important artists to me, people whose work helped me discover and build my own world with its own rules and architecture and inhabitants.
How do you conceptualize your films? Take me through the process in, say, one example. I know the process is never the same, but how do you shape the material? Do the images come first, then the sound, or vice-versa...?
In the earlier works the images almost always came first; images that evoked an emotion. With Stone Time Touch (which I actually thought of calling ‘Noise of Time,’ the title of an Osip Mandelstam book) the material was Armenia, the desire to connect with Armenia, not just as an imagined place I got to know through books but as a tactile, palpable territory and people. I wanted to go there and get to know it more intimately and then to see how that corresponded to the idea I had of Armenia before going there.
Has digital media changed your aesthetic approach to image making? As it is not as tactile as 8mm or any other size of celluloid, how has this new medium affected your work?
It hasn’t fundamentally changed the outcome of my work. It has mostly impacted the process of filmmaking. It has made the making of film easier because more tasks can be done in one location but there is also a craft in editing with digital. There is more control in some respects; you can fix accidents whereas with 8mm errors are often difficult to reverse. I enjoy digital though it has not had a huge influence on my aesthetic sensibilities. It also does not preclude me from working or incorporating 8mm into my newer works. I do miss the tactile nature of dissecting film, of touching the celluloid, though I don’t think the switch to digital is so transformational in terms of what we want to say through our films.
What’s coming next?
There is an old Yiddish saying that says “three things cannot be hidden: love, coughing and poverty.” And here I am trying not to answer your question, but yes, I am working on a documentary feature that is set in Beirut that covers at least two of the above subjects: love of an Armenian neighborhood where I grew up and the economic hardship of some of its inhabitants.