Way Back Home: Finding the Girl from Moush in the Girl from Toronto
Girl from Moush (1993) is a deliriously romantic evocation of Gariné Torossian’s ancestral homeland of Armenia. In this early poetic work, a very young Torossian is besotted by film — its texture, rhythm and the exciting possibility of cutting up images within the frame. Moush is a superb piece of cubist cinema in which her objects — ancient rural churches marked by their resolute angular steeples; Armenian’s iconic Mount Ararat; the fields, with hearty men working in them — are broken up, analyzed, and reassembled in an abstract form.
Asked to recall the film now, nearly twenty years later, Torossian states: “I made Girl from Moush before ever going to Armenia. I was 23 and fell in love with this imagined place, the music, the majestic architecture of the churches and illuminated manuscripts.”
“The images came from art books I had at home and from the Armenian library. I found the churches to be mystical and moving. What is so amazing about them is their relative isolation in the surrounding nature. At the time, I was also working on designing a poster for Atom Egoyan’s Calendar [set in rural Armenia] and I had photos of these churches, which I made use of in the collages.”
Never working from one point of view, Torossian depicts her imagined Armenia in order to represent it in a global film context. Images on the screen are bisected, then quartered; cutting rapidly, she intersects shots at seemingly random angles, removing any coherent sense of the film’s depth of field. Torossian demands that her viewers abandon thoughts of narrativity and accept her astonishing visual display, which includes dissolves, overlays and nods to surrealist muse Kiki of Montparnasse.
Looking back on it, she remembers that her film was concerned with “the Armenia we learned about and got to know through oral history from our grandparents, from Armenian Sunday school, from books.”
Ever present is the image of Sergei Paradjanov, the great Armenian filmmaker: his full beard nearly completely grey, dark eyes staring angrily at a Soviet police state that chose to imprison him for his visionary art practice and presumed homosexual activity. His film Sayat Nova (The Colour of Pomegranates) is a gorgeously rendered depiction of Armenia’s iconoclastic songs, dances, tales and rituals. “The essential source of inspiration and homage was to Paradjanov whose picture I used throughout the film,” recalls Torossian. “I had just seen The Colour of Pomegranates, which evoked the visual and emotional poetry that drew me to Armenia.”
The international acclaim given to Sayat Nova probably forced the court to place the director “safely in prison.” Gariné’s image is placed boldly against that of Paradjanov: her face, cool, impassive, chalk white—a classical shape, an Armenian Madonna to Paradjanov’s mad bohemian Saint.
Girl from Moush is structured musically: images are constructed with an interior rhythm within the frame as well as edited to represent the mythic nature of Armenian culture and society. The sounds of the Duduk (reed), the Kanun (zither), the Pku (clarinet), the Sring (flute) and the Parkapzuk (bagpipe) are ever present, wailing out the sad songs of an ancient country isolated through its Christianity in a land of Muslims.
“The music comes from Armenian folk songs,” remembers Torossian. “The rhythm was central in selecting the folk songs, which had to blend in with the images. I also worked the other way around; that is, I edited the images to blend in with the music.
“There is also a recurring phone call where I pretend to call Armenia or the operator to speak to someone in Armenia. I actually made this phone call to a friend, Lewis Cohen, from a telephone booth in Toronto. He helped to credit the picture “and recorded the sound on a Nagra.”
A prime aesthetic element of Girl from Moush is Torossian’s attention to the craft of filmmaking. Made in the abandoned age of predigital experimental cinema, she worked tirelessly to create a work enmeshed with the materiality of film.
“I shot Girl from Moush on super 8 and 16mm and meshed them together like a woven carpet,” she says now. “Deconstructing and re-weaving the images made most sense to me visually and also emotionally.
“I worked on it for a very long time. After hand collaging the
celluloid, I optically printed it frame by frame to make a negative and from there made a print. I always approach my films the way a craftsman approaches their work. I try to be as meticulous, caring and emotionally connected to the work. You sort of forget about time when you work this way so it is difficult for me to say how long it actually took to make the film.”
Critics always look for meaning and artists often deny them; it’s an old game but, in the case of Torossian, one should accept her honest assessment of the work. “There is no political or religious narrative in the selection of these images,” she admits. “For me they are first and foremost aesthetic and cultural icons, very beautiful structures to look at. They are both historical and timeless.”
But the imagery in Girl from Moush does have an emotional meaning that is central to Torossian as a person and an artist. “Having images around the house as most diaspora families do, I would say they relate more to a collective consciousness that is specific to the diaspora. That relationship between diaspora and homeland is obviously evolving, changing with the country’s [Armenia’s] independence [from the Soviet Union]. For me, the images nurtured my imagination so I channeled this diasporic consciousness in an artistic way so that it became part of a broader consciousness that transcends place or nationality, hopefully [and Is now] something everyone interested in art or aesthetics or cinema can connect to and derive pleasure from.”
A gorgeous work, Girl from Moush continues to resonate for aesthetic reasons, of course, but it’s also fascinating to consider that its implications do have a social and political resonance in a Canadian culture mostly made up of immigrants. It’s especially pleasing to know that the film had a “very emotional” effect on Torossian’s family. Now living in Paris, having visited Armenia many times, she can still recall her family’s reaction to the film: “I think it captured what they felt.”