An attempt to screen Azerbaijani short films in the Armenian capital of Yerevan has failed, blocked in large part by a blitz of opposition spread by social networking websites. But the organizers say they are undaunted and will try to go ahead with the film festival at a later date.
The festival, organized by the Caucasus Center of Peace-Making Initiatives, a local non-governmental organization that promotes conflict resolution, had been scheduled for November 12, following nearly a year-long search to find a venue willing to host the program. The festival, called “Stop!” in reference to its attempt to stop ethnic intolerance, also failed to open last year.
Gevorg Vanian, the director of the Caucasus Center of Peace-Making Initiatives and the festival’s initiator, blamed a last-minute refusal from the festival’s venue to stage the screenings for the cancellation, but added that “everything is much more deeply-rooted and complicated” than the venue snafu. At the same time, he tried to remain upbeat, exuding a show-will-go-on spirit.
“The festival of Azerbaijani films in Armenia has not failed; it has rather been blocked,” Vanian said. “I won’t give up on my plans; I assure you I’ll be consistent in my efforts at organizing the festival.”
“By showing these films, we’re trying to initiate a dialogue within Armenia,” Vanian said when announcing the festival last October. The US Embassy in Yerevan, which supported the project, said that it had backed the festival “to promote an appreciation for tolerance, multiculturalism and the expression of diverse views and opinions.”
The planned 93-minute-long program eschewed films about Azerbaijan and Armenia’s 22-year-long conflict over the region of Nagorno-Karabakh. Instead, it featured four short films about daily life in Azerbaijan, shot between 2007 and 2008.
Armenian opposition to the festival proved particularly virulent on Facebook. Writer Lusine Vayachian, who provided technical support for the festival, came under attack after posting an announcement about Stop! on the social network. “Are you not afraid that the day will come, and you and your Aliyev-like degenerates will redeem impudence with blood?” one Facebook user wrote Vayachian in reference to Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev.
Meanwhile, another showing of Azerbaijani-made films had an easier time. In response to Stop!, the non-governmental cultural organization Zharang (“Heir”) held screenings of Azerbaijani and Turkish films with the title “Hatred towards Armenians in Turkish and Azerbaijani movies.”
“Our young people must understand how they are being presented in the neighboring countries,” said Zharang Chairperson Karen Vrtanesian. “[A]nother big question is how we are going to communicate with the people who were brought up on this stuff.”
A former Armenian ambassador to Canada, Ara Papian, fears that holding a festival like “Stop!” in Yerevan without a similar event in Baku would encourage the outside world to think that ethnic tolerance needs to be encouraged only among Armenians – an impression that he asserts would be perceived “as a sign of weakness.”
“The level of tolerance in Armenian society is several times higher than that of the Azerbaijani society,” claimed Papian, who heads the Modus Vivendi Center, a local think-tank.
Vanian commented that his goal was to “create a free platform and present the real Azerbaijan” without influence from the “universal, total propaganda” that is widely circulating in Yerevan.
Some nationalist youth groups were strongly opposed to the festival. A November 11 statement from five youth organizations argued that Armenians “have no moral right to show Azerbaijani films” so long as Azerbaijan pursues an “anti-Armenian” policy. The youth wing of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation-Dashnaktsutiun called the film festival “blasphemous” and a sign of “disrespect for Armenia and the Armenian people.”
One young Yerevan resident wondered why the festival organizers continue to fight such sentiments. “I don’t understand why they keep trying to hold such a festival for months when this idea gets no support from society,” commented 22-year-old student Anush Soghomonian. “Do all these refusals, criticism and obstacles have no impact?”
But the controversy over the Azerbaijani film festival left some young Armenians cold. “I really don’t understand why people make so much fuss about this festival,” commented 30-year-old Yerevan accountant Satenik Manukian. “Don’t attend it if you don’t want to; as for me, it’s interesting how Azerbaijanis live and what they think.”
Nane Abgarian, a 25-year-old Yerevan student says she has found Azerbaijani friends via various international youth programs; no harm is done in “getting to know” Azerbaijani culture, she asserted.
“This is a festival and not propaganda,” she said.
Marianna Grigoryan is a freelance journalist based in Yerevan.