Art Film Depicts the Landlocked Drama of Nagorno-Karabakh

2 May, 2022
Grégoire Col­in as Alain Delage in Nora Mar­tirosyan’s Should the Wind Drop / Si le vent tombe, 2020

 

Should the Wind Drop / Si le vent tombe (2020), direct­ed by Nora Martirosyan
A copro­duc­tion of France/Armenia/Belgium • 100 min • 1.85 • col­or • 5.1
In French, Karabaght­si, Armen­ian, Eng­lish and Russ­ian, Eng­lish or French subtitles

This film is avail­able on VOD plat­forms with French sub­ti­tles; a ver­sion with Eng­lish sub­ti­tles will become avail­able shortly.

 

Taline Voskeritchian

 

Nora Martirosyan’s Should the Wind Drop (Si le vent tombe, 2020) belongs with a hand­ful of films set in Nagorno-Karabakh, the con­test­ed region in South Cau­ca­sus and the site of the first per­e­stroi­ka demon­stra­tions, sub­se­quent wars of var­i­ous dura­tion, and Armen­ian vic­to­ries and defeats.  But the film departs from the con­ven­tions that have strad­dled sev­er­al such films.  Chief among these con­ven­tions is the focus on the actu­al con­flict between Arme­nia and Azer­bai­jan, and indi­rect­ly on the duty of the film to give voice to the cause of Karabakh self-deter­mi­na­tion, inde­pen­dence, and recog­ni­tion by what used to be called the inter­na­tion­al community. 

Add to these, a love-sto­ry of some sort, a few cute eth­nic curiosi­ties, and the oblig­a­tory mourn­ful­ness of the film score, and you have the for­mu­la for a film that can, osten­si­bly at least, appeal to West­ern audi­ences who know very lit­tle, and care less, about Karabakh. Should the Wind Drop con­scious­ly steers clear of these baits.

Since the Armen­ian vic­to­ries of the First Karabakh War, which end­ed with a cease­fire in 1994, Nagorno-Karabakh had been in a state of uneasy peace until Sep­tem­ber 2020, when the Azer­bai­ja­nis defeat­ed the Arme­ni­ans, regained ter­ri­to­ry lost in the war of the ear­ly 1990s, absorb­ing new lands and inflict­ing heavy loss­es in per­son­nel on the Armen­ian side. Although Should the Wind Drop is set in that peri­od of ten­u­ous peace pri­or to Sep­tem­ber 2020, war is not far — in the areas around the Karabakh-Azer­bai­jan bor­der, in the con­ver­sa­tions and pro­nounce­ments of the local pop­u­la­tion, and in the dif­fi­cul­ties of every­day life of Stepanakert, the cap­i­tal.  There, a French audi­tor of dogged pro­fes­sion­al­ism and cool anx­i­ety, Alain Delage (played by Gré­goire Col­in) arrives one day to write a report about the fea­si­bil­i­ty of restart­ing the oper­a­tions of the air­port. The actu­al air­port is not a par­tic­u­lar­ly pleas­ant site, but its two wings, and their blue col­or, are a not-so-sub­tle metaphor for the aspi­ra­tions of the pop­u­la­tion: A prop­er air­port will make life in this land­locked repub­lic, whose self-declared inde­pen­dence is not rec­og­nized by any UN-mem­ber coun­try, more open to the world.  It will make Karabakh more vis­i­ble; it will give the coun­try a future.

 

 

Alain him­self is a rather stand­off­ish type, who stiff­ens when his host at the air­port wel­comes him with a big hug. He is not par­tic­u­lar­ly like­able; he is here to do a job and often seems obliv­i­ous to the local offi­cials’ impas­sioned pleas.  He is a stranger to every­thing that he encoun­ters — from that hug to the black-haired boy he sees cross­ing the air­port run­way, to the town’s annu­al fes­tiv­i­ties of var­tavar — a tra­di­tion of peo­ple drench­ing each oth­er with water. The air­port offi­cials’ aspi­ra­tions are to make Nagorno-Karabakh and its prob­lems vis­i­ble to him, to per­suade him, coax him if they can.

These aspi­ra­tions, too, are the ones that pro­pel the film’s direc­tor her­self: to make Karabakh vis­i­ble, pal­pa­ble, real. The way Nora Mar­tirosyan goes about doing so is through a series of rejec­tions which are quite rad­i­cal, both in rela­tion to the con­tent of the film and also the prac­tices of such films that come out of a his­tor­i­cal injus­tice — a polit­i­cal sit­u­a­tion where the cards are stacked against the vic­tims:  Should the Wind Drop does not involve a love sto­ry; the struc­ture is not dra­mat­ic; the film has no place for the eth­nic-as-exot­ic; war lurks at the film’s edges only.

The most impor­tant depar­ture is that the two nar­ra­tive threads — of Alain try­ing to do his pro­fes­sion­al work, and of the boy Edgar (played with remark­able skill by Hayk Bakhryan) try­ing to do his work — do not inter­sect, dash­ing view­er assump­tions, but also set­ting our visu­al atten­tion free.  Our “hero” is no hero; and Edgar is real­ly no vic­tim although the harsh­ness of his sit­u­a­tion is beyond doubt.

In terms of tech­nique, Mar­tirosyan relies on long shots, uses close-ups spar­ing­ly, makes dis­tance an orga­niz­ing prin­ci­ple, refus­es the aid of melody and instead employs com­posed sound for moments of ten­sion. Tak­en as a whole, the film’s con­tent, form, and tech­nique poke at nar­ra­tive flow, ques­tion its cen­tral­i­ty, and, most impor­tant, open a space for anoth­er kind of telling. 

Para­dox­i­cal­ly, although Martirosyan’s telling is more episod­ic, it is at the same time more panoram­ic; char­ac­ters are often dimin­ished not so much by their flaws or their reck­less­ness but by their native geog­ra­phy, by the cir­cum­stances of war as is the case, for instance, with Armen (played by the great Armen­ian par­o­dist and per­for­mance artist Var­dan Petrosyan).

The con­test­ed region of Nagorno-Karabakh finds itself bor­dered by hos­tile Azer­bai­jan (map cour­tesy Britannica).

Karabakh is con­test­ed land but also a wound­ed Gar­den of Eden whose mys­te­ri­ous beau­ty we know is laced by vio­lence, though there is lit­tle vio­lence in the film. No vio­lence, and no sex — absences which allow for nei­ther pathos nor excitation. 

Should the Wind Drop is a film about approach, not des­ti­na­tion. Mar­tirosyan, a native of Arme­nia, was trained as a painter there and now lives and works as a film and video artist in France. Her approach — in both sens­es of the word — is painter­ly and relies on per­spec­tives that shift, as is the case in the long and dizzy­ing scene of Alain’s arrival by car to Stepanakert, the tiny vehi­cle snaking through the awe-inspir­ing moun­tains; or toward the end of the film in night scenes along the bor­der areas, or in the shouts of Edgar who is try­ing to recov­er a loss. For sure, the film has its share of scenes of cama­raderie — of men jok­ing and drink­ing, and home­steading; of women man­ning the cloth­ing store, or putting food on the table, or stand­ing at the hospital’s bal­cony and show­ing the new­born infant to the father below on the street.  But absent from these scenes is the kind of inti­ma­cy asso­ci­at­ed with human con­tact and touch — the turn of a face, the hint of a smile, the exten­sion of a hand, things that would seal the foreigner’s fate in this far-off land. 

It’s easy to inter­pret this absence as the filmmaker’s dis­tance from her mate­r­i­al, or even an aes­thet­ic cold­ness. But it may be more gen­er­a­tive to think that with this kind of with­hold­ing, Mar­tirosyan is show­ing the dig­ni­fied, sto­ic dis­ci­pline which those embat­tled by war and loss know well and prac­tice even bet­ter. Nowhere is this tech­nique as effec­tive as it is in the impos­si­ble meet­ing of Alain and Edgar, or of their paths not cross­ing each oth­er around a cli­mac­tic moment. It does not hap­pen, Mar­tirosyan seems to be say­ing, because in real life, in places where the earth is scorched with war, where hearts are hard­ened by loss, such things usu­al­ly don’t hap­pen. And yet, for all the dis­tance and the panoram­ic inten­tions of the film, one of the most mem­o­rable images is that of Edgar’s face turn­ing — to Alain? to us? — in a mix­ture of sor­row, plead­ing, and pre­cau­tious wis­dom. (The view­er can­not but be remind­ed of that oth­er great turn of a boy’s face in Fran­cois Truffaut’s Les 400 Coups.)

It’s as if in this scene, Edgar tears the sur­face of the film, and asks us to look at him, at this boy who is the bringer of water, the quencher of thirsts. There are oth­er, small­er scenes like this one, which seem to come to us with the force of big emo­tion, but which recede as fast as they arrived. Their brevi­ty is their strength.

The hold of Nagorno-Karabakh on the Armen­ian imag­i­na­tion — his­tor­i­cal, cul­tur­al, and polit­i­cal — is as endur­ing as it is per­va­sive. Should the Wind Drop dis­plays a gallery of char­ac­ters, all local, all natives of Nagorno-Karabakh, but often it steers clear of turn­ing char­ac­ter and nar­ra­tive into a vehi­cle for trans­mit­ting infor­ma­tion about the enclave’s his­to­ry or its just cause. It is the land which takes on almost all these duties — the land, which talks, as it were. Martirosyan’s poly­glot film (in five lan­guages) gives the Karabakh dialect more than lip ser­vice, so to speak.  The land is all-pow­er­ful, all see­ing in whose shad­ow peo­ple are made small but not insignificant.

Such an approach risks turn­ing the land into some­thing myth­ic, eter­nal, big­ger than human desires and sor­rows, even big­ger than the air­port they want to re-open, big­ger than the war even. This kind of aes­theti­ciza­tion may offer an alter­na­tive per­spec­tive, one based on painter­ly prin­ci­ples, but at times it neu­tral­izes the vital­i­ty — the sor­row, loss, brief joys — of the human beings who inhab­it the land, who guard the bor­ders. Actu­al­ly, Mar­tirosyan peo­ples the film with an array of char­ac­ters we won’t eas­i­ly for­get — from Seiran, Alain’s guide, to Armen, to the sol­diers who accom­pa­ny Alain to the bor­der areas, even the woman who cleans the airport’s floors, an anony­mous pres­ence whose face we do not see but whose floors shine. About all of them, we know next to noth­ing because the land is all encom­pass­ing. Per­haps the fero­cious beau­ty of Nagorno-Karabakh as it is depict­ed in the film comes at the expense of char­ac­ters who ask for more depth, more development.

Among these char­ac­ters, the boy Edgar is the most mem­o­rable cre­ation — he is an all-per­va­sive pres­ence who brack­ets the film. But Mar­tirosyan does not roman­ti­cize him, nor does she bur­den him with more injuries than he car­ries, injuries that would make him more appeal­ing to non-Armen­ian view­ers. He has enough, she seems to be say­ing. The two nar­ra­tive threads — of Edgar and Alain — nev­er explic­it­ly entwine, and the two char­ac­ters’ dis­tance from each oth­er only inten­si­fies the silence beneath the sur­face of the film.  This dis­tance also car­ries fig­u­ra­tive mean­ing that spans across the entire film. 

With Should the Wind Drop, Mar­tirosyan steps into exper­i­ment, asks a ques­tion:  How to rep­re­sent the near-mag­i­cal, scorched land of Nagorno-Karabakh — or any oth­er place rav­aged by war — with­out the crutch­es of sen­ti­men­tal­i­ty, melo­dra­ma, even dra­ma? It’s a sig­nif­i­cant ques­tion, and one that she begins to answer here.  The land is her point of depar­ture and return, the land whose illu­so­ry peace the 2020 war shat­tered, whose expanse it tore into two, whose pop­u­la­tion it dis­placed and turned into refugees. But also, the land as a repos­i­to­ry of pit­falls for the film­mak­er, the view­er, and in the end, for those who live with it — not only for its acqui­si­tion and loss, but also for its flames, which the film reveals with such vivid torrent.

In the wake of the 2020 war, Should the Wind Drop is now, iron­i­cal­ly, a doc­u­ment, a chron­i­cle of anoth­er time. The new real­i­ties on the ground await the arrival of the one who comes to sur­vey, to restore, to make the invis­i­ble vis­i­ble after so much has been lost in land, human lives and hopes to the winds and fires of war. Edgar’s turn to the screen is even more wrench­ing today in his — and the film’s — search for answers. 

 

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Taline Voskeritchian was born in Jerusalem and educated in Lebanon, Jordan, and the United States. Her prose and co-translations (from Arabic and Armenian) have appeared in London Review of Books, The Nation, Agni Review, Book Forum, Words Without Borders, Journal of Palestine Studies, Alik (Tehran), Ahegan (Beirut), Warwick Review (UK), Virginia Quarterly Review and International Poetry Review, among other publications. She is co-producer of Vahe Oshagan: Between Acts, a documentary on the modernist Armenian poet Vahé Oshagan, to which she also contributed as translator. She has taught at Boston University and American University of Armenia, and conducted translation workshops at Palestinian universities.