Azad begins with an old man sitting in a bathtub, a young man, his grandson, by his side for him for whatever he needs. It is an image that transcends familiar bonds. The youth looking at his culture’s past, the elder at his younger self, remembering all he had to overcome in order to grow old. And now all that he desires is that the young man will listen to him, to his stories, because he knows that it is his past, the old man’s, that will haunt the young man’s future if these stories are not told to completion.
“Every time I screen this film,” says writer and director Nicolas Tackian, “there is someone in the audience who says, ‘This is my story.’”
That is because at its core, Azad, awarded Best Picture at this year’s Arpa International Film Festival, is a film about how the younger generation reckons the ghosts of the older generation. More specifically, it is a film unique to Armenians and those descendants who live in diaspora, in this case, Paris.
Mayak (Virgile Bramly) is a thirty-something year old artist who is working on a graphic novel, titled Azad, based on his grandfather’s life and survival though the Armenian Genocide of World War I. To lower living costs Mayak ‘s two roommates, Beucé (Michael Abiteboul) and Yoyo (Anne Suarez) invite Mina (Alexandra Bienvenu) to live in the spare bedroom. When it is revealed that Mina is of Kurdish descent, Mayak, in light of all his recent meetings with his grandfather (Jacques Herlin), finds himself unable to cope with his emotions. To him, Mina is a direct descendant of the enemy of his grandfather, thus his family, thus himself.
“A million and half Armenians massacred,” says the grandfather, “and here your grandfather plays tavieu in Paris with you.”
From the old man we hear more heartbreaking tales. Tales of the kind priest in his old village killed by bayonet, of his mother dying in his arms after a raid, of a the young boy eating apricots in a lush garden while being hunted by Turkish soldiers, of a carpetmaker who saves his life and of the carpetmaker’s daughter whom he calls his ‘guardian angel.’
Remembrance as a way of not repeating the tragedy is, in this case, the singular lesson the grandfather hopes to pass on. But for Mayak it is not remembrance (he was not there to witness the genocide) as much as it is a desire to understand his own place in it all. That in life, there are the bonds we make with our elders that write how their history will be remembered. And, of course, our bonds with others are almost always reliant on how strong our understanding of self is. Another thing the young man struggles with. At one point in the film, Mayak becomes especially vulgar with Mina, proposing sexual intercourse in the back room of a crowded dinner party. Mina, in shock, does not know how to answer.
”Is it because I am Armenian?” he repeats, just as much asking himself as he is her.
“No,” says Mina. “It’s because you are a jerk.”
Buecé and Yoyo try to shame Mayak for his behavior. They don’t matter. But when his grandfather intervenes, Mayak realizes something he could not have before: that his grandfather is not nearly as unforgiving as Mayak has become. That in life no culture is promised an easy path and some histories are more tragic than others. That in certain cases remembrance is not enough and some stories can only be completed by experience.
The last great instruction the old man offers to the young is that he voyage to his ancestral land. In Armenia, Mayak eats the apricots his grandfather described, walks on the ashes of the village long since abandoned, and finally touches his feet to the foothills of magnificent Mount Ararat. And though Mayak understands himself in Armenia, perhaps, no more than he did before in Paris, he at least can understand that lives were given so that his bloodline might one day return.
And, more importantly, that he can tell their story.
Azad, which means ‘Liberty’ in Armenian, is a film that has been seen by hundreds of thousands on French National television but as of yet is waiting for widespread distribution. Tackian shot his debut film in 8 days with a crew of about 15 people.