By Jesse Herwitz
Natalya Belyauskene’s ‘If Only Everyone’ begins with the image of an airplane flying. It is an image that in a film rich with symbolism and redemption may carry the most significant statement. That is, that there are no borders in the sky. That, in some idealized way, the earth and its varied lands below might also reflect such a limitless expanse of unsegregated beauty, of freedom, if we could allow for it. Too often, however, it is the border that defines our character and in a larger sense, our country. Very often it is by a border that we overshadow everything within by repealing everything without.
Sasha (Yekaterina Shitova), a young girl of angelic beauty, has crossed such borders, the border of her native Saratov, Russia into Armenia in search of Gurgen (Michael Poghosian) the commander of her deceased father’s military unit. She comes to Gurgen with only one wish: that he may guide her to the place where her father was killed so that she can plant a birch sapling there. It is this wish that both sets the film in motion and unravels the secrets and agonies of the wars we fight both within and without.
This, of course, troubles Gurgen.
“She has come to the commander her father had saved,” say Father Grigo.
“Why?” he responds.
Gurgen tells Sasha that he cannot help and refers her to another member of the former unit, Hoso (Vahagn Simonyan). He sends her away on a bus and watches her go. It is a short lived decision. He later “borrows” a car and chases the bus agreeing to help Sasha. Along with Hoso, he recruits the rest of the surviving members of the unit to join them on their return to the land they fought for and on many years prior.
War is not unique to any single nation. Neither is the story of war-stricken veterans living with their memories. But this is not a film just about the effects of war. It is about a specific conflict that occupies a specific place and sets forth a series of events unique to that region of the world.
During the Sumgait pogroms of 1988, where on an overwhelming number of accounts ethnic Armenians were killed, raped, and beaten, Sasha’s mother, an ethnic Armenian, was among the fallen. Her father then went to fight on the side of her people during the Nagorno-Karabakh War. He died somewhere near the border of Azerbaijan and Armenia. He was Russian. Artsakh and Nagorno-Karabakh had been a disputed area of land for many years, even centuries. The Armenians claiming it to be theirs (the secessionist movements helped catapult the war between 1988-1994), the Azerbaijanis also claiming it to be theirs. When the fighting broke out there were many bloody battles, many soldiers killed, many innocents, too. In the end the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic was formed and the boundaries between it, Armenia, and Azerbaijan were formed. They all remain fiercely guarded.
‘If Only Everyone’ explores the land and people on both sides of these borders. A land of captivating beauty, hills, lush and green. Amber gorges. A monastery tucked deep in those hills overlooking the places where battles were fought, bullet holes in the churches walls. And while the land remains the physical area of the battles, it should be said that of the people who live and died there, we often forget that emotional scars were once fresh cut wounds that were once fresh surfaces. And it is doubtful a human’s psyche can ever be whole until a great amount of it is torn and repaired. So when Sasha’s path lead Gurgen and his unit back to the same hills and countryside where years prior they had fought, it is not only a literal a return to their past, it is a chance for them to tend to old wounds.
“This film was of the remnants of war,” says Poghosian, who co-wrote and produced, “but it was for peace. The transferring of the tree signifies life is life.”
Perhaps this film could best be summed up by the planting of a tree. If one can cross borders to kill and take land, then no less brave is the act to cross the same borders to birth and give. And it matters not if the borders are inward, outward, or whether they exist or if we have created them.
But I believe that Mr. Poghosian defines ‘If Only Everyone’ best in this way.
“It is a film about love.”
Scenes of sweeping landscapes, guttural laughter, old world customs, and an especially tender moment between Gurgen and Sasha looking in a mirror are what make this film especially optimistic and beautiful. And Sasha is “like the offspring about this war situation,” Poghosian continues. Her birch sapling is in itself an attempt not to cross, but ultimately to bridge and conquer the greatest of borders. It grows before us during the film and mends the old wounds, changes the violent bonds of wartime camaraderie into the peacetime ones of familial love. From where there was killing, let that moment also inspire life.
Michael Poghosian was honored this year as ‘Arpa Artist of the Year.’
‘If Only Everyone’ is currently in contention for the Best Foreign Picture Oscar Award, the first time an Armenian film has been in one.