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Hieroglyphs of Armenia: Films by Don Askarian

The most important Armenian-born director since Sergei Paradjanov, Don Askarian has created a body of films that explore the history and spirit of his native land. He does so in a modern idiom, inflected with surrealist overtones and powerful imagery--often described as magical realist--that embrace the extremes of beauty and brutality. Born in 1949 in Nagorno Karabakh, in the former Soviet Union, Askarian traveled to Moscow to study history and art and worked as an assistant film director and film critic before being imprisoned in 1975. Emigrating to West Berlin in 1978, Askarian began to create his meditations on Armenia from his home in exile, beginning with an adaptation of Chekov’s The Bear, in 1984. Since that time, he has directed a range of works, from documentaries to biographical essays to fiction features, that have been honored at festival screenings worldwide.

January 21 (Monday) 7 pm
January 23 (Wednesday) 7 pm


Directed by Don Askarian
West Germany 1988, 35mm, b/w and color, 96 min.
With Samvel Ovasapian, Onig Saadatian, Margarita Woskanjan
German with English subtitles

The monk soghomon soghomonian, known as Komitas, was a renowned Armenian composer and conductor who became a symbol of Armenian cultural unity through his orchestral and choral performances and his late nineteenth-century travels throughout the countryside, in which he collected peasant songs for generations eager to preserve their cultural heritage. In 1915, however, the musician’s career ended abruptly after a nervous breakdown precipitated by the Ottoman Empire’s devastation of an estimated three-fourths of the country’s population. Wracked with pain and subjected to the abuses of nineteenth-century psychiatric hospitals, Komitas lost his mind and withdrew into his own world of tortured memories for more than twenty years. Director Askarian dedicates his beautifully constructed, ambitious, and impressionistic portrait of Komitas to those who lost their lives. 

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January 21 (Monday) 9 pm
January 22 (Tuesday) 7 pm


Directed by Don Askarian
Germany/Armenia 1992, 35mm, color, 84 min.
With Alik Assatrian, Mikhael Stehanian, Karen Janibekan
Armenian with English subtitles

Hovering between the realms of poetry and history, this stunningly photographed, elegiac work--shot mostly in long takes--mixes cryptic metaphor and fantastic symbolism to tell the story of Avetik, an Armenian filmmaker exiled in Berlin. Director Askarian employs dreamlike images--a crumbling, ancient stone chapel gradually reduced to nothing by the rumbling vibrations of passing military vehicles; a ghostly cemetery of carved tombstones in which a woman takes a starving sheep in her arm and breast-feeds it back to life--to reflect the history of his homeland and shades of his own exile in Germany. In sensuous, lyric tableaux, Askarian explores German racism, the 1915 Armenian genocide, the disastrous earthquake of 1989, tranquil childhood memories, and images inspired by erotic medieval poetry. 

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January 22 (Tuesday) 8:45 pm
January 23 (Wednesday) 9 pm

On the Old Roman Road

Directed by Don Askarian
Armenian/German/Dutch Co-production 2001, 35mm, color, 76 min.
English and Armenian with English subtitles

Askarian’s most recent project is another meditation on the artist in exile. Like the filmmaker Avetik and the real-life composer Komitas from his previous films, Levon--a writer of Armenian extraction now living in Rotterdam--is caught between memories of homeland and the realities of contemporary life. From his Dutch domicile, Levon reminisces about his brother-in-law (a hairdresser who robs dead Turks), a brilliant Kurdish musician, a red-bearded executioner, a seventeen-year-old girl with chestnut-colored skin, and a Turkish Apollo with eight wives who likes to bury himself in hot ash. His memory is also populated by beautiful thoroughbred horses, stray dogs, camel drivers, soldiers, and Turkish policemen. These poetic, almost surrealist scenes of magic love and political cruelty are contrasted with the reality of present-day Rotterdam, presented in the guise of a modern crime story with Armenian terrorists and a Kurdish tragedy.

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Harvard Film Archive • Carpenter Center • 24 Quincy Street • Cambridge MA 02138 • 617-495-4700