War has been a constant but often dormant part of my existence: In conversation with Armenian director Hasmik Movsisyan

Phoebe sat down with Armenian director Hasmik Movsisyan to discuss her latest series, and the unfolding situation in Armenia.

Can you tell us about your upbringing in Armenia and Russia?

I was born in 1991 in Yerevan, Armenia, and moved to St. Petersburg, Russia with my family at the age of 11. The breakdown of the Soviet Union did result in significant emigration from Armenia and other former Soviet republics due to economic challenges and shortages of basic necessities. I was born on September 22, 1991 and Armenia became independent on September 21, 1991 and all my life I feel independent but also responsible for the choices I make.

Regardless, I remember my childhood being a happy one. I played in children's theatre, hosted a children's TV show and acted in films. I always knew I wanted to be a filmmaker. But when I was 16 and graduated from high school, my parents were against my moving to Moscow, which was the most famous and prestigious film institute of the entire Soviet Union.

Since there were also doctors in my family, my mother suggested that I consider becoming a doctor. Then I was accepted to the medical faculty of St. Petersburg State University.

What led you to filmmaking and your passion for storytelling?

After graduating from the medical faculty of St. Petersburg State University, I decided to follow my passion for film. It was a tough decision, but I knew it was the right one. I had always been drawn to the magic of the big screen and the power of storytelling. So, I applied to the directing department of Gerasimov Institute of Cinematography (VGIK) in Moscow.

To my delight, I was accepted into the feature film workshop of Alexander and Vladimir Kott and Anna Fenchenko. It was an incredible opportunity to learn from some of the most talented and experienced filmmakers. Their guidance and mentorship helped me to hone my skills and develop my own unique style.

Looking back, I’m grateful for the decision I made to pursue my passion for film. It wasn’t easy, but it was definitely worth it.

Over the past five years, I have come a long way in the field of cinema, from timid amateur films to a large-scale diploma work dedicated to a significant event in modern Armenian history. I received my film education at one of the most famous film schools in the world, the alma mater of Tarkovsky, Paradjanov, Sokurov, Bondarchuk. I believe that it is precisely my classical film education that allows me to combine an experimental approach in cinema with the traditions of world cinema, and to see cinema primarily as an art form.

I believe that my distinctive feature as a director is the ability to work with an ensemble of actors and create a separate, truthful world of the characters’ personal relationships and tell their stories through the screen.

Your new film 250 KM recently had its international premiere at the 63rd Krakow Film Festival. What inspired the film and what do you want people to take away from it?

As an Armenian born during the first Artsakh War of Independence in 1991, war has been a constant but often dormant part of my existence since most of my life I have lived in relative peace. But my reality and the lives of 10 million people of Armenians all over the world suddenly changed on September 27th, 2020 and the ensuing war shaped a new reality, one where the idea of war had metastasized from a distant possibility to an immediate threat. While witnessing the 44-day war in September 2020, as a filmmaker I kept thinking that in film, war is often depicted at the frontline, where fighting takes centre stage. 

The real stories of survival that shed light on these questions were both shocking and inspiring. Like the story of 14-year-old Vahe, whose childhood was interrupted by a brutal war, who was suddenly faced with a decision that changed the fate of his family forever.

I am delighted to share that 250 KM recently had its international premiere at the 63rd Krakow Film Festival, where it captivated audiences with its powerful portrayal of the devastating impact of the Second Artsakh (Nagorno-Karabakh) War on a 14-year-old boy's childhood. 

Continuing its momentum, 250 KM marked special dual continent premieres at the Armenian Film Festivals in both Sydney and Los Angeles on September 9. Adding to its accolades, 250 KM is set to compete in three significant Academy Award-qualifying festivals this November: the 40th Annual Chicago International Children's Film Festival (CICFF), the 32nd Annual St. Louis International Film Festival (SLIFF) and the Foyle Film Festival, which is also BAFTA-qualifying.

With this short film, I hope to tell an authentic story of survival through an artistic recreation of real events, depict the devastating reality of war in the 21st century, and highlight the heavy burden children learn to carry in conflict zones.

Since December 12, 2022, Azerbaijan has blockaded the Lachin Corridor, the only and thus vital roadway connecting Armenia and Artsakh (Nagorno-Karabakh). The assault on Artsakh by Azerbaijan on September 19, 2023 has escalated into a heinous act of forcibly holding Armenians hostage, pressuring them to integrate into Azerbaijan against their will.

This was a blatant attempt to erase the ethnic identity of the indigenous Armenian population of Artsakh. After that, all the Armenians were forced to leave their Motherland to save their lives. More than 100,617 people had arrived in Armenia from Artsakh, which had a population of approximately 120,000 before Azerbaijan reclaimed the region.

That is the reason why I would like to share my story with your audience and probably to be able to reveal the human rights issues in South Caucasus which are one of the most important humanitarian disasters in modern Europe.

Can you explain what the current situation is in Armenia?

For the first time in over 5,000 years, there are no more Armenians living in Artsakh (Nagorno-Karabakh). Now the situation is very difficult, all displaced people from Artsakh need help. In Armenia, volunteer organizations and almost the entire Armenian nation work every day to find housing and jobs for these people. I suppose we are not yet fully aware of what is happening to us because we are still in the midst of global geopolitical changes. For now, we are all trying to live for today and help each other, because what will happen tomorrow is very hard to guess.

But I do know that we want justice and peace, we want to live in our Motherland.