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A telephone call structures Gariné Torossian’s 1993 film Girl From Moush: a diasporan woman speaks to an operator in a fictive homeland. She asks to be connected to Armenia, but doesn’t specify to whom. Presumably, to anyone in a place which is not this one.
She addresses the operator first in her native language, then in English. “Ur vor etam, yes Hye em … I’d like to be connected to Armenia.” Like telephony, diasporic memory tries to travel impossible distances, to arrive at a place that no longer exists at the time of arrival.
This is what historian James Clifford would call an attempt to “(maintain, revive, invent) a connection with a prior home” — to make a connection that could resist the forces of cultural erasure and effects of involuntary migration. Hamid Naficy explains that the telephone figures prominently in movies made by diasporic and displaced directors — what he calls “accented cinema” — because a phone call offers the illusion of being there, of finding place amid displacement. The caller in Torossian’s film rejects her absence from the place she is dialing.
I watched Girl From Moush at a retrospective of Torossian’s work hosted by the Los Angeles Filmforum at the Egyptian Theatre in July. It was the first retrospective program of her films in Los Angeles — a staggering fact given her monumental contributions to feminist diasporic cinema over the past quarter-century. Roughly 25 years on, Girl From Moush has much to teach viewers about the experience of dwelling in displacement.
Torossian’s own trajectory unfolds along a migratory route. Born in Beirut of Armenian descent, she spent her childhood in Bourj Hammoud before her family fled the Lebanese Civil War in 1978 — first to a camp in Cyprus, then to Toronto. They spoke no English when they arrived in Canada. At 17 years old, she met the filmmaker Atom Egoyan at the Armenian Community Center. He would later supply images for Girl From Moush, culled from his 1993 film about a diasporan photographer who travels to Armenia to document churches for a commercial calendar. Its plainspoken title, Calendar, suggests what queer theorist Elizabeth Freeman calls a “chrononormative” regulation of time — time dictated by the clock and forward march of capitalist productivity. At the same time, the title also refers to a printed document where the then and there is separated from the here and now only by the width of a single sheet of paper.
Girl From Moush reformats an archive of photographs into the flicker of moving images. Its title cites an eponymous folk song set in the ancient Armenian city of Moush — located in Turkish territory in the present day — where Indigenous Armenian communities were eradicated by the Ottoman government during the 1915 Genocide. Torossian hypnotically animates Egoyan’s visuals of churches in the Kotayk province, adding mountain vistas, family mementos, and illuminated manuscripts. The artist takes a pair of scissors to these traces of memory, cutting them up and layering them in unlikely arrangements that mirror the fragmentary transmission of collective memory across global networks of migration. Speeding along a vertical scroll of celluloid in nonlinear and nonnarrative arrangements, the images don’t linger. They never rest in place, but scatter across multiple spatial and temporal coordinates.
Girl From Moush stages an experience hauntingly familiar to many diasporans: discovering a still photograph from the past, embalmed in time, and recognizing that it’s lodged in a thereness that can’t be accessed. For me, these are always images of my mother in Yerevan in the 1980s, smiling and radiant. A photograph like this conjures a response that’s something like amateur telekinesis. You will the picture’s constituent parts into motion, enlarged to life-size proportions, lifelike enough to inhabit. You will the photograph to expand, to become a place that would accommodate your body. In Girl From Moush, Torossian superimposes her face over the accelerated images via transparencies. She inserts herself into the film’s geographies as though into the “terrain of belonging” denied to the dispossessed.
Portraits of Sergei Parajanov also appear — the Georgian-Armenian filmmaker responsible for the iconic and dreamlike Color of Pomegranates. Torossian describes Girl From Moush as an homage to him: “The only filmmaker who represents the Armenia I long to see … He photographed the real Armenia, the Armenia in my mind.” In lieu of imagining a stable place of origin or site of return, Torossian offers up diasporic memory untethered from fixed territories and nation states: “After making the film I realized this is just a dream, a fantasy about a country I could never visit. No one could.”
The penultimate piece in the Los Angeles Filmforum showcase was a digital video created roughly 25 years after Girl From Moush, after the artist’s repatriation to Armenia, An Inventory of Some Strictly Visible Things (2017). An Inventory also begins with a telephone: a shot of a smartphone with the weather app loaded, indicating that it’s 20 degrees Celsius and sunny in Yerevan. The artist writes the date in her notebook: September 21, 2017. She catalogues all the objects within her line of sight, from quotidian rocks, lamps, and Armenian alphabet blocks to a woman in a floor-length red ballgown making a surreal daytime appearance on the stairway of the Yerevan Cascade.
Some seven months after An Inventory was shot, the streets depicted in the video would swell with over 100,000 demonstrators gathered to protest the economic violence of an autocratic state. The success of their Velvet Revolution would secure the possibility of Armenian self-determination for the first time in a century. Which is to say, the Yerevan brilliantly indexed in An Inventory bears little resemblance to the hallucinatory Armenia of Girl From Moush. An Inventory’s crisply shot and starkly lit digital renderings belong to the here and now rather than there and then. Watching the two works in succession presents an object lesson in displacement and return: the geographies conjured in diasporic memory are irrecoverable even after repatriation. Torossian’s films call up places that were never bound to fixed cartographic territories — they dial sites that remain beyond reach.
A retrospective of Gariné Torossian’s work was hosted by the Los Angeles Filmforum in July.
Editor’s note: An Inventory of Some Strictly Visible Things (2017) was commissioned for an exhibition curated by Hyperallergic’s Editor-in-Chief Hrag Vartanian at Minerva Projects in Denver. He was not involved in the editing of this review.