The Women and Children of the Second Artsakh War

“The zigzag scissor is bad,” 12-year-old Vrej winces, the nape of his neck inches from the blade. “It’s hurting me.” 

That reluctant recipient of “a true man’s haircut” is also the sensitive hero of My Sweet Land (2024), Sareen Hairabedian’s first documentary feature, which follows an ethnic Armenian family during the Second Artsakh War. As the film unfolds, Vrej, the eldest of three, transforms from a flower-picking dreamer who wants his own pigeon to a veritable soldier in training. “There are so many bad things happening now,” he sighs to the camera, fiddling his hands outside the home that he shares with displaced relatives. “In the ancient times, elephants were used as tanks, and stones were used like slingshots. But when guns were invented, worse times have begun.”

Hairabedian stays out of the frame throughout the documentary, directing our attention to Vrej’s lived experience and pensive rumination, from his joyful visits to his grandma’s house down the road to his family’s demoralizing discovery that, after the war’s ceasefire, almost 75% of the Republic of Artsakh (also known by the Russian name Nagorno-Karabakh) has been ceded to Azerbaijan. Well aware that the “sweet land” he calls home — the mountainous enclave of Tsaghkashen — was contested decades before his birth, Vrej weighs his aversion to violence against his growing sense of nationalism, and the feeling that there is no other option.  

Once the family has returned to their embattled village, the pressure to militarize is inescapable. Vrej’s baby brother binge-watches a nationalist music video from a smartphone, singing along to the refrain about a young man dying for his people. Using the detritus around his battle-scarred village, Vrej whittles a makeshift wooden rifle. His grade school initiates a “kindergarten for the army,” training impish tweens to strap on a gas mask in under five seconds. Hairabedian’s camera lingers on the anxious trainees who are transported to a kiddie boot camp — boys and girls who have barely hit puberty expected to defend what’s left of their homeland in the event of another attack. As they march in unison in ersatz Nike and FILA streetwear and other vestiges of Western imperialism, we must reckon with the extent to which American ignorance — and indifference — to the conflict is another side effect of supposedly “winning” the Cold War.

By the end of the film, Vrej has lost his boyish wonder and ambitions of becoming a dentist. When his mother lights the candles on his 13th birthday cake, he stoically blows it out. “Am I going to die?” he asks the director in the final scene, staring off into the mountains that surround his village. “That’s what happens in films, the main hero dies in the end.”

In the end credits, we learn that Vrej’s family was among the thousands forced to flee their ancestral land when, in 2023, Azerbaijan launched yet another military assault. This event proves to be the unexpected turning point of There Was, There Was Not (2024), Emily Mkrtichian’s documentary, which follows four ethnic Armenian women who call Artsakh home. Where My Sweet Land reveals the way that the war robs boys of their childhoods, There Was, There Was Not indirectly exposes the fraught relationship between feminist solidarity and nationalist zeal. 

Unlike Hairabedian, Mkrtichian foregrounds her participation in the film. “My grandparents were forced to flee their Indigenous homelands,” she relays in a voiceover while brewing a cup of traditional Armenian coffee. “So much of what I knew came from myth and story… conjuring up a place that felt very real.” Mixing the fairy tales of her youth with the brutal reality of today, There Was, There Was Not presents Artsakh as both a sun-swept “paradise” and a bastion of patriarchal control as women across ages and professions express the depth of their collective connection to their homeland as well as their varying responses to the sexism that dominates their culture. 

Sosé Balasanyan, 33, is a world-class judoist and martial arts teacher who dreams of winning an Olympic gold medal. Freelance journalist Siranush Sargsyan, 39, decides to run for city council, and distributes flyers around the capital, Stepanakert. “I decided to run because we need women in office,” she tells a skeptical citizen. “Your beauty will save the world,” responds another man, amused. Sveta Harutyunyan is a 40-something mother of three daughters, and one of few women hired to disable landmines remaining from the First Artsakh War of the late 1980s to ’90s. The most outspoken of all the women is human rights activist Gayane Hambardzumyan, founder of Artsakh’s only Women’s Center to help those escaping domestic abuse. 

The toughness and resilience of the women goes without saying, but Mkrtichian excels at revealing their character as individuals. When she’s not pulling chin-ups in a nearby field, Sosé shows off her collection of stuffed animals. Siranush basks in her reflection after a blow-out, then hustles to turn out the vote. Sveta keeps her nails perfectly manicured, despite manually combing the minefields. Gayane gushes at her grandkids after sharing an array of “Smash the Patriarchy” postcards she was forbidden to hang in public.

By the time war breaks out, viewers should have a strong sense of what is at stake: a complicated, distinctive society where women are at once confined to traditional roles and rallying for a brighter tomorrow. Like Hairabedian, Mkrtichian doesn’t tell us how to feel or what to do when, by the end of the film, the Republic of Artsakh ceases to exist. Instead, the women’s stories alert us to how fragile so many homelands continue to be — how vulnerable to displacement and ethnic cleansing, how resistant to quick and tidy solutions — while both films bring Artsakh’s history to the attention of the United States and other audiences with little or no knowledge of this embattled territory.

“Prove to me that we exist as a country,” Vrej’s grade school teacher implores. His quick response is, “Because we exist.” Even committed pacifists might waver if our home was under relentless attack from outside forces. For both of these films, that is precisely the point.

My Sweet Land (2024) is screening at the Amman International Film Festival in various locations in Amman, Jordon on July 4 and 6, and at the Moscow Cinema as part of the Golden Apricot Film Festival in Yerevan, Armenia, on July 12. There Was, There Was Not, directed by Emily Mkrtichian, is screening at select independent theaters.

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