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“A War Without Rules”: Shoghakat Vardanyan on IDFA Best Film Winner ‘1489’

By Lauren Wissot

Film still from 1489. Courtesy of True/False

Film still from 1489. Courtesy of True/False.

Had it not been for a spiraling rift that began with a pro-Palestinian protest on the opening night of last year’s IDFA, Armenian director Shoghakat Vardanyan’s 1489 surely would have been the big story out of the fest. It’s an unassuming debut by a first-time filmmaker who took the IDFA’s top prize for best film in the international competition.

Regardless, it was a bittersweet win that could likewise be read as a consolation prize, as 1489 is a doc that Vardanyan certainly never wanted to make. Its coldly bureaucratic title refers to the number assigned to a “body of an individual missing in action.” The film centers on one particular MIA conscript in the most recent struggle over the disputed Artsakh (Nagorno-Karabakh) region—a 21-year-old student and musician (a pianist and saxophone player), and brother and son, named Soghomon Vardanyan. Simply put, 1489 is a distraught sister’s calmly clear-eyed, day-by-day, smartphone-shot account of her and her parents’ unenviable (ultimately two-year-long) search for her sibling's bones, some semblance of closure, and an ever-elusive hunt for answers.

Just prior to the film’s US premiere at True/False, Documentary reached out to the first-time director, producer, and cinematographer with congratulations, condolences, and our own carefully framed questions. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

DOCUMENTARY: 1489 opens with the admission that this is your first film, so I’m curious as to what exactly that means. Before your brother went missing, did you have filmmaking aspirations at all?

SHOGHAKAT VARDANYAN: The film starts with that admission because I never studied filmmaking, though all my life I loved to watch films—I just never thought I would make a film. Sometimes I dreamed of making one, but I was a musician and I was doing music. I was sure I didn’t have any talent for filmmaking.

We didn’t even have TV until I was seven or eight. There was one children’s channel that showed fairytale films, and I especially loved Soviet-era cartoons. Films about Greek legends and history, especially about the Roman Empire. I also remember The Odyssey (1997), the miniseries from Andrei Konchalovsky, and Zeffirelli’s Jesus of Nazareth (1977), which they showed before Easter. Those were really important to me because they showed how beautiful film can be.

Then as a student, I began borrowing my brother’s laptop. At first, I just watched the films I remembered from childhood, but eventually, I discovered Polish cinema like Kieslowski’s  Dekalog (1989). And also Jarmusch. Though I don't think that you can watch my film and say that I was influenced by Jarmusch in a stylistic way, I was always thinking that if I hadn’t watched his movies I wouldn't have shot my film the way I did. My mother always called me a “professor of film,” but I still don’t feel like I’ve watched enough—at least not enough for a filmmaker. I really hope to watch even more now.

D: So why did you decide to start filming in the first place?

SV: I started because two things happened at the same time. First, I felt like the music and the words were gone from me. Like I was stuck. I couldn’t talk or write or do free improvisation on the piano to release my emotions. And also at that moment, I was studying journalism. Though we weren’t taught filmmaking, my mobile journalism teacher is a filmmaker. She and the director of the school understood the heaviness of my situation, that I couldn’t concentrate on my lessons, and that I might be thrown out.

So they called and offered me a phone from the school just so I could record, every morning or evening, my progress on the search for my brother. And I put that phone with its big stand in my room, but when I tried that first time I just felt so pathetic. I still have that video and can still remember the shame I felt watching it. So then over the next two days, I decided to bring the phone and stand with me when I agreed to meet friends for coffee and tried filming that.

But it was only on the third day when I returned back home in the evening and went to my father’s studio that I felt something. I didn’t have the phone or stand with me so I brought out my own phone and started filming. Watching that video later in my room everything changed. I think I experienced the feeling a filmmaker has upon finding the hero of the story, though I didn’t know it at the time. All I know is that I needed to film me and my family waiting for my brother to return. And then at some point, I had this terrible feeling that maybe he wouldn’t be coming back. That’s when I suddenly understood what it was I was filming, taking it really seriously because it was important. I was following my intuition. And then later I began finding ever more meanings. This is for him. This is for the little boys who are suffering in this terrible new type of war—a war without rules.

Because they were dropping outlawed phosphoric bombs on us. Our forests were burnt and our boys were burnt by these flying objects going after them, locating them through heat or movement. They were simply fighting against robots, these unmanned combat aerial vehicles and drones. And though all this suffering was so very hard for me to witness I was determined to keep their memory alive. This pushed me to continue my work even though it was psychologically and physically difficult.

D: Were you also focused on having a record to turn over to the proper authorities?

SV: It didn’t even cross my mind to show it to the authorities, only when my mobile journalism teacher asked to see what I was filming did I realize I was making a film. She said the video I showed her was very cinematic and that she wasn’t going to give me any advice. That I knew what I was doing and she wasn’t going to interrupt the relationship between myself and the process.

D: Did the camera provide any emotional distance between yourself and the traumatic events unfolding on the other side of the lens?

SV: Well, my brain did begin to work differently - more and more like a filmmaker’s. The process was teaching me to be a cinematographer, a producer, and a director. But keeping a camera between yourself and what’s going on around you is not therapeutic; it’s not keeping you from feeling or saving you in some way—totally the opposite. Through filming, I was entering deeper and scarier moments, which I wouldn't have seen without the camera. I probably would have just sat in my room and cried. So therapy occurred in a more real way I suppose.

D: Did it also allow you to perhaps assert some sort of control in the face of powerlessness?

SV: No, I wasn’t trying to assert control, though I will say that I refused to be crushed. I refused to go down into depression without a fight. Filming was a means of survival, a way of catching life. If I hadn’t done this film, didn’t look reality straight in the eye, didn’t finish the film and offer it to others - I would have been worse off. At least this gives me the sense that I’ve done something hard in service to other people. It helps me survive. 

And I’ve gone through this experience not only for my people, my country, but I think for every human being who is going through or has gone through war. The process of trying to find out any news about my brother took so long, two years, which left me feeling really lonely. I needed to figure out how to take care of my parents and how to do this while also searching for information—and not let them experience that painful journey alone. Because that was my way of taking care of them. 

There was the horror of the situation itself to grapple with - what was happening to my motherland, the losses we experienced because of this war. And I was totally alone with the film until 2022 when I met producer-director Marina Razbezhkina, who became my creative producer; she provided stimulating conversations, pushed me to keep moving.

D: Now that you’re U.S.-premiering at True/False after taking the top prize at IDFA, are you hoping the film will bring greater attention to the desperate circumstances in Artsakh? What precisely are your ambitions, for both the film and your career?

SV: Right now I really want to study filmmaking, and am hoping that a program in the US or Europe will offer me that chance. But I  really don’t believe that art can change the world or humanity. All it can do is shift thoughts or feelings. There are always going to be wars because certain people need to have never-ending wars.

Ultimately I just hope that those affected by war can watch this and see that they're not alone, and that there is somebody out there who understands them. Someone who has felt the same pain that they felt; who knows what it’s like to live through war, to lose a loved one to war. And I think that this feeling of really sharing the pain with somebody is important because it somehow gives you the feeling that you are not alone.

Lauren Wissot is a film critic and journalist, filmmaker and programmer, and a contributing editor at both Filmmaker magazine and Documentary magazine. She also writes regularly for Modern Times Review (The European Documentary Magazine), and has served as the director of programming at the Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival and the Santa Fe Independent Film Festival.