In Taniel, British-Armenian director Garo Berberian gives us a window into the final days of early 20th century poet Taniel Varoujan — from his arrest to his death and symbolic rebirth. Unfolding across riveting chiaroscuro cinematography, evocative poetry, and a spellbinding score, this poetic twenty-minute film is an intensely atmospheric journey into Varoujan’s lyrical world, and the shadow brutally cast over it, and a prime example of how the arthouse genre can be a powerfully touching vehicle for remembrance.
“I had always been keen to address the issue of the Armenian Genocide, but I didn’t want to go down the traditional documentary route,” explains Berberian. “I felt for a long time that the suffering of Armenians, something my grandparents experienced first-hand, an imprint that never left them, should be expressed in celebrating the human spirit […] that often has been lost in facts and stats and arguments about what word you should call the murder of a race — as though somehow that changes anything.”
Varoujan was a truly exceptional character: after finishing his literary studies at the Ghent University in Belgium, the poet came back to his native land to become an educator, wanting to revitalise Armenian art and culture by establishing a literary group and a magazine in 1914. He was on the verge of international recognition, when he was detained and brutally killed at the age of 31 in the Armenian Genocide. This devastating historical event constituted the systematic persecution of the Armenian population on the territory of the former Ottoman empire during the years of the First World War, leading to the destruction of native cultures, dialects, arts, and traditions. Against this backdrop, Varoujan’s poems were confiscated by the Ottoman authorities. Just a few of his poems been published posthumously. Released in 2018, Taniel is intended to revive the poet’s legacy.
Far from a traditional documentary, Taniel is a visual poem within a poem, set against an intriguing, unique soundscape — unequivocally, the film’s beating heart. The magnificent musical arrangement comprises pieces by such legendary composers as Philip Glass and Michael Nyman, the latter known for his brilliant film scores including the multi-platinum soundtrack for Jane Campion’s The Piano (1993). Most significantly the film features music by the Armenian native Tigran Hamasyan, a prolific and influential jazz pianist fusing the Armenian folk tradition and sacred choral music with its ethereally labyrinthine scales and complex musical timestamps.
The duality of the film — part historical, part film noir drama — is further emphasized by its two voices, one Armenian, the other British. Taniel Varoujan is portrayed on screen by the prominent Armenian actor Tigran Gaboyan but voiced by Istanbul native Yegya Agkün, who adds authenticity to the protagonist’s voice. The written lines from Varoujan’s most famous poem Andastan, published posthumously: (“Let sweat, not blood fall in the broad vein of the furrow”) are the striking solo brought to life by Agkün in Western Armenian, the language spoken by the poet during his lifetime in Constantinople, now officially classified as endangered by UNESCO. ‘‘While shooting, we were conscious of our great responsibility in making a short film about such a talented man, a legend, a hero. And by recording the voice of his poems in the city that he lived, on the land where he was born, we hoped to bring life to the beauty of his work,” explains Agkün.
The second voice (that of the celebrated British actor Sean Bean) offers the harmonic rhythm, the underlying structural support for the visuals as he recites the narrative poem “Indelible,” written in English specifically for the film by Ben Hodgson. The poem is inspired by the life and work of Taniel Varoujan. Just as the film does, the poem reflects the sophisticated, Western-educated individual who embodied the historical dichotomy of Constantinople (Eastern and Western at the same time), worldly yet rich in local tradition.
Stop the clocks
Children, born and unborn,
For one hundred years of mourning
Invades this night,
The blackest night that ever befell a nation.
A trail of ink,
A river of blood.
Berberian’s intention was for the film to function not just as a tribute but a living monument; not a condemnation, but a celebration of one poet’s undying legacy, “When we talk about the tragedy of Armenia and Genocide, what can be forgotten under the immense shadow of the loss of life, is the individual,” explains Berberian. “Taniel looks at the human spirit, the textural fabric of a person lost in facts, stats, and arguments.”
Taniel, directed by Garo Berberian, will be screened on 30-31 October as part of The Calvert Journal Film Festival. Check out the programme and get your tickets here.