Armenia (2003) Dir. Hiner Saleem
In a remote village in post-Soviet Armenia, Hamo (Romen Avinian) is a widower trying to survive on a pitiful pension with three lazy sons begging money from him, and like most of the community, is forced to sell off his belongings to make ends meet. Hamo visits his wife’s grave every day, as does Nina (Lala Sarkissian) with her husband’s grave. Nina works in a tiny bar by the roadside which serves Vodka Lemon but her boss is forced to close it down. Hamo takes a shine to Nina and pays off the bus fare she owes, marking the beginning of a new relationship. But the trials of their respective children don’t make things easy for them.
This quirky low budget tale comes from Kurdish director Hiner Saleem who brings a wry and unique perspective with him to the big screen. Filmed in snowy Armenia – and in chronological scene order – it serves to remind us that there is always someone worse off then you yet somehow these people seem to maintain the will get up every morning despite their woes and hardships. Then again they do have the luxury of the titular alcoholic drink to either help forget their troubles or celebrate their victories.
The first scene we are treated too features an elderly man being dragged to a grave site while still in his bed, tied to the back of a truck, letting us know straight away this is no ordinary film. He isn’t being buried though: he’s part of small band playing a musical tribute to the deceased. Our nominal protagonist Hamo is clearly a proud man while his three sons are representative of the young of the village – either lazy or have fled the coop to better climes and prospects. One of Ham’s sons is in France and still writes and calls his father – on the only phone in the entire village – to ask for some money! Another, Dilovan (Ivan Franek) is still in the village but lives with his daughter Avin (Astrik Avaguian) whom he loves but plans to sell off to her boyfriend Giano (Zahal Karielachvili), who does business in Russia but is not as wealthy as he makes out. For Nina, she has a daughter Zine (Ruzan Mesropyan), a talented pianist who Nina thinks plays in bars but is in fact a prostitute – her healthy wages coming from “admirers”.
It’s hard to imagine that there is any humour to be found in such bleak and oppressive situations but Saleem pulls it off, albeit in the darkest and often surreal manner. For example, there is a man on a horse who appears in a number of scenes riding through in the background for no apparent reason. Or when Hamo is at the grave and is making eyes at Nina, the picture of his wife’s face on the headstone suddenly changes to one of angry disapproval until Hamo averts his eyes. Other giggles come from slapstick moments such as Hamo lugging a huge wardrobe on his elderly back for selling and falling over backwards in the snow because of the weight; or an elderly couple who buy the wardrobe then can’t carry it so they take the bus but the two men who helped them lift it onto the bus are kicked off because there is no longer any room for them!
Saleem also throws in some political metaphors into his film which will probably go over the heads of many viewers. Since this is set after Armenia’s independence from and the subsequent dissolution of Soviet Union, the country was still in the grips of an economic downturn of epic proportions, Russia is once again considered the saviour of their troubles, hence Giano going over there to make his fortune yet coming back still poor. There has also been some suggestion that Zine prostituting herself to wealthy patrons to make ends meet is a metaphor for Armenia having to sell itself to Russia. Take that for what you will. Although the biggest metaphor is surely that Saleem is using the Kurds in Armenia to convey his message of the indefatigability of the Kurdish people back in his homeland.
This simple film has been lovingly created and the photography is remarkably striking despite the low budget. The debilitating chill of the Armenian winter permeates through the screen while the tragic symbols of the villager’s poverty – the flaking wallpaper on the bare walls, the crumbling brickwork of their houses, the rickety old wooden chairs they sit on, the carpetless floors – all reverberate with an austere potency. The cast, some of which were non-professionals, shine with their nuanced and naturalistic performances creating a group of believable and relatable characters even with the huge cultural difference that would exist between it and much of the audience.
Vodka Lemon is a gentle, often slow moving but unpretentious little film which serves as great advertisement for the sheer variety, creativity and gusto present in world cinema which sadly slips under the radar for to many people weaned on Hollywood blockbusters.