A Film of Our Time: "Moskvitch, Mon Amour" Captures the Post-Soviet Reality on the Big Screen
Aram Shahbazyan's film Moskvitch, Mon Amour, recently completed but not yet shown to audiences, is a very subtle, complete, and amazing story. It was shot in one breath, without variations in style and fake emphases — it's simply an interesting history, with good structure and internal energy.
Moskvitch, Mon Amour is a tragicomedy at the core of which is a dream — with its inspiring and simultaneously disruptive effect. This dream has a clear model, a background story, price, and even a color.
The main character of the film is an elderly refugee named Hmayak Avanesyan, who being a Soviet man dreamed of having a Moskvitch, a type of automobile made in Russia, his entire life. He fled Azerbaijan and arrived in a small village in Armenia, bringing his dream with him. For days and years on end, he delicately removes a small Moskvitch model car from its velvet case, wiping the dust and polishing it with love and care.
He has a wife, a son (a labor migrant in Russia who regularly sends money to his parents), a dilapidated house, and an inexplicable job (part construction worker, part carpenter and part whatever comes his way). An ordinary, unstable life — in a recognizable hopeless environment. The only thing unusual is the power of his dream, which begins to take shape when of his fellow villagers, "Speculator Sako," decides to sells his red Moskvitch. Hmayak begins to feverishly save money. His dream is calling him.
His dream is red in color and in stark contrast to the grey, dull everyday life of the village. How can you not seek a bright, fresh gadget, when you are surrounded by the useless debris of products past their expiry date and your life, in general, has long ceased to be perceived as a holiday? It remains to create that holiday with your own hands, even if, at the end of the day, that which you create will not bring satisfaction.
Hmayak goes to visit the as-yet-unsold Moskvitch, gets a photo of himself beside the car, and talks as if to a living creature. After all, his dream is a substance that constantly requires nourishment. And that nourishment is ignited from the recollection born of Khrushchev's photograph, from archival Soviet images, and from the promises of a preaching MP who visits the village.
The film has a powerful script. The director and producers several times wrote, developed, and re-edited both the entire script and individual dialogues. Lévon Minasian and Hovhannes Tekgyozyan created the final version. In its wake, that fake sentimentality that often accompanies the shaping of the big dreams of so-called "small people" was avoided.
The paradox of a good story is that its characters have to be simultaneously happy and sad. And it is on this evasive border that all the actors of this film work — even those who make brief appearances. Aram Shahbazyan in all seriousness says he can't be considered a good director, but he is a master of accurate casting. Of course Shahbazyan is extremely modest (only a director who feels the pulse of cinema and the sense of time can do this), but the distribution of roles in the film is so scrupulous and calculated that no character feels fake. And that is the most difficult task in Armenian film and theater, since acting schools here are used to pathetic overtones and an exaggerated style. Sometimes it's harder to "break" that style than casting a non-professional actor.
The film's main character is played by Gavar theater actor Martun Ghevondyan, whose Hmayak is recognizable like childhood scars. This type of fragile person, when needed, will be the first to take the world's burden on his shoulders and take it obediently (and it makes no difference to where).
His character's wife is played by Hilda Ohan, a Persian-Armenian actress living in Paris, whose minimalist signature differs favorably from local actresses' acting. Perhaps this is that case when powerless silence is chosen over a squeal and a crooked smile is enough to signify happiness.
The secondary roles likewise are developed meticulously — such as the demagogue-MP distributing bribes under the motto "more than life" (producer Armen Hambartsumyan's unexpected role), Armen Sherents playing the role of a modern-day Azat Sherents (the son of the actor who lives in Moscow and though not a professional actor himself, surprisingly resembles his famous father, both in appearance and inner tranquility), the old-timer who resolves the problems of the village (chair of the Union of Cinematographers of Armenia Ruben Gevorgyants' gloomy role), and many more memorable characters.
The film is set in contained areas: the village, the adjacent fields, and in the best case, the regional center (the film was shot in the villages of Lchavan and Akhpradzor, the town of Vardenis, and Yerevan's "Vernissage" outdoor market). And it seems as if the area being contained begins to contain also time. All around is waste, scraps of outdated and rusty mechanisms, with which they play, try to revive, adapt. Time itself has deflected.
The idea is that it's 1996 in the film, when refugees in Armenia didn't have status, papers, or guaranteed homes. But it's interesting that the actions could easily take place in 2014, since these images of lives in limbo (the past not yet forgotten, the future not yet imagined) can be seen in any village today.
Shahbazyan describes how, while filming in Vardenis, he was amazed to notice that no one wore clothes made in the last 20 years — everything is preserved from Soviet times.
It seems as if Armenia today has come to a standstill during a time where what prevails is not hope but reminiscence. Moskvitch, Mon Amour implies this with its human destinies. And it is with this, that this story of infantile and kind Hmayak's achieves a contemporaneity that is like a slap in the face.
For example, in the scene where he tries to sell his father's hero and Battle of Stalingrad veteran medals (in order to save up for the Moskvitch), the vendor retorts: "What homeland? There's no homeland-motherland." That's the feeling in the air, especially for Hmayak, who lost his Azerbaijani citizenship but has not yet acquired Armenian citizenship. He knows that in the extreme case he has to write a letter to the Kremlin, where the response that will surely save the day will come.
Moskvitch, Mon Amour intentionally does not aggravate the social and especially political context: that all exists simply in the background, while people are in the foreground — confounded, sensitive and honest to the extent of their capabilities, whose dreams are always just beyond reach. There are more important tasks, expenses, and circumstances, and the red Moskvitch will have to wait just a little bit longer.
The idea for the film was based on a real-life experience. Years ago, Aram Shahbazyan was preparing a documentary film about refugees when he learned of a journal belonging to one of the refugees (thanks to investigative journalist, Hetq's Editor-in-Chief Edik Baghdasaryan), where the exact dates and the amounts of money saved were noted. The man had kept a balance book in order to acquire his dream car. Those regular records became the starting point of the film (Hmayak also has a journal).
The film's creative team also acquired some archival material from Gosfilmofund (Russia's National Film Foundation) which were linked to the plot. And it's very interesting to see how Soviet songs (especially about the Moskvitch parade) add color to the life of kind Hmayak living a meager lifestyle and his discreet wife.
Despite all its comic and mournful tangents, there is air to breathe in Moskvitch, My Love. The story doesn't lag or speed — it seeps.
And most importantly, the details don't mislead and emotions are not imposed. After all, there is a time to get rid of dreaming and dreams — as well as an alarm to intermingle and lose that time.
Moskvitch, Mon Amour is now in distribution, carried out by French and Armenian co-producers (ARAprod and Aremak), then it will be screened in Yerevan.
This is a film made for the audience and not to stroke the filmmaker's ego or simply to make money. We all have a "Moskvitch" in us (even if it's a Mercedes), and that rare Soviet entourage and cast of villagers who are patient and tossed around by nature create that recognition, which, by and large, transcends age and nationality. It is about us and consequently, the world.