Monday, April 09, 2012

HERE: Mapping Armenia

An American satellite cartographer has come to revise the official maps of Armenia, including Nagorno-Karabakh, which is a geopolitically significant twist. Though no expert on the local culture, Will Shepard still recognizes his assignment will be complicated. Yet, he has other reasons for taking on an Armenian photographer as his translator in Braden King’s HERE (trailer here), opening this Friday in New York at the IFC Center.

Shepard is a bit socially awkward, but he has the sort of job only people in the movies have. As a mapping technician, he verifies satellite imaging with field measurements. He can also drink, which stands him in good stead with the locals. Gadarine Najarian left Armenia to pursue her photography. Recently returned, she knows the language and the country, but is somewhat estranged from her family. Somehow their chance meeting leads to a shared journey through Armenia’s harsh mountains and across the demilitarized zone into Nagorno-Karabakh. Slowly, their ambiguous attraction evolves into a full scale romance. Yet, both remain uncertain about the implications of their rocky relationship.

For better or worse, the tone for HERE is set by periodic woo-woo interludes narrated by Peter Coyote that pay poetic homage to the mapmakers and explorers of yore. They are definitely pretentious, but weirdly effective nonetheless. The same might be said for the film overall. It is generously stocked with striking vistas and impressionistic scenes of in-the-moment intimacy, but it is rather stingy with plot and dialogue. Frankly, it has a hypnotic lulling effect that is quite distinctive, but is absolutely unsuited to mass market tastes. Indeed, King’s non-narrative filmmaking background is clearly reflected in HERE. Stylistically, it might also remind some viewers of some of the recent Iranian and Romanian art films, which is certainly appropriate, given its proximity.

Arguably, the most important contribution to HERE came from the location scouts, who helped take viewers to some of Armenia’s amazingly picturesque hidden corners. Cinematographer Lol Crowley makes it all look quite National Geographic worthy, while still capturing the delicacy of the pseudo-courtship underway.

Ben Foster and Lubna Azabal (recognizable to hardcore cineastes from the Oscar nominated Incendies) have real ships-passing-in-the-night chemistry as the travelers, keeping the audience largely invested in their metaphorical slow dance. They look interesting together, which is rather fortunate, because viewers watch a lot of them taking it all in.

Though it scrupulously avoids hot button controversies, like the Ottomans’ Armenian genocide and the legacy of Soviet oppression, HERE is likely to be a highly divisive film with audiences. Some will get caught up in the enormously seductive vibe, while others will be frustrated waiting for something to happen. In all truth, a bit more narrative muscle would not have undermined the rich atmosphere, but at least it has that going for it. Respectfully recommended for contemplative, self-selecting audiences, HERE opens this Friday (4/13) at the IFC Center.