Friday, March 15, 2024

First Look ’24: 1489

If you wonder what a Pax Putania might be like, look at the Caucasus. Spoiler alert: it isn’t very peaceful. Despite its security pact with Russia, Armenia was routed by Azerbaijan, a more “allied” Russian ally, during the 2020 fighting over Nagorno-Karabakh. Most of the breakaway Artsakh region were Armenian speakers who more readily identified with Armenia, which makes Russian pretenses for invading Ukraine even more hypocritical. Tragically, Shoghakat Vardanyan’s brother Soghomon was a casualty of the conflict. Perhaps even more cruelly, Soghomon’s fate remained unknown when his sister picked up a camera and started documenting the family’s Kafkaesque anguish in 1489, which screens during this year’s First Look.

Soghomon Vardanyan was a musician, not a fighter, but he answered his nation’s call. Unfortunately, Armenia will be forced to accept humiliating terms after their military defeat. Vardanyan and her parents have few illusions, because they know Soghomon’s unit was nearly decimated in a disastrous engagement. They still try to hold onto some hope, but they feel mixed emotions when the body they are summoned to identify turns out to be another false alarm.

(titled after an identification number related to Vardanyan’s brother) is a quiet, intimate long-take film. Intuitively, Vardanyan develops the sort of embedded documentary filmmaking techniques Wang Bing has perfected over a two-decade span. She captures some heart-breaking family drama, while also participating in it.

Nevertheless, the film’s DIY production values are also always evident.
1489 only runs a modest 76 minutes, but comparisons to Wang are apt, both in terms of tone and pacing. Despite the extreme emotions, it definitely qualifies as “slow cinema.”

What happened to the Vardanyans was a family tragedy. What happened to Armenia was bad for the world. To put things in perspective, Armenia rated a 53 (out of 100) on Freedom House’s freedom index, while Azerbaijan scored a 7 (and Russia came in at 13). We do not pay enough attention to the Caucasus. Maybe
1489 can help change that. Recommended for fans of slow cinema and family history documentaries, 1489 screens tomorrow night (3/16) as part of this year’s First Look.