Armenia has been submitting films for the Best International Feature Film Oscar here and there since 2001, but never has the West Asian country been nominated. This year, that could change with Michael A. Goorjian‘s hopeful fable of Soviet Armenia, “Amerikatsi.” For the first time, Armenia’s Oscar committee got their film on the shortlist of 15, thanks to a groundswell of support that started at the Woodstock Film Festival last year, and with the trumpeting of Canadian-Armenian filmmaker Atom Egoyan.
Many multi-hyphenates star in films they directed in service of getting the movie made at all. For actor and writer/director Goorjian, the Bay Area-born artist whose father was Armenian and whose paternal grandparents survived the Armenian genocide in World War I, it only made sense to play Charlie Bakhchinyan himself. In “Amerikatsi,” Charlie is an Armenian-American who repatriates to his homeland in 1948, when Armenia was in thrall to Soviet Communism. Returning to his native country, Charlie is swiftly arrested under the Kafkaesque charge of wearing a tie, and from his tiny prison cell window, watches an Armenian couple, Tigran and Sona, who begin to invite him into their lives from across the way.
Looking at the films Armenia typically submits to the Oscars, they tend to revolve around the Armenian genocide in one way or another (see 2022’s animated documentary “Aurora’s Sunrise”). With “Amerikatsi,” Goorjian sought to make a film decidedly not about that horrible slice of history, and it’s buoyed by a classical score from the Armenian Philharmonic, as much a persistent character in this deceptively light drama as the melting pot of people in it (the cast is comprised of Armenians and Russians alike).
The film’s milestone as the first picture with a serious foot forward in the International Feature race was matched by another, as Armenia since September now offers a 40 percent tax credit for productions to shoot in the country. IndieWire spoke with Goorjian about the making of the film and how an Oscar nomination would literally change Armenia and its global position in filmmaking and culture. “Amerikatsi” is now screening for Academy members and had a limited U.S. release in the fall from Variance Films. Voting for Oscar nominations closes on Tuesday, January 16.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
IndieWire: “Amerikatsi” marks the first time Armenia has been seriously considered for an Oscar nomination. What made the difference this time?
Michael A. Goorjian: Going into even making the film, I always thought it would be a great opportunity for Armenia because there haven’t been many films that have come out of the country, and so I’ve always looked towards the possibility of at least having it be Armenia’s submission. We really tried our best to make a film that was more universal in theme. It’s about a lot of Armenian history and Armenian culture, but I wanted to make a film that you didn’t have to be Armenian to appreciate.
Armenian films don’t have a large audience in the U.S., possibly because they often revolve around the genocide and audiences are wary of getting what they think might be a history lesson.
That’s something we fought against in promoting the film. The genocide is an incredibly important subject matter, but Armenian culture has been overshadowed by it. As an Armenian trying to drag my non-Armenian friends to see a film about a genocide is not easy. I wanted to make something that was not about the genocide but also pushing in the opposite direction in making something that was just enjoyable to watch.
If the movie gets an Oscar nomination, what would that mean for Armenia?
In my view, if France gets nominated, if England gets nominated, it’s great for the country, but if Armenia was to get a nomination, I can’t think of another way that myself as an artist can actually make a positive impact on the country. It would be huge, to be honest, because a lot of what Armenia suffers from, most people don’t know what Armenia is, or where it is, or that it exists, and that’s part of what the country has struggled from, being unknown. As a filmmaker, I really wanted to do my best to help elevate the awareness of the country. A nomination would make a huge impact in terms of helping develop the film industry there, for people to see it as a viable place to shoot films, the talent that exists there. Not that this is a showcase, but I’ve already had filmmakers ask me about the score.
For many Westerners, their knowledge of Armenia stops after the Soviet takeover and is limited, probably, in recent years to the recently ceased territorial conflict with Azerbaijan.
I’ve had a difficult time getting films made in the U.S. Armenia was an opportunity to get to make a truly independent film where you can explore and try things. Not just for me, but for other filmmakers to see that possibility [is critical]. It’s a business for sure, and people want to make money, but as an art form, it’s a way to kind of explore and try things and find new voices. Seeing Armenia as an opportunity, as a place where independent film can get made, I think that’s an important thing for me.
Did you always intend to play the lead?
I went through a period at the beginning of trying to get more name actors to play the role. Raising funds is often based on your attachments. But I gained the trust of the people who helped put the film together, which included the Armenian government and the Ministry of Culture.
How did you assemble the rest of the cast? Some of your actors actually ended up joining the military in the conflict with Azerbaijan after filming.
The majority of the cast is based in Armenia or Armenians from the homeland. The actor who played Tigran [Hovik Keuchkerian], he’s probably the only other, he’s a Spanish Armenian actor who was on a show called “Money Heist” and is pretty well known in Spain. And then the two Russian actors essentially I went with the two Russian actors are very similar to their roles. Nelli Uvarova [who plays Sona] is well known in Russia, but she’s also half-Armenian, much like the character that she plays. Basically, she told me her mom is exactly who her character was, but they’re well-known actors in Russia, but also because of the conflict there, they’ve fled. They’re unfortunately not able to be in where they grew up. They’ve fled the country. So it’s an international cast. Armenia is interesting in that the majority of Armenians don’t live in the country.
Did you direct in English, or speak Armenian and Russian with your actors and crew?
I don’t speak Russian. I speak a little bit of Armenian, but there are many Armenian dialects, and there are two major dialects, eastern and western, so what they speak in Armenia is quite different from what they speak in the U.S. or Europe. I mostly directed in English with translators, but we shot the film in 2020. We shot in March in 2020, at the beginning of the pandemic, so that was kind of crazy. I ended up being stuck in Armenia for seven months. By the time I left, I understood a lot more eastern Armenian than when I arrived.
We began shooting in March, and we were about a week into shooting and we had to shut down like the rest of the world. We spent probably at least two months in quarantine, and then because of the travel bans, the actor who played Tigran had to go back to Spain, the Russians went back, I stayed in Armenia, but over the next five, six months, we were able to continue shooting pieces of the film. Once we finished, the war broke out between Azerbaijan and Armenia, and members of our cast and crew went in fought in that war. For an American director, that’s pretty wild to experience.
Tell me more about this government-supported tax credit now available for filmmakers who shoot in Armenia, and your film’s relationship to it.
[Armenia is] a post-Soviet country that recently went through a revolution that really more westernized the government. After leaving the Soviet Union … it’s the most democratic country around. As a filmmaker and the company that I worked with over there, we’re trying to do our best to show them the importance of filmmaking and how it can help a country and help their people. There have been other co-productions in the past 10 years or so, but mostly with Europe. The attempt was to both prove to the country itself what’s possible, but then also showcase for other filmmakers what’s possible.
With the film and the success of the film at festivals, and now with being shortlisted, I think it’s helped the government of Armenia see the importance and the value of film in terms of helping a small country. So that’s what people of the production company that I worked with in Armenia helped sort of spearhead, the idea of creating this tax incentive, which many other countries have. And Armenia, despite the fact that there’ve been issues with Azerbaijan, and mostly because of the war in Russia and Ukraine, there’s been an influx of a lot of business coming into Armenia. So the economy there has skyrocketed. There’s a lot of tech in Armenia now. It’s thriving, and there’s so much going on there, and film just fits into it. And so that’s the idea behind the tax incentive — to help entice other filmmakers and other production companies to come there and film in Armenia.