– Shot exclusively on her mobile phone, Shoghakat Vardanyan’s emotional debut documentary focuses on the brother whom she lost in the Nagorno-Karabakh War

Review: 1489

As of 1 January 2024, the Nagorno-Karabakh (or Artsakh) Republic – which had never been recognised by the international community – officially ceased to exist. Shortly after the invasion by the Azerbaijan army in September 2020, President Samvel Shakhramanyan signed a decree in which he promised to dissolve all state institutions in this territory which had historically belonged to Armenia and which had been given to Azerbaijan during the Soviet era. And at the end of September 2023, the entire population in this region fled across the border into Armenia. It was a conflict on the outskirts of Europe which made international news for a few hours, until a week later when the war in Gaza broke out and all eyes turned towards Israel.

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Shooting exclusively on her mobile phone, journalism student Shoghakat Vardanyan conveys the anguish which gripped her family when her brother Soghomon disappeared a few days after the conflict began, just as he was finishing his mandatory military service. 1489, the code assigned to bodies of anonymous soldiers who go “missing in action”, is the title of her debut documentary, which has since scooped two prizes, including Best Film in Amsterdam’s IDFA in November, and is now in the line-up of the Trieste Film Festival.

“He’s not on the casualty list. You’ll need to make contact with the Mamikonian Military Institute”. Off the back of this phone call, the febrile hunt for the 21-year-old music student begins. Doubt creeps into the minds of Shoghakat’s parents. “You’re talking about him in the past”, the young woman reprimands her father Kamo. “That’s fear talking. The pain is destroying my dreams. I’ve built a home for my family and now the barbarians are coming to take over my life”. The director’s lens bypasses any semblance of film syntax, and we discover a mother who sews cushions for boys at the front, prays or reads a book on the sofa to distract herself from her obsession; an artist father who works with clay, who paints, and who has built a bright and spacious house in that particular enclave, which was fought for tooth and nail (the war for the right to self-determination for the Armenian people who lived there started in 1988).

When he goes to the barracks asking for news of his son, Kamo stops to examine the friezes on an ancient stone doorway depicting the tree of life and the heroes of Armenian Sanasar mythology. His artistic nature refuses the idea of that violence, of his son cold and hungry, hidden in a wood, chased by the enemy. His obsession over images and signs drives him to draw the presumed itinerary of Soghomon’s battalion’s retreat on a piece of paper. These are the documentary’s most visually suggestive moments. Images taken from old footage of a family Christmas and readings of Soghomon’s hopes for the new year (“to serve my country without incidents”) draw the audience into the film, emotionally, but the director doesn’t spare us the harsh sight of the brother’s remains when he’s finally found 9km from Hadrut, in the direction of Jabrayil.

It’s from this emotional storm, shot live over the course of two years, that Shoghakat Vardanyan has drawn the 76 minutes composing 1489, helped at the editing phase by Tigran Baghinyan and Armen Papyan. It’s an intimate, harsh and revealing tale, shaky but firm – unmindful of the rules on composure and modesty or those taught at film school – and speaking to thousands of wars, past present and future.

1489 is self-produced by Shoghakat Vardanyan.

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(Translated from Italian)

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