BEIRUT: How many ambitious politicians can you name who’ve hitched their stars to migrant bashing? If the answer is “plenty,” then it may be tempting to assume that all today’s migration stories are part of the grand narrative of “populism” and its attack on liberal values.
Tamara Stepanyan’s 2017 documentary “Those from the Shore” defies such expectations.
The sole feature-length film to win a prize at the 2018 Lebanese Film Festival tells a story of westward migration that Armenians reckon to be at least a century old.
Focusing on interviews with Armenian families awaiting landed immigrant status in Marseille, the film keeps history in the background, telling the migration story with a mix of empathy and formal beauty.
It begins with a re-creation, apparently part of a workshop series organized for incoming migrants, to which Stepanyan’s camera returns.
Two Armenian women re-enact the interview that all emigrants to France must face: When did you come? How many kids do you have?
It gives participants all of them trapped in a state of statelessness a chance to practice their wobbly French and have an occasional laugh at the expense of the sometimes shiftless bureaucrats they’re bound to encounter. (The filmmaker finds one nervous-looking but not unsympathetic functionary to put in the frame. “They go insane,” he remarks of aspiring immigrants, acknowledging there’s no way of knowing how long the process will take. “It can take a couple of months. It may take years.”)
The opening snippet of conversation is followed by a slow montage of monochrome vignettes snowy hills, misty mountains, still-life shots of empty rooms, sea waves suggesting a journey that doesn’t need literal depiction.
From this point forward, the film is mostly preoccupied by the testimonials of the handful of Armenian families Stepanyan interviewed for the film.
A couple say they’ve been waiting six months to have their immigration papers processed. A father is struggling to cope with his young-adult son, who developed a severe learning disability as a child. After three decades of waiting for something to happen in her life, a mother of three balances her exhaustion with the dread she felt at the prospect of raising her kids in Armenia. Another mother says the immigration procedure makes people feel inferior to French citizens.
“I’ll tell you about waiting,” a man says in Arabic as the screen fills with exterior shots at nighttime. “It’s a singular experience, completely destabilizing. ... The only thing to do is to wait.”
Interview excerpts are interspersed among several nonnarrative interludes often accompanied by the strains of Charles Ives’ orchestral work “The Unanswered Question.” Occasionally there is footage of seawater.
Frequently the camera frames families as they stand on a beach (anonymous at first) staring out to sea.
Once the cast of characters is introduced, Stepanyan (who shared shooting responsibilities with Tammam Hamza) accompanies them to other locations.
Some immigration applicants are taken to an exhibition that includes photos and documents from a past generation of Armenian migrants.
“I feel as though this is happening today,” one mother says as the camera peers at head shots of immigrants from early last century.
“The faces in these photos, you can see them on the street today, especially if you look in their eyes.”
Most of “Shore” is in luminous black-and-white. Only briefly when a parent has been asked if she has any mental images of Armenia does Stepanyan indulge in color footage.
Her recollections of her mountain village accompany one of the film’s visual motifs the caboose shot of a train wending its way across the landscape. As she describes her memories of the place, side-window stock of Mount Ararat is superimposed upon the backward-looking black-and-white footage.
Some of the most amusing, and affecting, interviews are with the kids. When the filmmaker asks one preteen girl about her memories of Armenia, the girl demands to know why Stepanyan is making this film.
“Are you going to show us on TV? Are there Armenians here to watch Armenians on TV?”
While filming another three kids, the filmmaker asks what they see when she says, “Armenia.”
“The place where we lived,” an older brother replies, “the neighborhood, everything!”
“I think of Mount Ararat,” his brother smiles from behind his guitar, perhaps recalling some coaching.
“I don’t remember anything,” their younger sister says.
“You can remember the mountain,” a brother coaxes her.
“Yes, the nicest landscape in Armenia is Mount Ararat, isn’t it? Covered in snow, something like that?” she says.
The conversation moves on to what the three kids like about Marseille. The little girl’s gaze grows distant while a hollow sadness seeps into her brother’s eyes.
With its focus on cultural dislocation and life suspension, “Shore” is a striking complement to Stepanyan’s first feature-length documentary, “Embers.” That film centers on a series of conversations with a handful of Armenian senior citizens who with the filmmaker’s grandmother had been Communist Party activists in the Soviet Union during World War II.
You might expect “Embers” to be the narrative inverse of “Shore.” In fact, geographical continuity is as strong a theme of that first feature as dislocation is in the second. Yet that stability is accompanied by loss not only because Armenia is no longer part of an abandoned political experiment, but because several of her gran’s friends are slipping into forgetfulness and dementia.
The final sequence of “Those from the Shore” shows the prospective French citizens taking a day trip to an island off the coast of Marseille, the location where the vignettes of families looking out to sea were shot.
It turns out to be a place students of French literature may recall as If, home of the fortress-prison Chateau d’If, from “The Count of Monte Cristo.”