Behind her scenes
Emily Mkrtichian talk about her tangled route to filmmaking and the secret behind filming a documentary
March 11, 2021 | by Creative Armenia
2021 Creative Armenia-AGBU Fellow Emily Mkrtichian became a filmmaker by a twist of fate. After graduating university, she moved to Armenia to write a memoir and ended up on a years-long journey to document the story of four incredible women of Artsakh. While documentary filmmaking was not her chosen path, it ended up becoming her destiny.
CA: Tell us a little about how you began your journey of becoming a filmmaker.
EM: To be honest, becoming a filmmaker was an unexpected turn in my life. I studied literature and creative writing, and after graduate school decided to come to Armenia to work on a creative nonfiction memoir. By a stroke of luck, I ended up working at Bars Media Documentary Studio, where I started out writing treatments and scripts, then began producing their films and eventually directing on my own. When I started making independent work, I collaborated with my favorite creative friends making things together and also supporting them in making their own work. Filmmaking for me has always been tied to Armenia and Armenian stories, as well as to the practice of making things with others that have deep ties and meaning to our community. Long story short, the journey has been full of twists and turns but hasn’t let me down yet!
CA: What is a single work of art or a person whose work influenced you the most? Why?
EM: Wow. What a question – that changes for me by the months and by the years. I will watch a film every few years that really rocks me in how masterfully it was crafted and brought to life. I will see artwork in a museum that changes the way I think things can be made. I will read a book that reminds me there is no set way to tell a story and it can always be weirder, funnier, and more creative. Sorry for the non-answer but truly there is no one work!
CA: You have dedicated your creative career to the exploration of memory, place, and identity through your films and writing. Why those topics?
EM: I think those things influence me so much because they are the way I understand myself and my own history. I’ve always felt that the history of my family was an infinitely long piece of thread that I picked up years ago and have been following through a myriad of stories, places, and memories ever since. My own identity was built on the memories of generations that came before me that are often murky and second-hand – like a really good story that’s been told many times, and changes with each narrator.
CA: Currently you’re working on a feature-length documentary about four women from Artsakh – There Was, There Was Not – that received support from the Sundance Documentary Fund. What inspired you to tell this story? How has the film progressed?
EM: The idea for this film actually started when I was making another short documentary in Artsakh in 2018 – Motherland. We were filming with the women of HALO Trust, and I was just blown away by their strength, humor, and the work they took on to care for their families and community. I wanted to look at women like that in different fields: Politics, Sports, Human Rights, etc. Over the years, I found so many amazing women in Artsakh and ended up choosing four of them to be characters in this film; women who really seemed to be able to imagine a better future and work tirelessly towards it. Then I began collaborating with Sarko, a Yerevan-based painter, to create portraits that really represented them as they saw themselves, and focused on what it meant to be a woman in Artsakh. We were awarded the Sundance Documentary Fund grant 5 days into the war – I never could have imagined that the story would receive that support in the same moment that all of our lives took such a turn.
CA: You started working on There Was, There Was Not before the war in Artsakh broke out but decided to stay with your heroines throughout it. How did the war impact your plans?
EM: The war was so unexpected, and touched each of our lives in really profound ways. What I thought would be the narrative of There Was, There Was Not has not completely changed, but the story arc and journeys of the characters is definitely shifting around. I had been filming in Stepanakert for nearly all of September and had just returned to Yerevan to catch a flight home on the 30th. I will never forget waking up that Sunday morning and immediately calling Siranush who was running out of the parliament building to find shelter; Sose who was also in Yerevan and searching for someone to drive her back to Stepanakert so she could sign up to go to the front lines; Sveta who sent her two daughters to Sarko and I in Yerevan that same day. I left the next day for Artsakh and was with the women pretty much until the war was over. That decision has changed my film and changed my life in many big ways.
CA: Filmmaking involves a lot of responsibility. What do you personally find the most difficult when working on a film?
EM: The most important thing to me in documentary filmmaking is relationships: The ones you create with the people in your film, whose story you are telling; the ones you create with the place you are filming in; and the ones with the community most affected by the issue you are documenting. I think those long-term, deep relationships could be called ‘difficult,’ but only in the sense that they take lots of time and commitment to build. They are also the most rewarding part of making films, and especially with this film, I can say for sure that my relationship with every woman in it has made me a better person.
CA: How have COVID-19 and accompanying lockdowns changed your creative routine?
EM: COVID has made the commercial work that I usually do alongside filmmaking much less time-consuming, and generally given me more time to work on the things that matter most to me. Films are kind of a marathon sport, they often take years and years to make, so it has been a blessing to have more time to ground into watching lots of films, playing with the footage I have, and just thinking and planning about this project. I am generally more of a long-haul slow creator and having time to lean into that and enjoy it has been really great.
CA: You have worked on a number of projects, ranging from short sci-fi movies to multimedia installations and full-length documentaries. What film or piece of writing are you most proud of? What makes it special?
EM: That is such a difficult question to answer. I can say that the multimedia installation we did in 2015 for Tigran Hamasyan’s Luys i Luso project was absolutely one of my favorite things to create. It was exciting to take cinematic images and bring them into three dimensions, to design an experience that people could move through and be immersed in. I really look forward to making more stuff like that in the future. But the film I am making now is by far the most challenging thing I’ve ever done, and for that I love it and it will always have a special place in my heart.
CA: Tell us about your daily creative routine.
EM: My daily creative routine is always changing, depending on where I am in the process of making a film. If I am shooting, my days are usually whirlwinds of talking with my characters, finding out what everyone is doing, prepping gear, running out the door, and spending all day in their world.
Filmmaking is a really solid mix of the technical side of things – did I charge batteries and log my footage and is the sound level right and my exposure balanced – and the spontaneous creative side of things – having the absolute pleasure of being with someone as they go about their normal day and imagining how each part of their life will be cut into scenes and movements of a larger story. I really prefer the latter, when I can disappear behind the camera into another life, and use the lens to see in a new way that I can then share with others to tell a story. But of course, it always comes back to the technical side at the end of the day when it’s time to organize footage, charge my batteries, and make sure I’m ready to do the same thing the next day.
Another big part of my routine is watching lots of films – there are so many amazing documentaries that inspire me and help me think differently about how I’m shooting, what questions I’m asking, and how ultimately I want to put it all together.
CA: What is your long-term vision for your creative career?
EM: My long-term vision for my career starts with finishing my first feature, There Was There Was Not. I've learned so much already making this film, and I know by the time I’m done I will have so much more experience and vision to give to another film – even if I can’t quite imagine what that film is yet.
Beyond that, I really have enjoyed making different kinds of cinematic art and would love to experiment again with more multimedia creations, as well as get back to my roots in writing. My creative road has always been a bit windy and I’m excited to see what comes across my path next.
Generally, the most important thing for me is that I continue to make creative work, that I can collaborate with friends and mentor other folks coming up in the field to support what they are doing with what I have learned or any connections that I’ve made, and be part of a community of Armenian artists that are all striving to make meaningful work.
CA: What are your plans as a Creative Armenia-AGBU Fellow?
EM: I’m looking forward to this next year and being a part of the Creative Armenia-AGBU fellowship because the cohort of creative folks is so impressive, and the thought of starting new collaborations and finding ways to support each other can only lead to amazing things. I’m grateful to be part of such an interdisciplinary group of artists, and can’t wait to see what we all do in 2021.