Children of Artsakh: Sareen Hairabedian’s Conflict-Ridden Tale
Get to know Sareen Hairabedian, a documentary filmmaker, and our 2023 Creative Armenia-AGBU Fellow
Oct 13, 2023 | by Creative Armenia
Sareen Hairabedian, 2023 Creative Armenia-AGBU Fellow
Meet Sareen Hairabedian, a 2023 Creative Armenia-AGBU Fellow and a documentary filmmaker. Born and raised in a small community of Armenians in Jordan, she has been ever aware of the importance of preserving identity. Her captivating journey is a testament to the transformative power of storytelling, art, and a profound connection to her roots.
In the article, we delve into her artistic inspirations and remarkable work in multidisciplinary projects that challenge perspectives, from her celebrated directorial debut, We Are Not Done Yet, to her current feature-length documentary following the story of an eleven-year-old in war-torn Artsakh.
Tell us a little about how you began your journey of becoming a documentary filmmaker.
I was raised in a family that celebrated the arts as a means of expression. I vividly recall my mother bringing her friends and students to our apartment, where she would direct and rehearse plays for hours, infusing our living space with tears, laughter, and joy – transforming our home into a magical place strikingly distinct from the outside world. My father and two brothers, on their turn, filled that space with live music every other day. The art of storytelling has been seamlessly interwoven with our daily lives. Given that we were a minority of ethnic Armenians born and raised in Jordan, grandchildren of genocide survivors, art became an essential part of our identity and a vehicle through which we could narrate our story.
My curiosity and need to be understood in our society led me to venture into the world of filmmaking. I can still vividly recall my grandfather Varouj, sharing with me his 8mm footage chronicling his life in Palestine, Lebanon, and Jordan, all impacted by war, exile, and uprooting. Those archives left me wanting to learn more… So, I started filming him.
As my creative journey in filmmaking progressed, moving from the study of the craft to collaborations with friends, artists, and various organizations, I consistently found myself returning to a central question in my work: What are the elements from our past that shape our present, propel us forward, and empower us in this life? This question is continually present in my artistic explorations and it is the primary reason why I embarked on this journey in the first place.
"The ability of art to leave a lasting impact on communities, educate, and effect change, no matter how big or small, motivates me to continue learning and evolving in this creative field."
Tell us about your creative inspirations and what you have learned from them.
The art of dance and movement is one of my main sources of creative inspiration. Choreography, akin to film editing, involves narrating a story through fragments that culminate in a grand tapestry of emotion or a particular state of being. I studied both dance and film during my college years, and the intricate interplay between these two forms is fascinating to me.
Dance employs the canvas of time and space to frame the human form and communicate a message. I apply these principles in my work as an observational documentary filmmaker, where these elements harmonize to craft a scene imbued with emotion and hold a truth that might otherwise get lost in space.
I also find inspiration in the multidisciplinary approach in the arts, where various forms of art interweave to convey a message, leave an impact, and challenge perspectives. An example of such a work is the evening-length dance theater piece 'Pōhaku' that I collaborated on with the modern dance company Christopher K. Morgan and Artists. It combined storytelling, hula, contemporary dance, classical music, documentary, and projection design to explore universal themes in the story of Hawaii’s native people, including land loss and fractured identity. We toured 'Pōhaku' to over 12 venues across the U.S.. This multidisciplinary work united diverse audiences who collectively immersed themselves in the power of the work, prompting them to reflect on their fractured narratives. It also allowed them to learn about a culture they had only scratched the surface of before. The ability of art to leave a lasting impact on communities, educate, and effect change, no matter how big or small, motivates me to continue learning and evolving in this creative field.
Your directorial debut, We Are Not Done Yet, an HBO documentary exploring the transformative power of art and writing in healing U.S. veterans with PTSD, received wide critical acclaim. What lessons – both human and professional – have you learned while working on the film?
We Are Not Done Yet came to fruition thanks to the trust fostered by the veterans willing to open up about their most vulnerable moments, fraught with guilt and shame from their past. Throughout the filming process, I grew sensitive to how I wanted to tell their stories, putting much thought into framing my shots and considering the purpose behind each frame and interaction. These are principles that I now carry forward as I embark on crafting other narratives, recognizing that trust stands as the fundamental cornerstone of the work.
On a personal level, what I learned from these individuals is that healing requires community, and forming a connection with one's tribe is an essential component in the process of healing from the traumas woven into our complex lives. As the film screened in festivals across the U.S., our tribe expanded with individuals who, at last, felt seen and heard through the narratives of the veterans featured in the film. This stood as a testament that raw and honest work finds its way through the noise of today's media saturation.
Right now you are working on a feature-length documentary, following eleven-year-old Vrej's return to his war-torn home in Artsakh. What impact do you hope it will have on viewers? What themes, addressed to both Armenian and international audiences, do you want to explore with the film?
The feature-length documentary I am currently directing and producing aims to raise awareness about Artsakh, a land that the world struggles to locate on a map. Following an eleven-year-old boy in his little paradise through days of war, peace, and turmoil, the film shows the repercussions of war on the most vulnerable members of our society, shedding light on the burdens shouldered by children growing up in conflict-ridden zones grappling with challenges far beyond their control.
The film serves as evidence of the resilience of a people tethered to their homeland, always drawn back to the soil that nurtures them, giving them a purpose to hold on to what is cherished and dear. Among the themes I’m exploring in the film are those of masculinity and the military, the inseparable link between land and culture, and the delicate nature of youth.
"Artsakh has been the heart, soul, and breath of my work for the past five years, and I am committed to preserving its stories through this film and beyond."
Given the recent tragic turn of events, from the blockade of the Lachin Corridor to Azerbaijan’s military assault on Artsakh on September 19th, which ultimately forced over 100,000 ethnic Armenians to abandon their ancestral lands, it is essential that we, as Armenian filmmakers, documentarians, and artists, continue to create and portray narratives from the region for a global audience.
The stories we capture encapsulate the truth that the world has chosen to overlook—the truth of everyday people, their ancestral legacies, as well as the fundamental human rights of children, all forcibly taken away from them simply because they choose to live on their ancestral lands.
Artsakh has been the heart, soul, and breath of my work for the past five years, and I am committed to preserving its stories through this film and beyond.
What do you plan on doing as a Creative Armenia-AGBU Fellow and, later, as a creative ambassador for Armenia?
As a Creative Armenia-AGBU Fellow, I plan to launch an impact campaign with my documentary. This project aims to help children from Artsakh and Armenia who've experienced tragic events since September 2020, providing them with a creative space to process their traumas. We will partner with local artists, psychologists, and therapists to guide the children in sculpting their stories.
In this critical moment in our history, this work is vital for the next generation. These children have witnessed the horrors of life far too early, forced to abandon their lands and homes for uncharted beginnings. By assembling the right teams, we will create a space for their healing. Art is one of the most powerful tools. It adapts to the children's mental and physical states, allowing them to navigate their traumas through various expressions. With the unwavering support of the Creative Armenia-AGBU Fellowship, this campaign will offer these children a sanctuary to dream of a brighter future despite their current dark reality.