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Uncovering The Hidden Map

Filmmaker Ani Hovannisian speaks about her documentary The Hidden Map ahead of its April 23 premiere on NBCLX

April 23, 2021  |  by Creative Armenia

While Turkey continues to deny the Armenian Genocide of 1915, the lands of Western Armenia speak the truth in mysterious ways. Filmmaker and broadcaster Ani Hovannisian, together with the Scottish explorer Steven Sim, follow that truth in her award-winning documentary The Hidden Map.  In advance of the film’s premiere on NBCLX on April 23, 24, and 25, Creative Armenia chatted with Hovannisian. who shared her seven-year mission to uncover the hidden map of her past. 

CA: Your recent documentary The Hidden Map, tells the story of your Odyssey through the ancestral Armenian homeland with the mission to uncover the crumbled remnants and buried stories of the hidden past. Tell us more about the journey, its challenges, and hidden truths. ​


Knowing that I was going to come face-to-face with the descendants of people who murdered and in some cases, saved mine, and continue the intentional erasure of everything Armenian was a challenge. But not one that dissuaded me but rather one that drove me there. 


To truly begin to understand the magnitude of what our grandparents, our forebears endured, to almost bring it back to life so that the suffocated, buried truths could emerge from beneath the soil of modern-day Turkey,  I had to go.  Some say they’ll never set foot on those lands, they won’t drop a penny into Turkey’s economy, but in my mind, abandoning all connection to the ancestral land and heritage we longingly, traumatically, angrily, proudly call ours, is in itself a surrender of, if not a death sentence to, our identity and continuum.  


The journey is a continuous one.  Give me a choice of anywhere on earth to travel, and I will choose Kharpert, Van, Mush, Erzerum, Dikranagerd, Kars, Bitlis, Ordu, Kesaria, Agn and everywhere in between, because with each trip – I’ve already been there four times – the pull, the connection, the need to dig deeper intensify.  I have realized that no matter how much Turkey tries to wipe out the vanishing traces of Historic Western Armenia, the landscape is full of evidence of our magnificent and tortured past. Relics of our destroyed churches and monasteries and cemeteries and homes and schools stand stoically as if calling out, ‘I am still here.’  But, if they are there with no one to see them, touch them, recognize them as powerful living evidence of millennia-old Armenian civilization and then, annihilation,  alas they are lost. 


You’re not allowed to talk about the Genocide in Turkey.  You’re certainly not allowed to shoot a film about it.  But I wasn’t doing that.  I was simply documenting the stories of the structures and people on those lands and THEY, with their presence and stories established irrefutable proof of the Genocide.  


The challenge of uncovering a forbidden reality with harsh consequences led to an exhilarating discovery.  I was surprised to come across people, Turks and Kurds, who spoke honestly about the past, who needed to redeem themselves of the burden of wrongs of their forefathers.  Not everybody, of course.  Some blamed the Armenians or simply said the Armenians left.  But others called it genocide. And they could be punished for it.  What struck me the most is meeting people brave enough to share that they come from Armenians.  I tasted their hunger for their identity.  They are our living links on those lands. 


CA: In your journey to historic Western Armenia, you met Steven Sim, a solitary Scottish explorer who was documenting the hidden treasures of Armenian history. The spark for a partnership was created. Tell us about it and what perspective Sim brought to the film as a non-Armenian. ​


AH:   It was 2013.  I was with a small group of journeyers in an old Armenian home in Kesaria. I had my consumer camera with me, videotaping and photographing everything in sight.  But, I’m an Armenian who was going back to my beginnings.  It makes sense. We don’t really expect others to be interested in our story, certainly not our ruins in a land where even our memory is denied. 


When I saw this not-Armenian-looking man taking photographs with birdseye precision, I was baffled. When I asked him kindly, curiously,  ’‘Who are you?” he was puzzled, maybe a little offended. But he told me. Steven Sim, from a small town outside of Glasgow, Scotland, had stumbled upon these lonely relics 30 years earlier, and, in his words, decided to make them his own.  Not his own because he claimed or wanted them, but because no one else did, and because he recognized that they were the carriers of history and truth.  


They became life-like for him, and he has spent his life since documenting their continued destruction and their place in history while giving them human touch and dignity. Steven avoids people. For him, the structures tell the story.  And for him, it’s not an Armenian story – it belongs to everyone.  He says that in order to know where we are stepping as a human race, we have to know what steps we’re following. It’s universal.  We have to know where we come from, to face hard truths, learn from them, move forward. 


Maybe our encounter was providence. I, an Armenian-American returning to my roots and very interested in the stories of the people, and he, a Scottish explorer focused on the relics. We come from very different places and perspectives,  but with a common purpose. 


When I convinced Steve to travel together, I had determined that the story was going to be only about him and his discoveries.  He kept saying, “Ani,  you need to be part of this.” I said no.  As it turns out, he was right. Years after we shot, it became clear that including the view from my lens added valuable dimension, emotion,  perspective.


Sometimes, we would clash. He would get annoyed at me for asking people about what happened to the Armenians. “We know what happened,” he would say because didn’t want to waste a moment away from the physical relics. But ultimately, both of our experiences and the story as a whole were enriched by our greater, collective odyssey.