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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.

CA: You are a Fresno-born granddaughter of genocide survivors, who has lived her life in between the American dream and the glaces of the traumatic past. When did you feel that the time is ripe to peel off this hidden story? ​


AH:  I don’t think I ever thought of or waited for a ripe time. I knew I would one day tell our story, but didn’t know how or when.  It happened. I, like many,  grew up with my grandparents’ stories of unfathomable loss and their example of heroic resilience.    


We, grandchildren, would be playing hide and seek and jumping over bushes in their front yard in Fresno as they and other survivors gathered on the front porch, navigating the pain of the past and hope for the future. They gave us a golden childhood,  but my grandmother’s silent tears and grandfather’s nightmare shrieks lived inside me, as did the voices of an entire generation of survivors, the world’s apathy, and Turkey’s piercing denial of their very existence.  


My father, a professor of Armenian history at UCLA, had recorded the oral testimony of approximately 1,000 survivors. My parents lived and breathed it. Still do. So, I guess it was born in me when I was born, nurtured and nourished, never disabling, always enabling, and it happened when it was time. My father asked if I wanted to go to our historic lands together, a journey it had taken him most of his life to become ripe for.    Mine came sooner because he and they gave it to me. 


CA: The Hidden Map was in the making for over 7 years, during which you have traveled to Western Armenia several times. Have those years changed and molded the story in any unexpected ways and how have you kept the balance between telling a compelling and a true story?   

AH:  The true story is the most compelling one. This film is an absolutely unscripted, unaltered record of truth. It is whopping evidence of human and cultural genocide which Turkey goes to the ends of the earth to deny. Proof of the living narrative which continues to unfold there today, told by the people who put their lives on the line by speaking the truth, making it also a saga of hope and humanity.   


I mentioned already that the film evolved from focusing on the universal mission of this Scottish explorer to one that interweaves both of our perspectives. The more I returned, the more I discovered, the more I felt in ways that only a child of Armenia can. And the more people who told me so,  the more I realized that in order to make a film that can peel through and breathe life into the many layers beneath the hidden map, my voice would need to be heard. So it is.


CA: The Hidden Map will be broadcasted nationwide by NBCLX on April 23, 24, and 25, 2021. What is your message to the audience before watching the film? ​


First, I want to give credit to NBCLX for immediately recognizing the human import and relevance of this film and for not being afraid to stand for the truth. This young NBC network is committed to telling local stories with exponential reach and impact.  They have a young audience, and the fact that they are airing The Hidden Map six times during the weekend of April 24  speaks volumes of their vision and understanding that it is the younger generations who will ultimately carry and shape the course of humankind. LX is doing its part to inform and engage them with stories that awaken the human conscience, and perhaps, more. Right over might.


How to watch The Hidden Map on NBCLX? ​


To watch the movie, visit  LX.COM/WHERE-TO-WATCH for the listings in your area. If you live in the United States, you can livestream the movie at LX.COM/LIVE.  Alternatively, you can use streaming services like Peacock and Roku by tuning in at the right time. 


The Hidden Map will air on NBCLX as follows: 


Friday, April 23 

  • 7-8 pm EST / 4-5 pm PST


Saturday, April 24 

  • 12-1 pm EST / 9-10 pm PST

  • 9-10 pm EST / 6-7 pm PST


Sunday, April 25 

  • 4-5 pm EST / 1-2 am PST

  • 6:30-7:30 pm EST / 3:30-4:30 pm PST

  • 11 pm - 12 am EST / 8-9 pm PST

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