On the occasion of the official release of Under the Same Sun documentary in Montreal, Canada “Keghart” met the Director François Jacob and had the following discussion about his experience and observations while working on his documentary.
Despite the 1994 ceasefire, Armenia and Azerbaijan continue to fight fiercely over the mountainous Nagorny Karabakh/Artsakh region. The litany of resentment and accusations continues to be met with denial in an ongoing dialogue of the deaf. With the restraint that comes with our foreigner’s gaze, Under the Same Sun offers an attentive ear, in search of understanding in these young countries with old wounds. This film highlights the visceral tensions that led to the terrible war of 2020 and its tragic consequences for the region.
- What made you interested in this conflict?
In the beginning, I was not. My journalist friend Antoine Dion-Ortega wanted me to join him in Baku in 2017 for a project he was writing, about how freshly independent countries like Azerbaijan were forging their identity in the context of oil wealth. While in Baku in 2017, we met the writer Akram Aylisli, famously persecuted by the regime for his book “Stone dreams” in which he describes at lengths the Sumgait pogroms. He has devoted his whole life to reconciliation between Armenians and Azerbaijanis. I was so moved by his testimony that the conflict became the main driving force of the project. We then travelled to Armenia in September of 2017 and realized how deep the roots of the conflict were.
- How did you work on your documentary? Tell us about the details of your venture.
The first part was to read tons of books and research everything I could put my hands on about the region, the cultures, the history. Being an outsider to the region, it was paramount for me to be extremely knowledgeable about not only the conflict, but the literature, the music etc… in order to get a sense of the mentalities and the culture. The second step was to be able to spend as much time as I could both in Armenia and Azerbaijan, the latter being very difficult because of the authoritarian context. But in the end, we travelled 5 times to Armenia for extended stays, three times in Azerbaijan and three times in Artsakh. Every time we also stopped in Georgia, where the ethnic dynamics are completely different.
We attempted to spend a lot of time with regular people who had experienced the conflict or had memories of what it was before the first war. We realized that the longer we stayed in places – like in Voskepar, Tavush – the deeper the conversations and the more valuable our dialog was with the people we met. Trust was hard to come by in some regions, namely because we were always open about the fact that we travelled back and forth between the two countries.
- Tell us more about the main obstacle/challenge that you faced while working on the documentary?
As I already mentioned, working in Azerbaijan was stressful. People were afraid, and so were we. The regime is brutal. It’s a shame because people had so many interesting things to say there, and their opinions are never properly expressed abroad and the hate propaganda leaves very little room for mindful opinions. Apart from that, I would also say that the conflict has affected me personally. My position as an observer was sometimes a burden and travelling back and forth between two diametrically opposed visions that deny each other creates a very unpleasant form of fatigue.
- Based on your readings and field visits and discussions, what in your opinion is the nature of this conflict?
That is a very complicated question. I will say one thing however: I feel it is based on many misconceptions. For example, I noticed that talking to Azerbaijanis, when they meant Karabakh, they almost never meant Stepanakert for example, or Askeran or Martuni. They meant Aghdam, Fizuli, Djebrail, Shushi/Shusha.
When talking to Armenians, Artsakh was not often referring to lands beyond the soviet-defined borders of Nagorny-Karabakh, except for the Shahumian region to the north. Because of the occupation of the surrounding districts following the first war, the very notion of Karabakh has become blurred. Suddenly Kelbajar or Lachin/Berdzor was always Armenian to some, and suddenly to some Azerbaijanis Stepanakert was Khankendi again.
I believe one of the greatest tragedies of this conflict is the context in which it happened. All ethnic identity questions were banned in the USSR, yet for the first time in centuries ethnic groups were regrouped in their own republics: the Armenian SSR, the Azerbaijan SSR and so forth. The soviet administration broke with the previous imperial situation, which had the South Caucasus as a mosaic of people under a distant foreign rule. The administrative divisions of the USSR somehow reinforced the ethnic identification to a territory, and at the same time, any talk about independence and culture was forbidden, although the desire for it was rising. Also, all territorial discussions between Artsakh, Armenia and Azerbaijan were done through the mediation of Moscow. So when the USSR collapsed, there was literally no tradition of negotiations between those two nations. I strongly believe that had Moscow taken a different route in its discussion of the status of Nagorny Karabakh, the entire conflict could have been averted. But this is a long conversation.
- You highlight nationalism as a cause for the eruption of this conflict in late 1980’s. Do you think this is still a valid ideological justification for the continuation of this conflict? Did you sense that nationalism is still the main ideology that moves this conflict?
I think war and the cycles of violence have reinforced nationalism as it always does, and it has reinforced the rally-around-the-flag-to-survive mentality. The distrust (and the misinformation) between these two nations is so deep that I don’t see an end any time soon to this situation. Armenia and Azerbaijan are engaged in a fiercely ideological war about territorial claims, and because both countries use their historians to base these claims on antique borders, there can be no end to this. It sadly comes as no surprise that Aliyev would now claim Zyunik/Zangezur and Yerevan as Azerbaijani lands, just like there has been a dangerous pattern of renaming Azerbaijani settlements with Armenian names in Karabakh once conquered after 1992. Hopefully, the day that generations of Armenians and Azerbaijanis become tired of fighting, historians will then bring to the foreground the other stories from the Caucasus, those that put forward the long friendship between those two people.
- What kind of national sentiments did you witness when you met Armenians and Azeris in their home countries? Hatred? Acknowledgement? Coexistence?
All of the above.
- You highlight the human aspect in this conflict, did you sense that people on both sides share similar types of pain and maladies? What was their demands/wishes?
I overwhelmingly felt that people wanted to be able to live safely on their lands. The farther you went from the frontlines, the more you would encounter people with wilder territorial nationalist claims, claiming that the whole region was theirs and so on. But on the line of contact and in Karabakh, we mostly met people who were longing for a border they could trust. It’s something I believe in in the short term: this region needs internationally recognized borders for Artsakh and a real peace treaty. It came close many times in the past, during the Kazan talks, or with the Madrid principles. Hopefully these talks will resume, and hopefully the hawks won’t prevail. A peaceful Caucasus would be the most beautiful region in the world.
- Did you see any similarities between the two nations?
Absolutely. How could it be otherwise? There is so much shared history. The food for instance is virtually the same, although everyone insists they invented it. I also feel a very similar code of honor, of dignity and family. A lot of people know about these similarities. Actually, a great number of Armenians and Azerbaijanis mentioned to us that they are the most like-minded people of the region. Somehow, Georgians are perceived as different, but not the two other nations.
- While visiting Armenia and Azerbaijan and meeting citizens, did you sense any level of optimism for peaceful settlement of the conflict. Do you think these two nations can coexist as peaceful neighbours after all what happened during the past 3 decades?
The level of optimism I witnessed was almost non-existent. I do feel there is a completely new generation whose goal is to get higher education, to challenge the existing dogmas and who refuses to demonize the adversary. I also feel to some extent that the last war – very unfortunately – has in a way settled a score, which might eventually lower the tension and the emotion level in the future, albeit perhaps after this current round of heinous provocations from the Azerbaijani side is over.
Many things could change in the region. Erdogan could leave, there could be a revolution in Baku, peace talks could resume. The Russians will play a role, as always, and so will Turkey. The future will tell.
- Do you think that you would have had similar perspective towards this conflict if you were Armenian or Azeri living in that region?
Answering this question implies I stop being me and start my life again in another person’s skin, so I can’t give you a real answer. However, it is interesting to notice that most Armenians have told me that I could never walk in their shoes, in the shadow of genocide, and most Azerbaijanis told me I could not understand their point of view either as I never experienced the multi-generational traumas of displacement […] people have known. My experience is strangely akin to that of a diplomat’s, but in the field of documentary observation. At the same time, I have met Armenians and Azerbaijanis with whom I share the almost exact opinions and longings. They both struggle in their respective countries.
Special Screening Schedule
Friday, August 27, 7 p.m. | Cinémathèque québécoise (335 de Maisonneuve Blvd E., Montreal)
Discussion with director François Jacob
Saturday, August 28, 2:45 p.m. | Cinéma Moderne (5150 Saint-Laurent Blvd, Montreal)
Discussion with director François Jacob
Sunday, August 29, 1:30 p.m. | Cinéma du Musée (1379-A Sherbrooke St. W., Montreal)
Round table with filmmaker François Jacob, Raphaël Yeretsian, mediator and M.Sc. candidate at the Carter School for Peace and Conflict Resolution (Conflict Analysis and Resolution), Garine Papazian-Zohrabian, scientific director of the Interdisciplinary research group on refugee and asylum seeking families, and Guillaume Sauvé, visiting scholar at the Université de Montreal, founder of the Réseau québécois d’études post-soviétiques (Quebec Network of Post-Soviet Studies) and specialist in contemporary politics in the post-Soviet space.
Wednesday, September 1st, 7:45 p.m. | Cinéma Moderne (5150 Saint-Laurent Blvd, Montreal)
Discussion with director François Jacob