Nationalism, patriotism and cultural identity all come together in film
It’s quite possibly a contender for the understatement of the century to say that cinema is important to us. A revolutionary idea, I know, but it’s true. Films are important for our upbringing and our culture. A time-honoured tradition is watching your dad’s favourite film while he eagerly rambles off trivia about actors whose faces all blend in together (in my case — Caddyshack and For a Few Dollars More). Films are something that can be passed down, through generations, from parents, uncles, aunties, grandparents, cousins. In some cases, films are so powerful that they can be ‘passed’ down through an entire country, with the next generation gearing up to continue the cycle. Take Trainspotting, for example. I’m sure many Scottish parents are eagerly counting down the days to when they can show their children this pertinent microcosm of Edinburgh in the 90s (I know mine were!).
If we take a step back however and consider the larger picture (and the rest of the world), it could be stated that cinema can represent entire countries. As part of the 2023 Samizdat Eastern European Film Festival, I was able to attend a screening of the 1928, Soviet-Armenian silent film House on the Volcano. Directed by Hamo Beknazarian, the black & white picture tells the story of Petros, a retired oil worker, telling his adopted son the about of a revolution that occurred when Petros was younger. Backdropped against this is the underlying narrative; Petros’ son wants to join the Communist Party.
House on the Volcano does not shy away from the gory details of both the oil workers’ exploitation at the hands of their Armenian boss (Beknazarian raises an interesting question during the picture — was it right for the Armenian oil workers to go against their Armenian boss?) and their eventual liberation. In one infamous scene, the housing barracks for the workers’ families goes up in flames (due to a gas leak) and there’s a montage of babies stuck in isolated parts of the house as the flames only grow in furiosity. (They really did set the set on fire, a fact I remembered as I watched extras run a little too fast away from the inferno).
The film is nothing short of a triumph, especially in its 4K restoration, with an accompanying and almost hypnotic score done by Juliet Merchant. Her music enhances the cold and mechanical world of House on the Volcano perfectly.
House on the Volcano comes from a very specific point in time — when within the USSR, countries started to develop their own national identity. Sure, House on the Volcano is a Soviet film, but its importance to Armenia cannot be overstated. When the film was first made, the intertitle cards were all written in Armenian first and then separate Russian language cards were made (however, any version of the film with the original Armenian title cards has been long lost now).
Beknazarian was, primarily, an Armenian filmmaker. Having been born in Yerevan during the Russian Empire (present-day Armenia), Beknazarian made his first Armenian film in 1925, Namus, which is widely considered to be Armenia’s first feature film. Beknazarian continued to direct films with specifically pro-Armenian themes and messages until his death in 1965, buried in an Armenian cemetery in Moscow. His films, even to this day, are seen as cornerstones for Armenian culture and identity and he is known affectionately as the grandfather of Armenian cinema.95 years on and House on the Volcano is still as important today as it was back then. Its anti-capitalist messages still ring out today. It was my first Armenian film, but it certainly won’t be my last and that’s the real magic of it all. House on the Volcano is my stepping stone to a whole world of culturally important cinema. Bring on House on the Volcano. Bring on Namus. Bring on Trainspotting. Bring on national cinema.