Mery Aghakhanyan

"We need to jump to a new level"

As Armenian director Mery Aghakhanyan is developing her feature documentary debut Inhabitants, about a displaced community that has been living in a makeshift village for over 30 years after an earthquake wiped out their village, her home country is also finding its feet after political upheaval.

Aghakhanyan has been working on Inhabitants for over two years now, she says, going back and forth from her home in Yerevan to the remote region and getting close with the people there. “By now I know the place very well, I'm emotionally and mentally attached to it, and that inspired me in how to film it. This place has an inner strength and a beautiful sadness. These people have lived in makeshift houses for thirty years, waiting for something better. The fact that they still have hope shows their strength.”

During IDFA, Aghakhanyan has been discussing her project with as many people as possible, sharpening her ideas. For instance, veteran producer Christian Popp reminded her that the personal stories of the people she portrays are paramount. “It makes a very big difference to talk about each person's own storyline”, Aghakhanyan says.

That's all the more important because Aghakhanyan is planning to not simply show the plight of this remote village, but also include more supernatural depictions of its inhabitants' inner lives. “In a sense, the camera will act as the eyes of a ghost walking among these people”, she says.

“I want to visualize their dreams – they have some very special dreams, especially the women! These fiction elements make the production more difficult: we will need lighting equipment and perhaps some actors. But I only get to make this film once in my life – I will get to make other films, hopefully, but I can only tell this story once. So I want to do it right.”

Ideally, Aghakhanyan would have liked to have started shooting already, but it has been hard to get anything made in Armenia, she says. “We have a broken film industry. It's in a deep hole, and everybody wants to get out, but we can't manage it. Everything is going very slowly, but we need to build quickly – we need to jump to a new level. There are many talented people working in Armenia now, trying to bring about some changes in the system and in law, but it's hard work.”

Aghakhanyan is hopeful that last year's Velvet Revolution, ousting a conservative government which was mired in accusations of corruption, will open new doors. “Things have changed, but real change is still going slowly. At least we have hope now. And the people in the village feel the same; they hope that something can now change quickly. But the reality is that it will take time.” (JBH)

Mery Aghakhanyan (middle) during the Producers' network at IDFA 2018. Aghakhanyan participated in the IDFAcademy with her project Inhabitants, which received IBF Classic - Development funding in 2018.