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‘Message of hope’: Film looks into and beyond the long shadow of the Armenian genocide

Famous oud player Richard Hagopian teaches his grandson, Andrew, how to play an Armenian folk song. (Courtesy of Stephanie Ayanian)

The Armenian genocide.

It’s a tragedy that affected a million and a half ethnic Armenians just over 100 years ago.

It’s also the basis of the documentary “What Will Become of Us,” which airs at 8 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 6, on New Mexico PBS, Channel 9.1.

“When we started making the film in 2015, it was the 100th anniversary of the genocide,” says filmmaker Stephanie Ayanian. “That year, there was more presence in the media.”

“What Will Become of Us” tells the story of 1915, when 1.5 million Armenians were killed or expelled in a genocide by the Ottoman Turks – as one of the world’s ancient civilizations was nearly destroyed.

Today, many countries, including Turkey and the United States, do not recognize the genocide because it is geopolitically inconvenient.

Without recognition, the long shadow of genocide persists, she says.

For Armenian-Americans, the long shadow of genocide is paralyzing.

In an effort to preserve what was saved, successive generations hold fast to a pre-genocide conception of culture, an idea frozen in time. The innovation needed to create a flourishing future is stymied by culturally imposed litmus tests. The future of Armenian-American culture is in danger.

“What Will Become of Us” moves past staid notions of what it means to be a “good Armenian.”

Ayanian says that in three dramatic acts, the characters travel through the American landscape while grappling with their identities and the 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide. Their interwoven stories build on one another to create a cohesive narrative where the past and future are in constant tension.

“We wanted the stories to come to life,” she says. “There were a lot more characters than we could include in the 60 minutes of film. The first edit, we had 90 minutes and had to whittle that down.”

Filmmaker Stephanie Ayanian

Ayanian also wanted to find stories that were relatable to all immigrant communities that have faced past horrors.

Some of the people chronicled are:

• Sebu Simonian, from the band Capital Cities, tells about his journey of learning about his past, while raising his son with the stories from his ancestry.

• John and Annie Sweers, who volunteer in Armenia. John Sweers is one-quarter Armenian, and he lost his grandmother and only connection to his culture at age 7. He grew up with a nagging feeling that something was missing, so he and his wife travel to Armenia to find answers.

• Michael Aram Wolohojian, a designer and artist who created a public sculpture for the 100th anniversary of the genocide.

• Richard and Andrew Hagopian; Richard Hagopian is a world-famous oud player – one of the last greats.

Andrew is his 15-year-old grandson, who is learning how to play the oud and learning the history.

• Karine Shamlian, who is the granddaughter of Asdghig Alemian. Shamlian’s life has been shaped by the experiences of her 108-year-old grandmother, a survivor of the Aremenian genocide.

“I hope a non-Armenian viewer learns more about who we are as a people historically,” she says. “We aren’t too different from them. We are a nation of immigrants. We all have similar identities, and for the Armenians that see it, I hope they learn something from it, because it was a personal project for me. I want the film to bring out hope for the future of us in America. There is a message of hope.”

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