EDN Member of the Month – Inna Sahakyan
In this monthly interview series EDN focuses on one of its many members to show both members in the spotlight and the diversity of the EDN membership group. Our EDN member of the month for March 2018 is Inna Sahakyan, Producer/Director, Bars Media, Armenia
EDN has among other things talked to Inna Sahakyan about her new project Mel, which is participating in Docs in Thessaloniki 2018 and about the situation for documentaries in Armenia.
Inna Sahakyan graduated from the Academy of Fine Arts with an M.A. degree in Fine Arts Criticism. Since 2003 she has been working as a producer and director at Bars Media Documentary Film Studio. As assistant director, she collaborated on the multi-award winning documentary A Story of People in War and Peace - a co-production with BBC, ARTE, WDR, and YLE. In 2010 Inna directed the documentary The Last Tightrope Dancer in Armenia, an international co-production with NHK, ITVS, YLE, SVT and TVP. Inna also produced some of the studio’s other documentaries: Donkeymentary and One, Two, Three, as well as being involved in TV documentary series such as Road and My Army. She is currently developing two feature length documentary films: Aurora’s Sunrise and Mel.
EDN: Can you start by telling more about your background and your road into the world of documentaries?
IS: I’ve dreamt about making films since I was a child - I desperately wanted to study filmmaking at the university. But in my very Armenian family, I had to have the approval from my grandparents, parents, uncles, and aunts - and it was understood that filmmaking was no place for a girl. So I compromised with my family and studied art criticism.
After graduating and working here and there for a while, I learned that there was an opening for an office manager at a studio called Bars Media. So, with my honours arts degree in hand and my basic level of English, I interviewed - and got the position. That was 14 years ago. Now, I’m proud to be a producer and director, and even the vice-president of the company, alongside my colleague Vardan Hovhannisyan.
It took over a year for me to start getting involved with the small projects. I started out producing human rights films in Armenian villages for international organizations like USAID and the UN. The first time I worked on a feature-length film was when I became Vardan’s assistant for A Story of People in War and Peace. With that film, we won over 20 awards - including Best Documentary Filmmaker Award at Tribeca Film Festival. This early success inspired me to make feature-length films of my own - I owe a lot to Vardan for believing in me and making me the filmmaker I am today. That’s how I started working on The Last Tightrope Dancer in Armenia, an international co-production with NHK, PBS, SVT, YLE and MDR.
Today, I oversee most of the studio’s productions - I’m directly involved with the production of two TV series, and am working on two more feature-length documentaries. I’m directing Aurora’s Sunrise, which brings back to life the stories of Aurora Mardiganian, a teenage girl who survived the Armenian Genocide and went on to make films about it in Hollywood. The second is more delicate: it deals with issues of gender and sexuality, both of which are heavily taboo in my country. I can’t say too much about it out of concern for the safety of my protagonists - but I’m very excited about it. I think when it comes out it will make a big difference in pushing forwards the discussions Armenia has about LGBTQ+ issues.
EDN: You work as producer and director at Bars Media. How would you describe the company profile and the type of documentaries you work with?
IS: Bars Media was established and developed thanks to the belief, enthusiasm, and hard work of Vardan Hovhannisyan. He began his career as a frontline-filmmaker in the Soviet Union - but when the war started in our homeland, he stopped working for news agencies, for fear that they would misrepresent the truth through his footage. He started documenting the war without clearly knowing what he would do with the material - they would later be turned into his award winning A Story of People in War and Peace, which was the studio’s (and maybe even Armenia’s) first internationally co-produced documentary.
Not to be arrogant, but we’re the first documentary studio in Armenia that focuses on bringing the stories of our region to international screens, and still one of the only people to be doing that. We’ve been broadcast on a few prestigious channels like BBC Storyville, ARTE, WDR, MDR, PBS, NHK, YLE and many others.
Our main mission is to create feature-length creative documentaries about human stories, culture, history and other social issues. Of course, telling stories from our homeland is the most important of our goals, we don’t think films have nationalities, so we tell stories from all over the world. But since financing and filming creative films takes years, we get our bread and butter from producing corporate films and PSAs. We also work closely with Armenian public television to produce educational and travel TV series. These projects are kind of our mission towards the Armenian audience, and they give us the opportunity to prepare young local filmmakers for bigger productions. We are now developing several ideas for international travel series and hope we’ll start producing them soon.
EDN: Bars Media is located in Armenia. Can you share some insights into the documentary environment in Armenia? Is there funding available for documentaries and are documentaries screened in cinemas or on TV?
IS: If you’re familiar with Armenia, you know we’re in a regional sweet spot - depending on who’s asking, we can be a part of Europe, Asia, or the Middle-East. So we’re eligible for funding from European agencies like Eurimages, but also the Asia-Pacific Screen Awards! So it’s a unique position.
But jokes aside, it’s a tough environment. The film industry in our country still has a lot of developing to do. The grand total of funding available for the whole film industry (fiction, animation, documentaries) from the government is just over €500,000 yearly - that doesn’t even cover one feature-length production.
There are also a number of taboo topics that cannot be selected. Last year, for instance, one of the non-competitive programme’s at the Golden Apricot International Film Festival - our yearly festival - contained two films that covered LGBTQ+ issues. So the entire programme was shut down.
International funding is quite hard to lock down as well. The good news is that we became eligible for Eurimages in 2016 - but we weren’t ready for the tough requirements for the international co-production funds. So far, only one minority Armenian co-production has been supported. We are not eligible for the EU Creative Europe Media programme - in general our region just isn’t a priority for large funding agencies.
The positive aspect is that the Film Center is in a transitional stage, and independent filmmakers are working on film law with the Ministry of Culture, which will make a huge impact on the future of the Armenian film industry. We hope this will make a big difference for Armenian film producers.
Also, I would like to highlight the B2B Doc network, a really great initiative that supports young filmmakers from our region and supports the development of their projects. They supported my project Mel, which I presented at two of their events, and they’re also sponsoring my travel to Docs in Thessaloniki. Thank you dear B2B Doc for all these opportunities.
EDN: You are currently developing the feature length documentary Mel. What is the project about and what is the current stage of the project?
IS: This project is very dear to me. It’s the personal story of a close friend of mine, and because LGBTQ+ issues are so sensitive in my country, I’m hesitant to speak about it very publicly.
I can’t talk about the identity of the subject, but I will say this - it’s ultimately about how Armenia understands gender, and how that can be harmful, even to people we love and idolize. My main character is learning to be himself after sacrificing his fame, his fortune, his family, even his homeland. He is now a refugee in the Netherlands, where he’s dealing with the challenges of migration, which he’s never faced before. The film will document his and his partner’s life and whether they as a couple will be strong enough to overcome all the obstacles together. At its heart, it’s a story about love and solidarity. It’s about making dreams come true, following both success and freedom; and above all, it’s a question about what happens after what looks like a “happy ending”.
The film is an Armenian-Dutch co-production. We’re working with Windmill Films and we are in the process of applying for co-production funds. I am very honored to co-direct the film with the great Dutch filmmaker Paul Cohen. Unlike many filmmakers, I love co-directing - it gives me also the opportunity to learn from my colleagues and develop my skills as a filmmaker. Paul’s background is so rich! Paul will follow the lives of our protagonists in the Netherlands, and I will fly out to the Netherlands to film key moments. The film is in the production stage - we started filming the project with deferrals from the creative team, with the understanding that the life events of my protagonists change rapidly. Now we have NHK on board and I hope that my pitch in Thessaloniki will help us find more partners to help tell this story to the world.
I’m excited to hear the types of conversations we start having when the film is released - I think it’s high time Armenia starts having a more mainstream conversation about LGBTQ+ issues.
EDN: In the beginning of March you are taking part in the EDN activity Docs in Thessaloniki with Mel. What are your expectations for the workshop and pitching?
IS: I am so happy that the project is selected for Docs in Thessaloniki, and I’m really grateful to EDN for this opportunity. I’ve been working on the film for over a year and since it is about my friends, it has become a part of my life, and often I cannot judge it as a film project. I really need a fresh view on the project - and I think my fellow filmmakers and the team of professionals who will be present at Docs in Thessaloniki will be a great help.
It’ll help me make the film more interesting for an international audience, find unique and strong points in the story to highlight in my presentation. As I mentioned, the project was presented in two B2B Doc events, but I can say that Docs in Thessaloniki is the first official pitch I’m making in front of international financiers. I really hope to pique the interest of broadcasters and distributors. It’s also very important to hear their feedback on the story.
I took part in Docs in Thessaloniki with One, Two, Three, which became a co-production with ZDF/ ARTE. And honestly, I think Docs in Thessaloniki is one of the best places to present your project - the atmosphere is very friendly and everyone is really there to help each other, both in the workshop and in the pitch session. It is not as tough of a pitch session as IDFA or Hot Docs, but it’s still a central pitch format. All the decision makers in the room really have the opportunity to listen, and later discuss the project in a friendly atmosphere.
EDN: Last but not least - what lies next for you after Docs in Thessaloniki?
IS: Like in all markets, I have to do my homework. I have to follow up with the interest around the film. To be honest, financiers often disappear after very positive feedback during the pitch - so it is a lot of work to follow up with them. Then the next step is to complete all our applications to the different film funds, and hopefully complete the financial plan. In the summer we will enter the main filming stage in the Netherlands and hopefully will start editing in the autumn.
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