Opening Night at the One World International Human Rights Documentary Film Festival: “Gyumri” (4 cents)

This is a film festival sponsored by People in Need, a Czech NGO, and held under the auspices of Vaclav Havel.  A major festival each year in Prague, it also travels the world and is this week in Washington.  Last night we went to opening night to see a new documentary titled “Gyumri”.

In fact, we did not know we were going to a film festival; we thought we were just going to a movie.  But a representative of the Czech Embassy and one of the leaders of People in Need spoke, as did the director of the film.

People in Need was formed in 1988, when three young friends, drinking beer, heard about the earthquake in Armenia and the international response, and decided that Czechoslovakia should participate.  They petitioned the still Communist government, which contacted the still Soviet government, and started a campaign to collect clothes, blankets and so forth.  Thinking it was a one-shot affair, they little knew that twenty years late, People in Need would have  a staff of about 250, and be involved in social service activities in over 40 different countries.

Gyumri is the second largest city in the Republic of Armenia, and was one of those hit hardest by the 1988 earthquake.  All in all, 25,000 Armenians died, apparently almost 1/3 of them children, often caught in school which, like the Chinese school that collapsed last year, were very poorly constructed.  The focus of the movie was on families who lost children in the earthquake, and the children they had post-quake, whom they often gave the same names as their no longer living children had.

The film runs for a little more than an hour.  It was completed last year, after four years of interviews and filming, and contains some earthquake destruction scenes, as well as the contemporary ones.  It is a very unpleasant film to sit through, but pleasantries are not its goal, and I think it succeeds very well in telling a story.

I realize that there are things that I just don’t think about after a major catastrophe like this.  I don’t think about how the parents of killed children cope in the years and decades ahead.  How they are so often scarred for life, living in the past, dreaming about what could have been.  I certainly never think about the children who were born after the quake, who know about their dead siblings, who feel compared to them, who feel connected to them, who live with a tremendous amount of survivor’s guilt, even though they were not even there at the time to become survivors.  It is the agony of the survivors, and the confusion of their children that will stick with me from this film.  And because you can look at so many analogous situations:  war, famine, tsunami, Holocaust, and so on, I think it is an important, and too often unconsidered, aspect of the tragedy.

There are six more films to be shown over the next three days.  We will be unable to attend any of them because of usual schedule crowding.  But I am sure that those who do will be well rewarded.


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