Armenia’s entry for Best Foreign Film at the Oscars was conceived as a story of how humanity triumphs over prejudice. But since it also touches on Azerbaijan, it has become yet another subject for the toxic feud between the two nations.
The film, If Only Everyone, is about an Armenian man who helps a half-Russian, half-Armenian woman to go to her father’s grave and plant a tree there. The father died in the early-1990s conflict over Nagorny Karabakh, which pitted Armenians against Azerbaijanis.
Since a ceasefire was signed in 1994, Karabakh has been controlled by an Armenian administration. No peace deal has been signed, and little progress has been made towards an agreement on a final status for Karabakh. The Armenians – who call it Artsakh – are not prepared to cede control, while Azerbaijan demands the restoration of sovereignty over Karabakh.
The film’s protagonists have to cross over the front line from Armenian-held to Azerbaijani-held territory. There they befriend a local shepherd, an Azerbaijani, who asks them to plant a tree on his son’s grave when they return to the Armenian side.
“This story perhaps touches on the most sensitive issue for our nation today – Artsakh. Why did people die, what was the war about, what motivated the heroic deeds? Some have found the answers; others are still searching,” a synopsis on the film’s website says. “But these questions eclipse the real lives of real people, who we often think about the least, unfortunately.”
It is the fourth work that Armenia’s film academy has submitted for consideration for an Oscar, but the first to be officially nominated.
The Academy of Motion Pictures Art and Science accepts a single submission from each country for the best foreign-language film prize, and its members vote for a shortlist and then the winner. This year, a record 71 films have been accepted as submissions, including entries from Azerbaijan as well as Armenia.
In Azerbaijan, writer Elchin Huseynbayli, insists that the idea for the film was stolen from his 2010 story Dazzled by the Sun, but twisted to make the Azerbaijanis appear as the aggressors.
He described the differences in an interview for the www.aaa.az website, “The story I wrote goes like this: an ailing Azerbaijani doctor enters the occupied territories of Karabakh to fulfil his grandfather’s wishes by planting a tree in the yard of his house. The hero wants to see his father’s grave, but the territory is controlled by the Armenians and they take him prisoner. However, after long negotiations, they allow him to fulfil his wish.”
He concluded, “They used my story, but changed it to favour themselves. If you watch the film you’d think we are occupying Armenian land, when in fact it’s our land that’s occupied, and they are the occupiers…. More than half of the film coincides fully with my story.”
Huseynbayli has asked Azerbaijan’s copyright agency to write to the Oscars judging panel to and tell them the film is not an original work. No one at the agency was available for comment when IWPR contacted it.
Michael Poghosyan, who wrote the screenplay for If Only Everyone, said the film took a long time to make, and was actually conceived before Huseynbayli’s story was published.
“The story for the film was written in early 2010, and filming began in spring 2010. Before we wrote the story, we met people who had lived through the war. It was after our meetings and talks with these people that the idea of the film was born,” he told IWPR. “We could similarly accuse the Azerbaijanis of stealing the story of our film Longing, where the main hero crossed a border to die in his homeland.”
Poghosyan said the film sought to encourage harmony and peace between different peoples.
“There is nothing anti-Azerbaijani in the film. It preaches peace and love, which is why it has won prizes… We would not have been able to win such awards if the film contained inhumanity or spread enmity between nations.”
The chair of the Armenian National Film Academy, David Muradyan, said its members chose the film by secret ballot, adding, “I am saddened that the Azerbaijanis are trying to politicise this and put pressure on the Oscars committee. This kind of behaviour is unprecedented and runs contrary to all rules of good manners.
“We proposed this film as a work of art, and nothing more. This film has no message other than a humanitarian one,” he said.
Vahe Harutyunyan is a freelance journalist in Yerevan. Shahin Rzayev is IWPR’s Azerbaijan country director.