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People in Film: Tamara Stepanyan

Aug 09, 2011

Tamara Stepanyan was born in Armenia. During the breakdown of the Soviet Union, she moved to Lebanon with her parents and lived through the civil war in 1994. Studying Communication Arts at the Lebanese American University, she graduated with distinction. Tamara has participated in film workshops in Armenia, South Korea and Denmark and made a video/photo/audio installation called ‘My Beirut’ as part of Badguer I (outdoor exhibit and film festival) in 2009. ‘Little Stones’, a documentary shot in Denmark, participated in Né a Beyrouth and Ayam Beirut Al Cinema’iya in Lebanon and CPH:DOX in Denmark. Tamara is Currently working on the editing of a documentary that she shot last year, called ‘May 9’ for which she received post-production financing from DFI.

DFI: Congratulations on your DFI grant. Can you tell us more about this new project?
Tamara: Thank you! My film is titled ‘February 19’ and it talks about a train between Yerevan and Tbilisi. Anna and Alex. And a wall. A cold, white wall.
This project started roaming in my head three years ago. I wrote a draft at the time in one night, then I started looking for funding unsuccessfully. So I somehow forgot about it, and you know how poor funding can be for short films in the Arab world, almost non-existent. Therefore I put it in the cupboard and tried to forget about it. Every time I went back to Armenia, I’d stay at this train station for hours, waiting for the train, getting inside… just wandering around. I could feel the film was growing in me. The staff thought I’m some kind of a mad person for hanging around the station in this way.

Then the DFI grant came as a pleasant surprise when I lost hope. I was able to self-fund the shooting of the film with the help of a grant I received from Ashkal Alwan since it’s on a low budget, but couldn’t go through post-production. My friends recommended I check DFI’s website and well, here we are!

DFI: You lived between Armenia and Lebanon and witnessed some of the Lebanese war, how did this affect the subjects of your inspiration?
Tamara: I have this mixed identity. I was born in Armenia and when I was 12 I moved to Lebanon with my family. Since then the struggle of finding a home in this new space started. It took me time to do so…but I managed I believe. I live in Lebanon now but I visit Armenia frequently. I have two homes, even more. I learnt to make a ‘home’ wherever I am, let it be Lebanon, Armenia, Copenhagen, Paris or Pusan.

About the wars… well I must say that I didn’t directly witness the wars in Lebanon, I witnessed the aftermath. I believe this aftermath has created this kind of clog that I still am not able to untangle. And this is painful. Because being in a space where you call home and feeling this inner obstruction can be really disturbing at times and enriching at others. One day it will burst. I see it coming.

DFI: You had an installation called ‘My Beirut’ which is a very personal title. Does it represent your own views of the city?
Tamara: Since graduating from university I wanted to recreate my room in my Bourj Hammoud house. When I first came to Lebanon we lived in this house for six years and that was my life, my world, my Beirut. I didn’t really know that Beirut existed outside the borders of this little Armenia. Since my parents are not Lebanese they didn’t know much themselves. The installation is about these six years of my life. I recreated this room in a brick factory where there were real elements from my house: two video projections, one of myself as a child dancing with my friends, and another showing my parents gathered in the balcony of this house, drinking and dancing with their friends. Through photography I tried to capture windows and lights, and all the obsessions I had as a child like sitting for hours looking at the light or just contemplating out of the window. When I came to Lebanon, there were very dark days in Armenia so light was a big relief, even if it’s just a street lamp. I also added three audio recordings in my three languages (Arabic, Armenian and English), where I expressed my thoughts and the ways I accepted Beirut in me. As a child I hated Beirut thinking that Bourj Hammoud was Beirut. As a teenager I came to love it. I remember well my first walk in Hamra Street. I took Beirut in me. That’s why this installation is called ‘My Beirut’. A journalist from LA Times made this video about it:

للترجمة العربية اضغط على

DFI: You moved from Beirut and directed ‘Little Stones’, what is it about?
Tamara: It’s about melancholy, identity and home. The film features four woman, and myself. The women live in Denmark but are not Danish. Each one is there for a reason. My film is my inner search through all the other women. For many, the concept of identity and belonging can be difficult. In my case, I have created a third identity for myself. I wanted to focus on dislocation, beautiful nostalgia, and how your senses, smells and tastes can make you yearn to the past.

I found four women in Copenhagen with completely different backgrounds and ages, who all came to Denmark for different reasons. The first woman is South African who fell in love, another from India came looking for love. The third woman is a daughter of Iranian refugees, and the fourth is an adopted child from South Korea. I placed them in my room and interviewed them one by one in the same spot of my room – which was my world – while in Denmark.
Through this documentary I realized that this search for a home is an everlasting one. And I realized that I’m a pilgrim always moving around, and that makes me happy.

DFI: How do you survive as an artist in the Middle East?
Tamara: It is tough. A struggle throughout I must say, because I had to learn to do everything on my own (camera/editing/sound). And this is wrong. Due to the lack of funding, we are obliged to multitask in our projects. Now it is starting to improve and that is a big advantage for the region. I work on a freelance basis in advertising in order to survive. But every time I’m writing a project, I drop everything for my film. I just wish one day we, as filmmakers, will be able to make films without having to constantly look for side jobs. It is truly tiring and distracting, not only does it waste your time but it also distracts your mind and soul.

DFI: Where do you look for stories, and what are the things that move you the most?
Tamara: The main source is me, I always look inside myself. I look everywhere, in every space I’m at, in every light that passes through and on every wall that stands in front of me. Absolutely all around. Nature amazes me, overwhelms and inspires me. The new project I’m writing now takes place in a village. I had the feeling about the film in me, but it was completed after I saw – by pure chance – this space that I realized that I was affected by the space. So I believe the space is extremely important for me as a writer and filmmaker. So much can be felt through senses, and I’m someone who follows her instincts, who follows nature.

You see I don’t like stories in the conventional form of a plot structure, with a beginning, middle and end. There should be a certain narrative structure of course, but we can achieve that within the internal rhythm of the film.

DFI: Between fiction and documentaries, which do you prefer and why?
Tamara: After my graduation film, the first film I did was a documentary. It was a soul-searching experience. I truly believe that there is nothing called pure fiction or pure documentary. In my last film, ‘February 19’, which is noted as a narrative fiction, for me it’s just a film. I love using real elements in my work. The base is real and I love using it organically. But if I come to answer in a simpler way, then yes, mine is fiction.

DFI: What are the main challenges you face as a filmmaker?
Tamara: I will note one problem that’s been bothering me for a while which is writing; it is very hard to write when one has to work in parallel. Writing is a process that one has to be fully indulged in. You can’t go to work in the morning, deal with issues that have nothing to do with creation, then come home and start writing. This is truly a big challenge for me. I need to be alone, in a silent place. And you know how Beirut is… so it’s quite tough.

DFI: What does filmmaking mean to you?
Tamara: My favorite question! Filmmaking is life for me. I can’t do without it. It is a passion that was planted in me when I was quite young, as early as six years old. I must admit I was lost during my university years, going between theatre and cinema. But as I started actually working, I realized how much it makes me shine and glow. When I was in Korea for a masterclass with Mohsen Makhmalbaf and Pen-Ek Ratanaruang , I was going through really tough times in my personal life. As the days passed, my mentor approached me and said, “Tamara the first day I met you your face was black, and now you’re shining, filmmaking makes you live”. Every time I’m writing, filming or editing, I am in a special state of mind. It’s a feeling of little seeds that keep on growing and growing in me, and this is life. And we portray this life on screen.

DFI: What is your favorite film and why?
Tamara: Oh. I have many! But I must note that there are two films that have marked me for life. It’s Andrei Tarkovsky’s ‘The Mirror’ , and Ingmar Bergman’s ‘Persona’ . Why? First I should note that both films don’t have conventional plots; they are very personal, simple but yet complex. They portray the state of a person, the state of his soul in all its dilemmas. They portray dreams, memories, the real and the imaginary, with no distinct separation between interior and exterior spaces. There is no real logic or story. In ‘Persona’ for example, I believe the frustration, the agony and interior suffocation that the filmmaker created is so enriching and fulfilling … I can go on about this forever but let me stop for now.

DFI: Do you see hope in the future of cinema in the region?
Tamara: It’s good to see hope even when you realize there is little to hope for. The big problem we face in the region is that there’s no real cinema industry. There should be a system of funding coming from the state. Most of the countries have a budget designated for funding films, why not our countries? And I’m talking about real budgets. There should be a whole system working to promote filmmakers, giving them the opportunity and the motivation to produce work in the region. It will come I believe, and I hope it happens soon.

DFI: What is your message to aspiring filmmakers?
Tamara: As I said earlier, filmmaking is a passion. A real life. Life that you can’t do without. If you feel that you can’t escape this feeling then just dwell in it. If no, then drop it because it’s not an easy passion to follow. I am not saying this to discourage anyone, on the contrary it is meant to motivate. Making films makes you alive and makes you live in another dimension. Just believe in it and it will come.

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