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Collecting Memories Together: A Conversation with Yervant Gianikian

Yervant Gianikian discusses “I diari di Angela – Noi due cineasti”, an intimate homage to a life and work shared with Angela Ricci Lucchi.
I diari di Angela - Noi due cineasti
When I met Yervant Gianikian on a cloudy morning during the 2018 edition of the Viennale, the first thing that struck me was the presence of his deceased partner Angela Ricci Lucchi in all he would come to tell me. Gianikian switched between “we“ and “I“ when talking about their work, often employing the present tense for things past. I decided to keep these shifts in the interview, which was not really an interview but a collecting of memories, images and little stories behind them. 
The same is true for their film I diari di Angela - Noi due cineasti, a touching love letter to their life and work together as well as a sort of saved memory of one of the most important artistic oeuvres dealing with the violence of the 20th century. The film is structured around the written and painted diaries of Ricci Lucchi and filmed images accompanying the diary. It episodically moves through different cornerstones of their career but also includes banal, heart-warming or funny observations of a life lived.

YERVANT GIANIKIAN: Do you know about the publication of the diaries of Angela? A book came out last year, The Arrow of Time. Have you read it? 
NOTEBOOK: No, but I actually ordered it yesterday after a friend recommended it.
GIANIKIAN: [Gianikian puts the book on the table] It deals with 1989, our journey to Russia.
NOTEBOOK: So, it deals with your days spent searching for and finding what remained of the 1920s Russian avant-garde?
GIANIKIAN: Yes. Last year we had this enormous installation at Documenta. It was published in relation to that. Have you seen the installation?
NOTEBOOK: No, I only read about it. Did Angela write a diary all the time?
GIANIKIAN: All the time. We have between 60 to 70 books filled with her diaries.
NOTEBOOK: Have you considered creating more work with or from the diaries?
GIANIKIAN: Yes, I think I will do more. But first I want to continue the work we started together concerning fascism. We want to continue in this direction. I need a bit of space between me and the diaries. I started working on I Diari di Angela - Noi due cineasti in April. I worked a long time with those images and memories. I had to work with a lot of different materials. 8mm, 16mm in the beginning, then VHS, HDV and so on. For two months we were collecting all the images. It took many, many hours of work. But do you have a special question?
NOTEBOOK: Well, I have questions but you can also just talk about what seems important to you.
GIANIKIAN: No, please ask. I have my notes here with me and even though I forgot my glasses I will try to answer as good as I can.
NOTEBOOK: First I wanted to know a bit more about the making of the film. Both yourself and Angela Ricci Lucchi are credited as directors of the film. Did you start working on the film while she was still alive?
GIANIKIAN: We decided early on that we will always continue our work together. So we will continue making films together, also in the future.
NOTEBOOK: But was this also an idea of hers, to make a film out of her diaries?
GIANIKIAN: No, it was not her idea. It was important for me to make a monument for her.
NOTEBOOK: How did you decide which parts of the diary to include in the film? And also what to read out loud, as we can see you from time to time browsing through the pages and reading little excerpts or just words.
GIANIKIAN: I read the parts where I knew there was film or video material accompanying it. You have to know that we always filmed. From the very beginning in the 1970s on. The starting point in the film is the exhibition we had at Hangar Bicocca in Milan in 2012. All our installations since 2000 were presented there. For me, that place seemed like a football stadium. It was twenty-five meters high and we had to occupy all this space. The selection included the "Armenian roll," a painted 17-meter-long roll which details Armenian fables my father used to tell. Angela made those drawings based on translations of my father’s medieval fairy tales.
NOTEBOOK: We can see her working on the roll in your film.
GIANIKIAN: Yes, she never stopped drawing. Part of the exhibition was our collection of toys called Carrousel de Jeux in French. I call it RoBerTo which is an abbreviation of Rome, Berlin, Tokyo…the fascists! There was also our The March of Man and our 20th Century Triptych. We can say that our most important topics in film were all there. So, that is the beginning of the film. Yet, the real beginning of us and the film is Erat Sora, a 8mm short that Angela made in 1974/75. She hadn’t developed these 3 minutes of film when we first met and we decided that I will superimpose material on it. It is a film with religion in it but it is against religion. It was made in the most communist place in Italy, a place near Lugo.
NOTEBOOK: We can also see images from the Centre Pompidou in the film, right?
GIANIKIAN: Yes, it is from our exhibition there in 2015. The exhibition ended with the bombs in Paris in November 2015. They closed the exhibition two days before they had planned to. That was the first time the Kokoschka roll was presented. It is 10 meters long and about the doll of Oskar Kokoschka. As you can see in the film, I was badly injured and burned and Angela saved my life in 2014.
NOTEBOOK: Is this the story we can see in your film with the drawing Angela made about this unfortunate event?
GIANIKIAN: Exactly. I am sorry to jump a little from here to there, but these are memories, it goes back and forth quite a bit. Shortly after the exhibition at Pompidou we finished our film on Kokoschka, which was shown at the Louvre. We also received an invitation to the Biennale in Venice through Adelina von Fürstenberg. We won the Golden Lion for the Armenian Pavillon in 2015. Back then I still had to wear a glove, my hand was in bad shape due to the serious burns.
NOTEBOOK: Why did you decide to choose your presence at festivals as a sort of framing for I Diari di Angela? I found it rather interesting since, for me, in the rest of the film the glimpses into your work and life were very different from this festival world. Your work seems to me beyond ideas of artistic recognition. It is more important than that.
GIANIKIAN: Well, in the beginning, the images you see of Hangar Bicocca were shot by our friend, the former director of the Cinémathèque française, Dominique Païni. In the material you can see a lot of our work. It was quite astonishing but one of our friends saw our work at Hangar Bicocca on September 11, 2001. I still remember how he came back from the hotel where he saw the images of New York on television in order to inform us about the events. The present always catches up with us. It’s incredible. Angela wrote in her diary about these events, about these days. So, to me it seems very natural to have it in the film. This motto of "Non Non Non" which was used as the title in Milan goes back to a political thing in 1989. You have to know that we lived in the countryside. Now it has become a bit difficult to go there for me. We also lived there in order to have our archive there. It was a bit less dangerous than having the archive in a city. We have this friendship with an older lady there, a woman from the countryside. In August she turned 100 years old.
NOTEBOOK: Her name is Laura, right? We can see her in the film making wine?
GIANIKIAN: Yes, that’s right. She really has a strong dialect and nobody understands what she is saying. Even the translator couldn’t understand it. Angela translated it. The diary speaks a lot about the countryside, so I wanted to put those things in the film, too. There are also moments such as Angela driving the car in the rain or cooking something or a worker coming to cut the trees. Then, a completely different story: our travel to Turkey in 1979. I also found that in Angela’s diary. It is about the traces of my father’s survival of the genocide. Sometimes it was very hard to go through these passages in Turkey, to see Angela's face change, to witness her becoming very tired and full of fear in the images I made of her. We arrived in this town in a hotel where my father had passed through in 1915 and escaped a mass grave in which 10,000 people were buried. I wanted to have this in the film, too. Then we had a friend, a famous actor who died in 1991. His name is Walter Chiari. Nobody knows him outside of Italy. Actually, he was the actor that Fellini took as a role model for La dolce vita. Finally he didn’t use him because Walter spoke too much. Later on, Orson Welles cast him in Chimes at Midnight but he stuffed his mouth with cotton and had him play the role of Justice Silence. We made this film with him, Ti regalerò il mio ultimo respiro, in which we recorded his voice before he lost it after a vocal chord operation. It was his last film. So our journeys with him are also in the diaries. You can see him in the film sitting at the table with a glass filled with smoke. It was a joke he created for his lover, Ava Gardner. There was also a dance with a woman, a spectacular dance I filmed but decided to not have in the film. This is just to tell you about some stories behind what you see. These are all different episodes for me. Russia, my father, Walter Chiari, and so on.
NOTEBOOK: Can you tell me a bit about your Russian travels?
GIANIKIAN: We returned to Russia in 1993 to find the archival material for Prisoners of War in the Krasnogorsk Archive. When we got there, we noticed and felt a common urge to return to nationality in the East. Angela has incredible observations about this trip in her diary. We witnessed people singing the song of the Cossacks. Everybody was very involved. I didn’t even remember having filmed it, so when I saw it again while making I Diari di Angela I was very touched.
NOTEBOOK: In the archive, as we can see in your film, you met a very special cat.
GIANIKIAN: Yes, the cat was called Mushka. Mushka the cat helped us. She was comfortable sitting on Angela's knees, which caused quite a sensation because normally this cat did not like anybody. So, the woman in charge of the copies liked Angela for liking the cat and brought us much more film material than we normally would have had access to.
NOTEBOOK: Sometimes animals open doors to hearts.
GIANIKIAN: What is always most important to us is the violence of the 20th century. The diary accompanies our work on wars.
NOTEBOOK: In the film we can also see images of Sarajevo during the war. There you filmed your research on the streets. Can you tell me a bit about those images? Did you shoot during your whole journey through the Balkans?
GIANIKIAN: Yes, I only included the part of Sarajevo, of Grbavica. Actually a year before I travelled there and we shot a celebration for the most beautiful Gypsy woman, the only light in those days in Sarajevo.
NOTEBOOK: To me it seems like a very intimate act to open a diary and share it with the audience…
GIANIKIAN: Yes, I also left out a lot while reading because I got lost a bit. But when somebody reads quickly they can read a lot of it.
NOTEBOOK: There is also a moment in a hotel room in Zagreb that I want to talk about. We see Angela sitting on a bed and she more or less talks about the force that drives your work together, a kind of statement against forgetting.
GIANIKIAN: This happened right before a screening in Zagreb organized by Ladislav Galeta. He was a friend. It was the first place where we showed Prisoners of War. Shortly before the screening Galeta came and said that he had spoken with the police and they announced that they would be present during the screening. I was asked by Galeta to only speak about our technique, not about the content of the film. For two hours I spoke about the technique, about frames and so on. But, toward the end, a man raised his hand and he said: "Don’t think that we are all in favor of this war." So Angela was really scared before that screening. I told her not to worry and I filmed a little in the hotel room. This is the moment you can see in the film. Why is there a war? Why is there this war? It was a sort of testament. Yet, before all that a man from the Italian embassy came to us. He was bald and wore a white scarf and he told us that he was going to present our film. I protested and told him that he hadn’t even seen the film. However, Angela asked me to step back and let the man introduce our film. He looked exactly like Mussolini. He held a speech and then he left. Those were very difficult experiences.
NOTEBOOK: Can you talk a bit about Angela’s drawings which we see in her diary? Writing and drawing seem to float into each other.
GIANIKIAN: When we first started living together in the countryside, Angela started to draw insects. In the film, I also included her drawings of veiled women in Tehran playing tennis. It looks like an image on a carpet. While we were in Iran, Angela had to be veiled, too. As you have mentioned already there are also the drawings of my incredible accident. She described and painted that with such a keen eye for detail…
NOTEBOOK: In the film, the story of your accident comes across almost like a dream, a nightmare. I especially remember the drawing of your body’s outline burned into the bush.
GIANIKIAN: Yes, nothing grows there to this day. One can still see the shape of my body in the bush. I have many scars, it was very serious. Angela tried to help me with water but it didn’t work at first.
NOTEBOOK: Can I ask how it happened?
GIANIKIAN: It happened with films. It was during the winter, it was very cold and there was an oven and I had been working with films that caught fire. I still shiver when I think about it. Later, I asked Angela to write down a report accompanying her drawings and read it out loud. I recorded it and you can hear her voice in the film. She told me that she would read it only one time. After our retrospective in Paris Angela underwent surgery in Milan. Towards the end, she wrote a  great deal about her experience as a teacher. First, those parts had been destroyed, so Angela reconstructed her story by hand. She always wrote and drew by hand. Well, at the special needs school where she taught, there were children who were declared idiots. Angela loved them very much. They had moments of crisis. They threw chairs through the classroom, you had to react very quickly to protect yourself and the kids. She also started to wash the kids. She bought good soaps for them.
NOTEBOOK: Where was this school?
GIANIKIAN: It was near Ravenna, close to were the Gothic Line has been during World War II. Angela was a Republican and her family had many problems during the war because they were not fascists. Her father was forced to run. She also was in Prague when the Russians arrived. This is also in her diary. You can see that such a diary is a very complex thing. My first cut was more than four hours long.
NOTEBOOK: You felt it was too long?
GIANIKIAN: Yes. There was a part on the school and a part on the war. There was also an episode on Jerusalem in 2007. I had to cut it out.
NOTEBOOK: I could feel something in the film that I can feel in all your films, this urge to freeze memories in a certain way, to not let go of certain things. Yet, to me, it seems very different to work with material you shot yourself, material that concerns your partner, someone who is very close, as opposed to archival material.
GIANIKIAN: We also have to think about the difference of a written archive and a filmed archive. In the case of I diari di Angela, they belong together. Sometimes Angela’s words explain what I did not remember in an image and the other way around. There are thousands of pages about our work, lectures, books. We also filmed a lot of material in Vienna. Dinners, research at the archive…
NOTEBOOK: You generally filmed a lot of food. And the making of food.
GIANIKIAN: Yes, because Angela was an incredible cook. During the war she learned to cook a Wiener Schnitzel on the fire, without gas, for fifteen people. We could say there is also a diary of food. She describes how she cooks and so on. I haven’t used the MiniDV material I have shot up to now. That will be another chapter.
NOTEBOOK: It seems like there is no border between different arts and modes of expression in your work. We can see you filming, painting and writing… There is a need for expression, a need for art… Maybe you can talk about that.
GIANIKIAN: I remember when we were in the U.S.A. in 1981. We toured the States. We were at Anthology Film Archives, in Toronto, in Madison, Minneapolis, San Francisco, Berkeley, Pittsburgh, even El Paso. Angela became very tired. She didn’t want to talk to audiences anymore. She was ill, too. It wasn't always easy. You can also see the kind of material we often had to work with in the film. Those decayed film rolls. A lot of material got destroyed, too. To get back to your comment, let me say that Angela is the person who makes the written report on our work. Our life is film, it is cinema. And I still want to continue. I feel a need, especially now in this situation with the return of fascism in Europe and the world. This is a mission.

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