The Caucasian Volcano: Should the wind drop
Haven’t you had the feeling lately that the films released in these months have a certain anachronistic air? They are recent, probably shot a year or two ago, and yet they show details that already seem to us from another era. We see that life is as we always knew it, where people touch each other, hug each other, and do not wash their hands compulsively. We see people’s faces, we read their lips as they speak, we know if they are happy or sad, if they doubt or lie, by the subtle gestures of their mouths. Not only has the world changed in a few months. We have also changed ourselves and our way of perceiving the world.
Now, this is also the case in Should the wind drop (Si le vent tombe, 2020, Sona Martirosyan). The film, selected for the Cannes ghost edition and featured in the CINEMANIA program, tells the story of a French auditor’s visit to Stepanakert airport, in the unrecognized nation of Nagorno Karabakh, also known as Artsakh. His mission is to evaluate the conditions of the airport in order to give the go-ahead for it to operate and receive commercial flights.
We say that it is somewhat anachronistic to watch the film now, because between September and November 2020, for 45 days, there has been a war that has gone quite unnoticed in the world, but of great significance for two nations: Armenia and Azerbaijan; and a de facto although unrecognized nation: Nagorno Karabakh. That war has once again changed the borders of this Caucasian republic. What is told in the movie corresponds to the geographic configuration of the last 25 years. Until just today. Nevertheless, the film is already, by its own merits, an indispensable work.
The film begins like any first trip to Artsakh: crossing the Lachin corridor by road from Armenia. The character crossing the mountainous region is Alain, played by the French actor Grégoire Colin, known for his roles in Claire Denis’ films. Here his character acquires a serious, professional attitude, but permeable to the circumstances of the trip, like the affections that make him soften his tough personality. His performance, less physical than what we are accustomed to in films such as Beau travail (1999, Claire Denis) is excellent.
Alain hardly knows anything about the territory he has just arrived in. He doesn’t know, for example, that the trip by car after landing in Armenia is as long as the
flight that brought him there.
He doesn’t know that the country suffered a war only twenty-five years ago that left thousands of victims and displaced people. That that war remains in a state of latency, like an active volcano that could wake up again at any moment, using the metaphor of one of the characters.
He doesn’t know that his map doesn’t correspond to the real map, that is, the one that shows the de facto territory, whose borders are not dictated by the international community but by the military, who know the exact limits of the border posts, the trenches and the place from where the enemy’s shots arrive.
He is unaware of the customs of the locals, the closeness in treatment, the hospitality towards strangers, the absence of major protocols. His driver immediately takes him from one place to another, serves as a guide and even makes him wait in the car while he goes to meet his newborn child.
He also doesn’t know that the instability of the region can make his job useless. The locals are very hopeful about making use of the airport built in the 1970s, which has not received any commercial airplanes since the war broke out. But there is a major problem: in order for the planes to land, the weather has to be good, because due to the proximity of the border with Azerbaijan the planes would have to fly very close to it in case the first attempt failed. And it would be a good excuse for the plane to be shot down, according to a local inhabitant, even if it was full of passengers.
So what is the solution? Can there be one? As if it were a premonition, the conclusion is pessimistic, as pessimism is reality itself. The film shows that the fact that a conflict can break out at any moment is not fiction, because every year there have been invasion attempts, shootings, soldiers killed by bullets and explosions. And because reality surpasses fiction, we now know that those borders have been considerably narrowed. Even in Armenian hands, this airport has definitely remained a monument.
This is not the first film that looks at the conflict in Artsakh to develop a fictional story around, as the Georgian film A trip to Karabakh (2005, Levan Tutberidze) did, although it is the last one, for the moment. Non-fiction films have provided interesting testimonies in recent years, most notably the Armenian Nothing to Be Afraid of (2019, Silva Khnokanosian): an observational portrait of women who, with great patience and courage, detect and dig up anti-personnel mines dating from the 1990s war. It is also worth mentioning Parts of a Circle: History of the Karabakh Conflict, a project carried out by Armenians and Azeris who, working together and thoroughly, dissect the conflict avoiding any propaganda and without hiding compromising information for both sides.
Sona Martirosyan’s film has achieved something unique: that the most recognized film festival in the world looks at a story shot in the former Karabakh oblast, whose endless conflict had already disturbed Mikhail Gorvachev himself. For his debut film, Martirosyan takes into account the feeling of strangeness of the foreign visitor and the contrast with the local life rhythm: a good way to highlight the isolation of those inhabitants, as if the iron curtain was still there. The local habits and good humor clash with the seriousness and professionalism of the Frenchman, who did not expect to be involved in the tragedy of that territory until the spirit and kindness of the people made him change his mind. Closeness to the visitor, yes, but also pride: they know the importance of having a functioning airport and do not skimp on good manners to make the foreigner’s report positive.
Alain’s visit is intertwined with the child who crosses the airport every day as if walking through his own neighborhood. The boy, who does not live far from there, travels several kilometers every day to fill his carafes with water and then quench the thirst of workers and sick people in the hospital to earn some extra money. His goal: to save in order to work the land his family has. Otherwise, they will be forced to sell it.
It is not by chance that Alain notices this child and turns him into a form of symbol of this territory. While his driver tells him that the road they are crossing is sometimes a target for snipers, he asks him: “how can you live like this?” The answer is found in those details he is learning every day. In particular, the child’s story. This is his land, his home, and simply getting rid of it is not an option.
Back to reality, which reminds one of the small documentaries recently published in social networks by the Armenian production company Bars Media, responsible for the now classic documentary A Story of People in War and Peace (2007, Vardan Hovhannisyan) about some of the protagonists who fought in the bloody war of Karabakh. When the new conflict began on September 27th, a Bars Media team moved from Yerevan to the disputed territory. Their mini documentaries have brought something different to what is usually offered by the media, forced to report on events and new information: they have been able to find small personal stories full of hope, resignation to a situation they would rather not live, and courage, whether among soldiers in the trenches or civilians. In one of the first clips published, an elderly cab driver tells how he is urged to leave Karabakh during the first days of the siege. “Go where?” he replies. “Leave our land, to go where?”.
This has been one of the key questions during the years of relative peace in the region: how to peacefully resolve a conflict so that the parties involved are satisfied. Leave their homes and everything behind? Allow the Azeri population to enter and live together, as during Soviet times? Give up part of the territory in Armenian hands? The new war has silenced all these questions and put aside the mediation work of the OSCE Minsk Group. Now that the governments of Armenia, Azerbaijan and Russia have signed a ceasefire agreement following the military defeat of Armenia, Azerbaijan will be able to regain much of the territory it has claimed, while Russia will ensure security in the region with its troops deployed to guarantee peace.
The volcano, using the metaphor heard in Should the wind drop, awoken for 45 days, is asleep again. But who knows for how long?