A Fish Out of Water



by Karen Topakian

This summer, I accepted an invitation to attend the Pomegranate Film Festival, in Toronto, Canada, which celebrates Armenian inspired films.

The Festival planned to screen “Arrested (Again),” a short documentary film made by Dan Goldes, about my 30 plus year experience with civil disobedience.

Scores of people entered the Cineplex on opening night, juggling popcorn and drinks while greeting each other in Armenian and English. I found a seat between two separate groups of women.

An older woman on my left spoke with her daughter seated beside her but occasionally glanced over at me. I could feel her puzzled expression as she tried to place my unknown face.

Ignoring her glances, I focused on the thick glossy program full of the directors’ biographies and film descriptions.

The crowd fell to a hush, when a female festival volunteer approached the mic. She opened the event with several minutes of remarks in Armenian, a language I don’t understand and can’t speak unless you count swearing, telling you to comb your hair or sit down to eat.

As laughter and applause erupted from the audience, I sat motionless, noticing the woman to my left observe me.

The festival volunteer briefly switched to English. Then she introduced the first film “The Last Inhabitant” and the filmmaker, Jivan Avetisyan, who had come all the way from Armenia, that afternoon.

The volunteer interviewed the filmmaker in Armenian. When she didn’t provide an English translation, I began to worry. What if the entire festival took place only in Armenian? Why hadn’t I asked about the language before I said yes to the invitation? How could I sit through 5 days of films without understanding a word? I felt like a fish out of water.

Then the house lights dimmed, the music started and, thankfully, English subtitles appeared on screen.

The film told the story of two older men who continued to live in Artsakh (also known as Nagorno-Karabakh), a disputed area between Armenia and Azerbaijan. They remained committed to being the last inhabitants of this hold out village, prepared to defend it as Armenia. One man also needed to protect his daughter from the trauma she experienced from her violent husband. Not an easy film to watch – lots of pain and suffering.

A brief intermission before the second film started allowed me to return to my program.

Again, I could feel the women to my left staring at me. After a few moments, she gently put her hand on my left wrist and tried to ask as politely as she could in English who I was and why I was there.

“I’m the subject of a short documentary.”

“About what?”


She knitted her eyebrows together trying to understand.

“A film about my experience with civil disobedience.”

She tilted her head towards me.

“I’ve been arrested many times in anti-war protests.”

She leaned closer.

“At the end of the film, I talk about my grandfathers who fled the Turks.”

“Ah, the Turks,” she exclaimed while raising both arms in the air. She patted me on my wrist again and smiled. I had made a new friend.





Saying Goodbye

by Karen Topakian

I said goodbye to an old friend the other day. A friend who stood by me through thick and thin. A friend about whom I told my grandfather would be more reliable and responsible than a husband.

My 16mm Bolex movie camera.

The one I used in graduate school. To make films about myself, my family. The one I used to make films with WAFFAL (The Wednesday Afternoon Fine Arts League). The all girl film group. Films called Chapters 1-5. Chapters 6-11.

Twenty-three years ago, I carefully placed the camera in its black leather bag along with a lens, a light meter and various bits of gears. Then stuck it in various closets. In various apartments. To languish.

After opening it up the other day and laying out the pieces on the dining room table, I realized that I no longer had any idea how to operate it. The years of winding it, putting it up to my eye and pulling the trigger remained in my distant pass.

Now it’s back home. At my beloved alma mater, the San Francisco Art Institute. Where it belongs. It’s in a better place now. Being used by budding film students. As I once was.