“Spitak,” Armenia’s submission in the foreign language category for the 2019 Academy Awards, is about an earthquake that devastated the country in 1988, but it’s not really about a natural disaster, according to the movie’s director, Alexander Kott.
“This film is a requiem,” Kott said. “It’s about the memory, about finding yourself and your roots.”
As a result, the film, set for its Los Angeles premiere on Friday at the Laemmle Glendale, is surprisingly quiet.
Hysteria, panic and tears are depicted minimally. Even the quake registers as an understatement. Instead, Kott focuses on the hard physical and emotional work that follows.
At the center is protagonist, Ghor (Lernik Harutyunyan), who returns to Spitak, the city that was at the quake’s epicenter, to find his wife and daughter, who he left behind to pursue a new life in Moscow.
What he finds are locals and their relatives struggling to find their loved ones — dead or alive — amid heaps of rubble, debris and bodies.
At one point, young French journalist Madeleine (Joséphine Japy) tears the film out of the camera she’s been using to document the horror, overwhelmed by the images, but a man intercedes.
“If you don’t need it, we all need it. We need it to remember, you see?” he tells her.
Composer Serj Tankian said he sought to develop a modern, minimalist score with piano, strings, woodwinds and arpeggiated pad-type instruments to contrast the movie’s darker themes.
In the film, Ghor’s estranged wife, Ghoar (Hermine Stepanyan), and daughter, Anush (Alexandra Politic), are trapped in a photography studio where they were having their pictures taken when the earthquake struck.
They’re surrounded by costumes and props, creating “this kind of dark, ‘Alice in Wonderland’-ish interior for this young girl,” said Tankian, who is best known for fronting the rock band System of a Down but has been focusing on composing in recent years.
“So we played with that theme, to make it magical and hopeful, and to counterbalance the dark and gritty scenery of the devastation,” Tankian said.
The contrast of the two realities is furthered enhanced by the camera work. Above-ground shots — of “cement, grey monotony and hard work” — are shot by a nervous, hand-held camera, Kott said. Below ground is perfectly smooth.
At the end, the two realities merge, according to Kott.
“It’s about believing in miracles,” Kott said. “There were lots of things that miraculously happened in Spitak.”
While Kott said Glendale is an ideal screening location, given its large Armenian and Armenian-American population, he expressed worry that many in attendance may have painful memories stirred up because of their personal connection to the tragedy.
Growing up in Los Angeles, Lebanon-born Tankian said he clearly remembers going door-to-door following the earthquake to collect funds to send to Armenia.
That connection, however tragic, endeared him to the project.