Recently selected for the Oscar shortlist for Best Documentary Short, “The Other Side of Home” is an eye-opening account of the legacy of the 1915 Armenian genocide by the Turkish government. Filmed during the 100th year commemoration of the tragedy, it follows a Turkish woman named Maya who has learned of her Armenian heritage. As she travels to Armenia to explore her mixed identity, the film provides a somber reflection on the complexities associated with this harrowing historical period. Earlier this week, I interviewed the director Nare Mkrtchyan to discuss the film and the importance of showing the humanity amid the atrocities. Below is an edited transcript of our conversation.
Shane Slater: How did you decide on your approach to the film’s topic?
Nare Mkrtchyan: My grandparents were survivors of the Armenian genocide. And in my own family I had the story of light and dark, because my grandfather’s family were all killed by the Turks. But my grandmother’s family was rescued by their Turkish neighbors. So I was thinking, there are two sides to this story. The good and bad. And I was fascinated by the idea of finding somebody who humanizes the story of the genocide, who humanizes the conflict of the genocide.
I wanted to tell a human story. There are so many films about the Armenian genocide. But I feel like, as human beings we don’t concentrate with numbers like “1.5 million Armenians were killed.” It’s just a number. So I wanted to make sure that the audience connects with a human being. And the reason I chose a person with Armenian heritage is because it was also important for me to tell the story to the Turkish people also.
As I said, in my own family there is the story of the killers but there is also the story of the rescuers. I wanted to show that there has been this genocide that happened 101 years ago, but not all of those Turkish people were bad. There were people who actually rescued Armenians and those people should not be forgotten. So that was the main reason behind my approach. I wanted to tell a story that was full of love and light. You cannot win darkness with dark. It’s just impossible. So I was trying to find a light to win over the darkness.
SS: Were you surprised at the level of denial that the Turkish people had about the genocide?
NM: No, I actually was not surprised because Turkey denies. That’s what they do. I actually was more surprised for example by the last interview with the girl who knew so much about the genocide. I was surprised to find out that there was this small number of Turkish intellectuals who do know that it was a genocide and fight for recognition of the genocide. But the fact that there was so many people that denied was not surprising because it is in their identity to deny the genocide, as much as it is in my identity to fight for recognition of the genocide.
SS: Have you screened the film in Turkey?
NM: I have not screened the film in Turkey yet, even though I would love to. But first of all, I want to make sure that my main character in the documentary is going to be safe. There’s nothing in the film that is anti-Turkish. I think the film really is trying to show this conflict on a human level and to try to start a dialogue on both sides that has not happened yet. But unfortunately, I also know there are these nationalist deniers who might never even watch the film and hate it without watching it.
SS: Weren’t you worried going around with a camera crew asking people about the genocide?
NM: I was actually very worried. It was interesting, when I started working on this idea everything happened so fast that I never thought of it affecting me personally. I was always thinking of the film as a filmmaker. So it never hit me about all the emotions and fear I’d be going through as an Armenian. I was just doing it as a filmmaker, so all I was worried about was getting the production done.
But then, as the plane was getting to Turkey there was this inexplicable fear. Especially when we were on the street with the camera and it was me and my executive producer Iliana Guevara (who was also the second camera on the film). I asked her to come with me instead of the male cinematographer because for some reason I was thinking, if it is two young women maybe they would be nicer to us. But we were both extremely scared in the beginning.
But there was this purpose and I needed to find answers. So even though I was scared, I knew I had to do it. And as time went by, I became more comfortable asking questions about the Armenian genocide on the streets of Turkey.
NM: Yes, it has changed a lot. She is much more comfortable with her heritage. We talk so much, we call each other sisters. I think this film has really touched her and changed her view of the genocide. The whole time as I was making the film, I was always thinking that the Turkish section is for the Armenians and the Armenian section is for the Turkish people. I wanted Armenians to understand where the denial is coming from, that this denial is not just one layer. And I wanted the Turkish people to understand where Armenian suffering is coming from and why it is important for us to fight for recognition. So again, I wanted to show it on a human level.
SS: Part of the 100th commemoration is a fight for justice. What would you personally like to see happen?
NM: Honestly, even though my film is about the Armenian genocide, it’s about humanity. Currently, all the genocides that are still happening in the world are so heartbreaking for me. So I really hope that by watching this film, people will see how we really are all one. It doesn’t matter your nationality or religion. Because one morning you might wake up and find that you have the nationality of your enemy. So that’s what I was trying to show with this film.
As the grandchild of survivors of the Armenian genocide, I understand that genocide does not end the moment that the killing stops. Here I am 101 years after the Armenian genocide and I’m still suffering because of what happened to my ancestors, even though it did not directly touch me. And it’s heartbreaking to see that there are going to be generations still suffering from genocides that are currently happening in the world. So what I’m really hoping to accomplish with this film is to touch human hearts and show that identity is made of all these layers. But in reality, we’re all one. And we can’t keep killing each other, because we’re not really killing each other. We’re killing ourselves.