Beyond Words: Harutyun Khachatryan’s “Return to the Promised Land”

Haim Watzman

I misstated the director’s name in the original version of this post. My apologies.

In this friendless week for Israel it’s refreshing and instructive to get away to Sapir College’s annual Film Festival of the South and be reminded that loneliness is sometimes a fact to be lived with, and that history gives us brethren among the nations, if we would only look.

Harutyun Khachatryan “Return to the Promised Land” (1991) observes a young Armenian family returning to its battered home and farm in the wake of the great earthquake, the destructive force of which can be seen everywhere, and the breakup of the Soviet Empire, a distant event invisible in the landscape. The family is a real one, filmed from the beginning of the winter to the end of spring, but Khachatryan structures the film as a story–as a silent film, in fact, for there is no dialogue and relatively little sound. A young father, weighed down by worry, works in the field, reestablishes his livestock, watches over his family. His wife labors in the kitchen garden, draws water, watches the children, has a baby. At first the family seems to be alone; gradually other families join them and, in the end, when spring is well under way, an acrobat and two musicians come to town.

There are few smiles in this film. A faint smile plays across the father’s face only twice, one evening as he plays, wearily, with his toddler son, and again when he helps his cow bring a calf into the world. At the circus he smiles broadly, but he brings his wife and baby son home from the hospital with a stony, worried demeanor. His wife seems happy at a rare peaceful moment as she watches her child sleep, but no other time. The couple exchange no glances between them; if there is love, they keep it out of sight of the camera. We see determination, acquiescence. a gritty desire to go on living despite the punishment that the moving mountains have meted on them. There are none of the comforts that might lighten this hard life–no family celebrations, no religious or communal ceremonies; when he brings home his wife and infant, the father brings out a bottle of vodka and pours glasses for himself and his neighbor; the father stares at his glass, the neighbor out the window.

An Israeli viewer can’t help but be reminded of the Second Aliya pioneers who returned to the land and eked out a living under great difficulties. But the pioneers had an ideology that kept some of them going. The Armenians, a small nation with many enemies that suffered a Holocaust, returned to their land not out of ideology but simply because it was theirs, and because there was nowhere else to go. Perhaps the ideology, then, is not important.

In the Armenian film a family, and each of its members, seemed profoundly lonely. Loneliness was also the theme of the three student films we saw. All three were by religious students and all three were in the form of personal diaries or documentaries. Yaniv Cohen-Levi, who found his Jewish destiny during his post-army trek at a Habad House in Melbourne, Australia, is married but, despite his devotions, longs in “Take Me Back and I Will Return to You” for a personal connection to God that he feels is his birthright as a kohen, a member of the priestly class that served in the Temple in Jerusalem. In “Transitions,” Lior Faller chronicles her life alone, a life she thinks may be lived alone always.

The best of the three was Avigail Meir’s “Losses.” Meir, still single at an age, 24, when nearly all her friends are married, makes a pilgrimage to the tomb of Rabbi Nachman of Bratislav, a saint who by tradition helps single men and women find the match made for them in heaven. Avigail truly believes in the power of prayer but is a canny and skeptical observer of her own actions; the self-observed pilgrimage does not change her, but it makes her feel whole and certain that she, unlike Faller, is not destined to live alone forever.

It’s precisely this kind of critical self-awareness that is so rare in our battered country. That’s one reason why it’s so important to take a day off every so often to watch movies.

2 thoughts on “Beyond Words: Harutyun Khachatryan’s “Return to the Promised Land””

  1. Thank you for a beautifully written musing and review… and the wonderful frame( picture) from the movie. I think this is the issue in Israel, so hunkered down, increasingly solitary and on the defense, feeling battered by criticism. So much solidarity, it seems, for it’s own sake in response regardless of all the warnings from friends which short circuits reflection and self-awareness.

Comments are closed.