Int’l Critics Line: Anna Smith On Armenia’s Oscar Entry ‘Songs Of Solomon’

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Anna Smith
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This year’s International Feature Oscar entry from Armenia, Songs Of Solomon, boasts Green Book Academy Award-winning co-writer/producer Nick Vallelonga as producer for the film debut of theater director Arman Nshanian. Songs Of Solomon is a relatively low-budget but emotive watch, contrasting the power of music and friendship with the horrors of genocide.

Audrey Gevorkian’s screenplay details the friendship between a Turkish girl and her Armenian friend, based on stories told to Sirvart Kavoukjian by her grandmothers. The script imagines these two young girls to have been close to Komitas, the beloved Armenian composer and pioneer of ethnomusicology. Born Soghomon Soghomonian, Komitas was an orphan whose extraordinary singing voice opened doors and put him on the path to priesthood and fame.

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The timeline flits between a concert in 1915 Constantinople, where the adult Komitas is performing, and the kids growing up in Koutina, Ottoman Empire from 1881. Played by Slava Seyranyan, the young Soghomon befriends inseparable local pair Sevil (Iren Ayvazyan) and Sona (Mery Hovsepyan), and the narration from the adult Sevil is our guide through dramatic events in their lives.

Featuring folk music composed by Komitas himself, the childhood scenes have a playful touch, as kids bound around a small, busy village. Characters are established with broad brush strokes: Soghomon is poor but gifted; his new friends are kind and close. Gevorkian’s screenplay relies heavily on the narration at this point, while dialogue is straightforward: “You were born to do great things,” says his blind grandmother, “All you need is to believe.” The tone almost resembles a family film, but there are terrors to come as the Hamidian massacres of 1894 loom.

It is here that Songs Of Solomon becomes a more compelling, and disturbing, watch. As a Turkish General, Artashes Aleksanyan is a suitably menacing archetypal baddie: striding around and taunting his targets, just stopping short of twirling his mustache. The audience is made far more aware of the impending doom than the idealistic female protagonists, who must face the cruelties of the world all too suddenly. As the General and his men begin to seek out all local Armenians, loyalties are tested and the film’s most dramatic scenes take place. Arevik Gevorgyan puts in an affecting turn as the older Sevil, who pressures her husband to protect her Armenian friend Sona (Tatev Hovakimyan), with fateful results.

The details of Komitas’ own fate — and that of many Armenians — makes for a haunting postscript, especially in the context of the recent conflicts between Nagorno-Karabakh and Azerbaijan. While its early scenes are simplistic and its narrative focus torn, Songs Of Solomon remains an impactful story of friends whose lives are ripped apart by genocide.

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