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True/False Conversations: 'There Was, There Was Not' recounts a fairy tale of loss

Four women standing in a field.
Karen Mirzoyan
'There Was, There Was Not' follows the lives of four women living in the Republic of Artsakh, a territory between Armenia and Azerbaijan

This story is part of True/False Conversations, a series of in-depth interviews with the filmmakers of this year’s True/False Fest.  Find the rest of them here.

“There Was, There Was Not” world premieres at True/False on February 29 at 7:30 p.m. Sose, one of the women featured in the film, will attend the premiere.

“There was, there was not” is the first line in every Armenian fairytale, and also the title of Armenian-American filmmaker Emily Mkrtichian’s documentary film premiering at True/False Film Fest. The film follows the lives of four women living in the Republic of Artsakh, a territory between Armenia and Azerbaijan that was mostly independent from both countries but inhabited predominantly by Armenians. When Mkrtichian was almost done filming, Azerbaijan launched an attack on Artsakh that led to a war and ethnic cleansing, and her life and the film were quickly transformed into something very different. Artsakh now essentially ceases to exist.

Here's an excerpt of their conversation:

Olivia Mizelle: I wanted to ask about the title. I feel like it is a perfect name. Obviously, it is important to Armenian fairy tales, and then also Artsakh was and then it is no longer. During shooting, did the title come to mind? Like is it something you always had in mind or something that developed while you were filming?

Emily Mkrtichian: Yeah, the title is just one of those things that like keeps becoming more and more potent. It's been the title of the film since like, 2018, you know, and when I first started the film, I was really wanting to like explore the dreams of these women. And so fairy tales, for me, has always been kind of a way to think about that. So in the old version of the film, I asked them to like, tell me the story of how you see yourself, you know, like, tell me a story of you. And I wanted to explore those imaginations. And so that's why I originally took the title “There Was, There Was Not,” կար, չկար.

And then the ethnic cleansing happened. And that place is truly gone forever. And I think I'm haunted by the title now. You know, it's like, I can't change it, but it feels — it's so full of meaning.

Olivia Mizelle: Obviously, the war started while you were shooting. What was that experience like? Like, how did you how did you kind of pivot? And then what was it just like, personally, like, all of a sudden, being in a war zone when you were filming?

Emily Mkrtichian: You know, a lot of that time is a blur. Like, in a way, I'm thankful that I had a camera with me the whole time, because I think filming everything and going back over the footage, and putting it back together into the story has really helped me like, understand that time and remember that time because it was so scary and unbelievable. Like the footage is a version of my own memory, you know? For me sometimes, making a film and being in other people's lives is kind of a way to erase yourself, like you kind of disappear in a way because you're so focused on the people in front of you and what's happening.

Olivia Mizelle: Why did you make the film and then also did your “why” change throughout shooting?

Emily Mkrtichian: I mean, definitely the “why” changed because everything changed. You know, this is like one of those rare examples of a film where like you've really documented a thing that then just changes permanently and you can never go back. Now my why of making this film is so around, like, how lucky I am to have documentation of these women's lives in a world that just ended.

Olivia Mizelle is a student reporter at KBIA
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