War can remain with you even within the four walls of your home, and make you feel like you are living in a ‘house without doors’. Avo Kaprealian, the young Syrian director, but of Armenian origins, is the author of the beautiful documentary HOUSES WITHOUT DOORS, winner of the ‘Internazionale.doc’ at the last Turin Film Festival. He has filmed the war in Aleppo from the balcony of his home in Bustan al-Basha suburb, in the north-west of the city.
Scenes of east Aleppo were seen around the world for weeks, moving all, but moving no one. In Bustan al-Basha, where Avo Kaprealian lives with his family, there has always been a strong Armenian community, a microcosm within what had been a multi-ethnic Syria, but now facing a terrible fate.
Stories of exile, deportation, survival, similar to that of the main characters of the family in MAYRIG (1991), an autobiographical film of Henri Verneuil, HOUSES WITHOUT DOORS also uses frequent film clips. Thanks to a well-contrived visual and narrative scheme, HOUSES WITHOUT DOORS is able to successfully link the present suffering of the Syrian people with what had happened a century ago when the Armenians had been deported to Anatolia, bringing to life both events at the same time. Avo Kaprealian captures on film fragments of a ghost city, images of buildings pockmarked and blackened by mortar shelling alternate with others equally gruesome from the film Mayrig.
“They gathered us together to tell us that they were deporting us for military safety reasons, instead, they took 200 pounds from each of us…”
Everything began on 24 April 1915, the day on which many Armenians were arrested and killed all over Turkey. In reality, the Turks had already displayed their intolerance towards the Armenian community, of Christian religion and mainly concentrated in eastern Anatolia, since the end of the 1900s through pogroms carried out by the ruthless Sultan Abdul Hamid II.
However, with the rise to power of the Young Turks in 1908 (after having deposed the sultan), it was they who carried out a systematic purging of the Armenians. The main reason can be found within the Pan-Turkish ideology, the attempt to save the decadent Ottoman Empire by placing its peoples all on the same cultural and ethnic level (the so-called “Turkification”). The Armenians, besides being Christians, are Western-oriented and, not least, quite well-off economically due to a long-standing tradition of working in commercial businesses.
The defeats on the eastern front incurred by the Turkish army during the First World War accelerated the “final solution” for the Armenians, accused of being a fifth column of the Russians on the Caucasian front. Historically, there is a lot of agreement in believing that, between 1915 and 1917, there was an actual Armenian genocide (the first of the 20th century) – that is, acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group (Article II of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide of 1948).
Instead, the political controversy has remained open (and always at the forefront) concerning those terrible events, with the international community divided, for geo-political opportunities, on acknowledging the genocide. 22 countries (including Italy) officially use the word “genocide”, referring to the massacres of the Armenian people, while France, Slovakia, Switzerland sanction the denial.
Turkey, instead, has always denied any genocidal intent against the Armenians, claiming actions only on the grounds of war. Indeed, in 2014, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan likened the sufferings of the Armenians during the First World War to those of the Kurds, the Arabs and the millions of citizens of the empire.
The fact is that on the eve of the Great War 2 million Armenians lived in Europe. In 1922, there remained only 400,000.
From his home in Bustan al-Basha, Avo films the daily life of his family, his mother and father worried about the safety of their son as “the secret police are everywhere, stop filming”.
While the first “social” genocide is occurring, on television news on information about the regime is being broadcasted.
“The UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, has declared that the Syrian regime has used outlawed chemical weapons [..]. Turkey has recalled its consul from Aleppo. The diplomacy of Obama supports the Syrian opposition.”
“[…] At the beginning we thought that the Turkish authorities were not aware of our suffering under the military […]. We marched for hours under the sun, with no food nor water. The most intolerable thing was the cries of the children.” (Narrator of Mayrig)
Armenian children, barefoot, exhausted and dying during the “march of the dead”, thrown into common graves. Syrian children with lost eyes, filmed and interviewed in the refugee camps. Children who dream about going to school.
“Do you know why they bomb the schools during war?”, one of them asks in front of the video-camera, “Because they want us to be ignorant. Have you come to tell me that the schools are closed in Al Maidan?”
Children over whose heads missiles fly, children who play at being at war – “the Arab Syrian Army vs the Free Syrian Army”, while on the state television images of the real war flash across the screen. Bashar al Assad warns all those in opposition: Game over.
“Only 100 of us were left alive to show to the foreign embassies that it was not genocide but a simple transferring of a people. The last city we passed through was Aleppo.” (Narrator of Mayrig)
From Aleppo, the Armenian people began marching again, a century later. Lena, Avo’s mother, packs their bags, ready to follow in the footsteps of her ancestors. Destination, Lebanon.
“A house without doors is not a house.”