Local talents inspire: ‘The art of filmmaking and performance’ panel held at AGBU Toronto

By Anna Maria Moubayed

On Friday, May 12, AGBU Toronto hosted a panel discussion entitled “The art of filmmaking and performance.” The two-hour, capacity-crowd event showcased the outstanding talents of Armenian creators and artists in Toronto.

Veteran filmmaker and producer Silva Basmajian led the panel, which featured filmmaker, writer, director, and producer Arshile Egoyan; visual artist, performer, filmmaker, and immersive storyteller Kamee Abrahamian; and performer, actor, director, and writer Lara Arabian.
“Arts are our bloodline; this is how we show who we are, and particularly for Armenians, it’s a way for us to let the rest of the world know about our history, who we are as human beings and as creative entities,” said Basmajian.

Each panelist shared stories about the unique paths that sparked their careers. “I was that nerdy kid who would practice acting in front of the mirror,’ explained Lara Arabian, who recently premiered her multimedia and multilingual one-woman show titled “Siranoush.” The show, which showcased her desire to dig deeper into her cultural roots, was welcomed by sold-out audiences. “I thought this is what everyone did to amuse themselves. So, from a very young age, [performing] was something I wanted to do,” she explained.
For Arshile Egoyan, his path was completely different. “I vehemently rejected [the film industry]. I was so used to people assuming that I would go into film that I decided I wouldn’t go into film at all. It wasn’t about what I wanted; it was about making sure that everyone else was wrong,” he said. “Everyone ended up being right, and I was the one that was wrong.” Egoyan, who discovered his love for film after writing his first script, is currently in pre-production on his second short film, “Before They Joined Us,” which he hopes to finish before he begins a Master of Fine Arts and Screenwriting at the American Film Institute in August.

Kamee Abrahamian has created, produced, toured, and presented a vast body of work internationally and has always found themselves immersed in different art forms. Whether it was painting, ballet, or film, taking on the role of an artist was natural for them. “I think the first moment I identified as an artist was when I, for the first time, found an Armenian woman in history who was an artist. I discovered Armen Ohanian, this very enigmatic, mysterious person. And I became very obsessed with her,” Kamee, whose work deals with issues of gender equality and justice, said.

Fascinating projects

Arshile Egoyan’s “Absence” is a short film filmed during the COVID-19 pandemic. It came about after he formed a close relationship with somebody with a disability. “When we meet people in a social environment, we find common ground. In this case, I had to find his ground,” Egoyan said.
He wanted to portray not only the life of someone with a disability that made it difficult to communicate with others but also not to present the lives of those surrounding that person in “rose-tinted glasses.”
When Egoyan was writing the film, it was necessary for him to present the characters accurately. He approached Holland Bloorview Kids Rehabilitation Hospital to better understand the challenges and experiences of patients and their families.

Lara Arabian’s “Siranoush,” on the other hand, taps into themes of ancestral knowledge, the Armenian diaspora, and female empowerment. The performance is based on an Armenian actress, born in the 19th century, named Merope Sahaki Kantarjian, otherwise known as Siranoush.
“Information about her work and her life was incredibly hard to find, and I asked around, and no one knew about her. And that became one of the driving forces for me when I created this project,” said Arabian. Siranoush was the first woman in the West to play Hamlet and played more than 300 roles in nearly 12 countries. While she started as an actress, she later worked as an opera singer for the Armenian theater companies in her hometown.

“In the piece, I perform some of the roles that Siranoush did. So, the story is about Lara trying to find Siranoush, and then Siranoush appears,” Arabian explained.

Kamee Abrahamian’s “Dear Armen” deals with themes of Armenian culture and Queer culture. The story is based on Armen Ohanian’s memoirs. Born Sophia Pirboudaghian in Shamakha in the 19th century, the Armenian performer, dancer, and actress adopted Armen as her stage name. The play presents a character named Garo, a researcher and writer interested in Ohanian’s story and wants to find out more about the mysterious artist. As they follow the story of Armen, they discover more of themselves, bringing up themes of family, drama, trauma, and history.

“She was this fascinating character who ran in these circles that I never imagined an Armenian woman existing in,” Abrahamian detailed. “She was a complex Armenian woman, which I thought was incredibly interesting.”

Words of advice

Egoyan has three completed projects as a writer, director, and producer. “Easily, my least favorite [role] is producing, and yet, where I’m at in my career, it’s completely necessary,” he explained. Egoyan said producing and the creative side of a project go hand in hand. According to him, each detail in the final product can be traced back to a decision to allocate time and resources to one element.

“Unless you have a sense of what you’re dealing with financially and practically, you have no control over what you’re able to do creatively,” Egoyan explained.

For Arabian, finding collaborators that support your ideas and projects is a fundamental aspect of the industry. “I know I would not have been able to do my shows without the people that I had on that team,” she said.

Arabian also said finding mentors, talking to people within the industry, and being part of the “ecosystem” are necessary for artists.

Abrahamian took a different approach. Staying away from exposure to the highs and lows of the industry allowed them to listen to their intuition and not be influenced by other people’s paths. “It was the naïveté that I needed to do something really insane–follow this path–because I think if I had dived into the backend of it and seen how hard and challenging it is, I would have run the other way,” they said. “But, I have come to learn that if you’re not willing to put yourself in the line of fire, then this isn’t the industry for you.”

Future endeavours

After realizing that there are no Armenian, South Asian, or Middle Eastern science fiction stories, Abrahamian decided to be the one to produce one. They created a story world set in the future, where one of her other projects, “Ensouled,” is set. Funded by the Canada Council for the Arts and the Ontario Arts Council, the story follows a character who wants to unearth stories and knowledge of their ancestors by listening to plants.

Arabian is working on a French play titled “Convictions” that will have its world premiere in France at the end of September. The play, which follows the daily life of a Lebanese-Canadian family and the evolution of their traditions, religion, challenges, memories, and commitments, will have its Canadian premier in October.

Arshile Egoyan’s “Before They Joined Us” follows the journey of two Armenian sisters and their parents as they leave behind Beirut and head to Montreal, facing struggles as they try to rebuild their life. The film is currently in its casting phase.

The audience members, ranging from art enthusiasts to aspiring filmmakers, were actively engaged in the discussions on the different aspects of art and film. Many found inspiration in the panelists’ stories and continued to converse with the panelists after the panel discussions following the Q and A. The lively exchange of ideas and the panelists’ knowledge and experience left the audience feeling enlightened and motivated to explore their own artistic endeavours. It was an event that fostered a sense of community and sparked a renewed passion for the arts and filmmaking.