Photographer and director Sascha Klamp came to Armenia for the first time following the Artsakh 44-day war in 20202. He decided to make a film about women and children of Armenia but broadened the concept later. His first film is about Armenian Identity, Memory and Self and he filmed the human stories with border villages Khachik and Masrik. In Khachik he instituted a Community Archive of photos from the family photo-albums of these villagers. In December 2022 when Azerbaijani “eco activists” blockaded the Lachin corridor Sascha decided to return to Armenia. He decided to make a film about the children of Artsakh who could not return home after the closure of the Lachin corridor. We spoke to Sascha about his films, his current project “The Blockade” and the reasons for filming the children of Artsakh.
Sascha, tell us about you. How did you start filming?
I have been working in financial markets as an investor for over 20 years. Four years ago, I decided to spend more time with and nurture my hobby photography. I am a photographer, I think in visual language. That is why I started getting into documentaries and I decided to take a more professional approach. I did a few, small projects in the beginning.
In 2020 I came to Armenia after the war and that was my first social justice project which I think is an area which I really want to focus on. Obviously after the war my thinking was initially at least to focus on social fabric within Armenia’s society – how is everyone holding up and coming together. I mean, how the community in Armenia behind the scenes actually come together to support each other in times of this stress. That was my starting point. And with that theme I think I was very successful, I want to continue with it not just in Armenia but elsewhere. My next project is already set in Zimbabve. I am trying to continue the idea with the concept that I started, that includes the community archive, that I built in Khachik. I think that was a phenomenal success. It was so well received everywhere. I will continue doing this in other countries, other communities for other reasons of course but bringing people together, sharing history with photo albums, but also sharing images of the younger generation using their Instagram feeds. That is my kind of starting point. Working with and for communities to keep their history and identity alive.
You have filmed The Art of Seeing. The Art of Remembering in Armenian small villages Khachik and Masrik, so why have you chosen these tiny places?
When I came to Armenia after the war, I did not know a single person in the country. All I had was my flight ticket and hotel booking and an idea of making a (photo-) documentary about social justice and social fabric within Armenia’s communities. Initially I wanted to make films about women and children. I suggest that during and after the war women and children suffer the most. And the first time when I came I walked around the city, remember it was the height of Covid and the City was very empty. There was a young boy, he was 17 or 18 at the time, his name is Suren Tumanyan, and he followed me and took pictures of me all the time. At some point I stopped and asked why he was photographing me all the time. And he asked, “Are you not Leonardo DiCaprio?” I said No, I am not. We talked and with his help I met Yana, then a student at Yerevan University and worked with several NGOs who suggested that I go to Khachik if indeed I want to make a film about women and children. Her friend Anna helped the Elders of Khachik during the war. And that is how I got to the beautiful bordering village of Khachik.
Let’s talk about your current film The Blockade, how come the idea of filming these children from Artsakh? How did you find them?
I came to Armenia with the idea already formed in my mind. In fact, every day I draw ideas. And when I read about the Artsakh situation, many people in my new Armenian network, called me. And I called many people both in the UK, Armenia and in the US. I asked people what they thought about the situation in Lachin and they asked me Sascha “What are you going to do?”. I responded, “What can I do?”. I felt that I could do something to raise awareness but I did not want to do something political. I told people that I am not a political activist. I am not a propaganda channel. But I suggested that I can tell the human stories and I want to focus on that.
And there before our Christmas (the week before December 24), I sat at my desk (with another bout of COVID) and people kept asking me “When are you coming, what are you going to do?” I said, “I have no idea yet.” And then one of my colleagues, Karine Aboolian, who works at an NGO focused on children, sent me a link to Nare’s Eurovision performance (Nare represented Armenia in Junior Eurovision 2022) on YouTube.
I watched it and I thought this could be an idea on how to tell a human story. Then I read news reports which talked about these kids who were stranded in Yerevan and elsewhere in Armenia, including Goris. I thought if I can get Nare and these children together, I would have a story, coming music with a political message. That was the number one idea. My second thoughts were: Using my visual concepts, if we could get a piano on location this would make for a beautiful visual identity. The piano as a symbol for so much but also the departing of the piano as a symbol of removing barriers. I also wanted mountains and Artsakh in the background. I wanted to shoot this in the Lachin corridor and I wanted a gas pipeline leading into the distance. Another strong symbol of what the conflict is all about. That was my visual idea before I set off.
I left London on January 2nd and at first no one wanted to help me to get Nare. Everyone was scared thinking that my film is potentially too political. But I said I want to make a film about the human story behind the Lachin Corridor conflict. No one trusted me at first. It took 4-5 days to find people who could get access to Grigor (Nare’s producer). The rest is history.
Was it easy to work with the 16 children from Artsakh, as you know they were in a very bad psychological condition?
I have three (3) daughters. My oldest daughter is 14, the same age as Nare. The other two (2) daughters are 12 and 9 years old. So I used to work with kids and also I was a Governor in a school in the UK. So I am very happy to work with children.
Yes, obviously they have political views coming from the parents of these Artsakh children but many of their thoughts are still quite pure. So for me it makes it easy to work and produce an honest film. To me this film, The Blockage, is quite honest and it does not feel that there is a lot of scripting going on. The kids are just talking about their daily life and problems they are facing which I think is much better for Western audiences. The Western audience will believe this narrative more compared to political documentaries. If I made a political film, no one would necessarily believe me. It would come across as propaganda. This story, however, is believable because the kids explain their situation and Nare is very inquisitive.
What is the main idea of the film? Who is the film for?
The film is partly about educating people in the West. Some people who watched the film criticized the film by saying “It takes too long for me to understand what’s going on.” But that is probably more their fault than mine. If they want to know more about what is happening, they can of course consult traditional media and google. But if they do not know it is probably their shortcoming and necessarily mine as a producer.
Why did I make this film? Because the Western media has not spoken up enough, it wants to be balanced even though there is plenty of propaganda, especially from one side of the argument.
I made this film with children, for children. I wanted the 16 children who I worked with to share the film on their Instagram. I want Nare to use her platform and share it with her Instagram followers. I talked with Nare’s producer and asked him to share the film with all other Eurovision contestants. And then last night the winner of Eurovision, Lissandro, shared the film on his Instagram feed. So that is my idea. I want the teenagers to share this, not you and me, we are, with respect, too old. I want the kids in Europe to see it. So my kids are also sharing the film and I want the kids to talk to their parents at dinner saying, “Mommy, Daddy, I saw this video today about these kids in Artsakh, do you know about this?” I want the kids to convince their parents to listen. I want to show that these children are so thoughtful. In the film is a scene with Vladimir who calls his mother and says “Mommy, it’s 33 days since you haven’t seen your son, that’s a jubilee.” It’s an honest moment. But also a typical teenager moment.
Have you watched the video when the 19 children in 2 buses tried to pass the blockaded part of the Lachin corridor and how Azerbaijani side reacted and terrified the kids. What are you thinking about this? What was your reaction to this?
I was amazed when I got the video. I was really amazed. I decided not to share it in the film towards the end. I think it is stressful to watch. It is stressful to watch when you know what happened. I recognized some of these kids on the bus. I recognized 3-4 kids in the footage from my film in Goris and I found it stressful to watch. I felt I could translate this emotion better into a text frame at the end of the film. I think the text is more powerful than the visual in this case. I felt incredibly saddened to see this, it makes me angry, it frustrates me. But I cannot change the world, I can tell a story. And hope to highlight the situation to one person at the time.
Have you ever been in Artsakh before this blockade?
I want to go to Artsakh but I am, as a foreign journalist, not allowed to. It is basically impossible since the 2020 war for international journalists to travel into Artsakh. One day, I hope I will be able to. And maybe that could be another project – telling the stories of the kids from their homeland.