“We found pictures of you on the internet,” Alen told me. “You looked so stern.” Alen Margaryan was fifteen years old, undersized, with large, expressive eyes that were lightly mocking me in that moment. “We thought you would be mean.”
It is true. I don’t like having my photograph taken. I tend to scowl as a joke and people upload them.
This was four years ago. Alen was one of a dozen Armenian teenagers in a workshop I was teaching at the TUMO Center for Creative Technologies in Yerevan. On the second day, we formed them into three groups. Together, we would film a trio of short cultural documentaries on Vayots Dzor province as part of the Smithsonian’s My Armenia Project. Before too long, one of the translators whispered that Alen was one of TUMO’s best film students and called his team of four the “superstar” group, as they were the most experienced.
Alen was one of the best English speakers in the class, but he still formed his words with great care, unwilling to mispronounce a thing. To me, he was loath to be misunderstood. “Alen Margaryan is an artist,” I thought to myself.
He would speak slowly, bobbing his head between each syllable. “Our group hopes to interview a family cook about greens.”
By “greens,” Alen meant aveluk, or mountain sorrel, for centuries a food source in traditional Persian and Armenian soups and salads. We were all happy with the group’s decision. You can write the history of a people through the food they make. My teammate, folklorist Ruzanna Tsaturyan, knew just the woman Alen’s team could center on: Greta Grigoryan of Yeghegnadzor.
The goal of TUMO’s founders, Sam and Sylva Simonian, is to give young people like Alen every advantage in the digital age, to jumpstart their creative passions through the arts and technology. The Simonians were Armenians who grew up in war-weary Beirut. Through TUMO, the dreams of students would become masterful realities for both themselves and for Armenia, a country that has mastered the art of survival.
There is an old saying: Armenians would trade 3,000 years of history for a better location. The country lies in the Caucasus region at the crossroads of Europe and Asia. Armenia is rugged, awe-inspiring in its mountainous beauty, but through millennia, Romans, Parthians, Arabs, Mongols, Turks, Persians, Georgians, and Russians have each invaded and ruled Armenia. The British poet Lord Byron wrote of the country, “though long a powerful kingdom, it was scarcely ever an independent one.”
TUMO centers are creative engines, tricked out to safeguard Armenia’s culture. In Yerevan, twelve miles from the Turkish frontier, thousands of students study at no cost. With the assistance of coaches, they learn at their own pace—subjects such as music, 3D animation, programming, web design, and, of course, filmmaking.
If you visit the main floor of TUMO Yerevan, you will find gray concrete walls that soar into the lights and on the floor above, black metal catwalks framing glass-fronted classrooms. It is the students who bring color and energy to this place. Whenever I was lost, I found a young person to help me. This is their domain, and they are as water, sure to find their own way. I have heard that this generation of the world’s young people is the best educated, the most interested. What will they achieve?
In the Field
I spent a lot of time with them on the bus ride. I asked them questions about Mt. Ararat, which always seemed in view, and the idea that Armenia was the biblical Garden of Eden. We discussed the films we would make together. As a group, we played a trivia game on Susanna Ghojabashyan’s iPad. I found out that Armenian students take summer jobs just like kids in America. Alen told me that he worked at a bookstore the summer before.
That afternoon, I stood with his team in the viridescent fields outside of Yeghegnadzor, Greta Grigoryan’s hometown in Vayots Dzor. We were two hours from Yerevan, our position ringed by bands of rugged, grassy hills. Alen and his teammate George Gevorgyan were handling the direction. A serious Robert Poghosyan operated the camera while Susanna worked audio.
The team hoped to achieve a perfect shot. They had Greta, our family cook, walk through the field toward the camera and then away again and again. The distances are great in this broad field, and it was easy to see the strain on Greta’s face. She was not a young woman anymore. I pulled Alen and George aside. “You know, it is good to make a perfect movie, but not if you kill someone while doing it.” Alen understood immediately, and the others smiled. “Okay,” Alen said, bobbing his head. “Last time.”
Later that day, Greta and her mother prepared greens in their kitchen for the team’s cameras, then they sat down near the dining table for an afternoon interview. The women discussed their resilient community, the importance of greens in their diet, and the hardships the people of Vayots Dzor have suffered through the centuries—earthquakes and invasions. In a famine during WWII, all the children in their village starved to death.
Armenia is covered with churches, many of them ancient. On our return to Yerevan, we stopped at Noravank monastery. The staircases of St. Astvatsatsin Church were so remarkably narrow, it was difficult to imagine that many venerable monks had not plunged to the ground on their way to communion. There, the students set aside their notebooks and cameras and simply enjoyed the day as if on a family vacation. Being teenagers, they ascended the steps rapidly and without problem.
Back in Yerevan
Editing began the next morning, back at TUMO. The two other teams began work on their documentary subjects. The first had filmed the process of lavash breadmaking, still accomplished best in stone ovens formed in the ground, and the other focused on winemaking. The students had visited a cave where physical evidence pointed to the world’s oldest winemaking tradition at 6,100 years.
After three days, we found it necessary to sit down with the wine and lavash groups for story sessions. Together, we went through the interviews they conducted, and I helped them outline their stories. Alen’s group assured me they were fine, something I began to doubt as they could not seem to get past their highly cinematic opening of Greta’s walk toward the camera. “You have to lay out your story,” I told them. “What do you want it to say? I have to fly back to the U.S. soon, and I want to make sure you are in good shape.”
Alen and George shook their heads. “Don’t worry. We know what we are going to do.”
On the last day, the TUMO assistants came over to me. “You have to do what you did with the other groups,” Vahe Nersisyan said. “The greens group is stuck.”
Alen and his teammates had acted very confidently. They wanted to show us what they could do without asking questions. Yes, they were artists, but they were kids, too, who wanted to make their own way. We went to the Amphitheatre room, turned on the overhead projector, and got to work.
That night, the class ended in a group hug. They had drawn a heart on the whiteboard, next to a very sweet goodbye.
I left Armenia the next day, feeling grateful for the experience, and heavily inspired not only by the TUMO organization and the trainers who work there, but also by the students who took nothing for granted about the center. They understood TUMO’s mission as well as the founders did—that TUMO and its staff exist to nurture and protect their dreams, so that one day they will make great things.
For the next several months, I worked from a distance with the teams. Alen and his group finished a wonderful short documentary called appropriately, Greens. The other two films are fabulous too.
On October 15, 2020, I received an email from my Armenian teammate Ruzanna Tsaturyan.
For a long time, I thought that I would not write, but in the end, I chose to. I am sorry. This will not be good news. I am sure you remember your storytelling workshop with the TUMO kids, and the films we made in Vayots Dzor on greens and wine. Maybe you will also remember one of the most active and joyful students, Alen Margaryan. Although four years have passed, I immediately recognized him from his photograph. On October 5, while serving his mandatory two years military service, Alen was killed by Azeri forces in an attack on Artsakh (Nagorno Kharabakh). He was 19 years old. His dream was to become a film director. I am sorry, if this email brings sorrow to your day. I hope my next message will be one of peace.
All of us at Smithsonian and My Armenia wish to express our deepest sorrow to the family and friends of Alen Margaryan. Alen—you were every bit the film director. Your work shines.
Charlie Weber is the media director at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage.