‘The Black Garden’ Review: A Sensitive Doc Evokes History by Telling a Contemporary Story

In “The Black Garden,” Armenian French first time filmmaker Alexis Pazoumian manages to portray his ancestral homeland with such sensitivity you’d think incorrectly that he lived there most of his life. Using the framework of three years in the life of three generations of Armenian men, Pazoumian sensitively captures the political conflicts, the social milieu and the geographical terrain of a small village on the border of Armenia and Azerbaijan.

The village is Talish, located in the Armenian region of Nagorno-Karabakh and over the years its inhabitants have seen a lot of strife. Being on the border makes the village a target whenever  Azerbaijan attacks Armenia, a conflict that has been going on since the early 1990s when the Soviet Union was dismantled. The people of Talish, young and old, have limited choices for survival. Either stay and live under occupation and face death, or leave and become displaced away from their homes. The men that “The Black Garden” focuses on all choose to fight in different ways.

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Samvel and Avo are preteens, yet they role play as soldiers amidst the ruins of their village. Erik, a young man in his mid-20s, enlists in the war to defend Talish and consequently loses one of his legs. Karen, a middle-aged man with a face deeply lined with resilience and pain, recalls a combative past and bemoans a chaotic present. As these four men’s stories diverge and they separate from each other and away from Talish, what remains clear is how belonging to that small community means the most to them. The village becomes a symbol for what they love about themselves and what they hold closest to their hearts. What may be construed as nationalist fervor is actually a need to survive and carry on their ancestral legacy. Everything they do — from choosing combat uniforms at a city store to marching in the streets to mark historical events to learning defense maneuvers in a classroom — becomes a ritual that reminds them of the need to continue fighting.

With a background as a photographer, it’s no surprise that Pazoumian creates gorgeous images as a filmmaker. However his camera conveys more than just the results of war. The audience sees buildings ruined and abandoned, but what’s conjured is also the past when they stood tall and were homes full of life and laughter. The vistas of the terrain coupled with the testimonials of the film’s subjects show why they continue to fight. Pazoumian also knows how to use images and sounds of news coming from TVs and phones to reflect the state of mind of his subjects. On the flip side of that, the narrative is continuously interrupted by tiles on the screen that give context to the action. What’s meant to explain recent Armenian history actually takes the audience out of what should be an immersive experience. The details do not matter since the storytelling is clear and the images are evocative.

“The Black Garden” gets added resonance from current events. What the protagonists go through — bombardment, food shortages, displacement — is eerily reminiscent of what most of the world sees daily on the nightly news. Yet this is a decades-long conflict that few know about, and so the film forces the audience to reckon with its own ignorance.

“The Black Garden” is more than just a chronicle of a conflict. With a probing camera conveying images both beautiful and intimate and observational filmmaking that coaxes real emotions, it manages to tell a story of four men who represent their village and people. In telling their specific stories, Pazoumian and his collaborators show the history of Talish. Many people might not have heard of this small village or the larger region of Nagorno-Karabakh, but anyone who watches this film will get a real sense of those places.

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