Canadian-Armenian filmmaker Hagop Goudsouzian's ongoing exploration of identity
May 21, 2020
Chances are you haven’t heard of Canadian-Armenian filmmaker Hagop Goudsouzian. Hard to imagine, when he has had such an illustrious and prolific career producing and directing television programs: well over 250 of them, in fact, mostly for public broadcasters in Canada.
Since leaving the world of television, he has produced and directed several films, including the acclaimed National Film Board of Canada-produced 2004 documentary "My Son Shall Be Armenian," the French version of which ("Mon fils sera arménien") aired on national television both in Canada and in France.
Filmmaking has been a part of Hagop Goudsouzian’s life for as long as he could remember—his father was also a filmmaker and young Hagop was only around five when he got his first break in the industry as a child actor in a Coca-Cola ad his dad was working on. “I haven't really known anything else,” he explains in a recent conversation about his career.
Years later, Hagop's passion and thirst for exploring questions of culture and identity led him to leave behind a long career in mainstream television for a new mission: creating independent films about the topics that mattered to him most.
“My interest, until today, is not specifically Armenian identity, but rather a more global question of identity and, more specifically, my identity,” says the director and producer of 10 films and three shorts, which all deal directly with Armenian culture and identity and have all aired on television, including various public broadcasters like PBS.
In this h-pem exclusive, Goudsouzian breaks down his colorful journey, full of many fasinating twists and turns, and explains how his passion for filmmaking and storytelling and his love for the craft have only grown throughout the years.
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Rupen Janbazian: Can you recall when you first knew you wanted to become a filmmaker?
Hagop Goudsouzian: I didn't. I had no choice! My father was a filmmaker and all I've ever known in my life was making films. I mean, my toys at home were strips of films my dad would bring home. I remember I would go to a friend's house and take all those strips of film put it in a shoe box and cut out a hole and with a flashlight try to create a projector. So, I haven't really known anything else.
I must have started in the business, so to speak, when I was about five, as an actor. My dad used to do commercials and in those days the commercials were shown in theaters not on television—this predates TV. As a kid, I’ve done Coca-Cola commercials, milk commercials… The milk commercial was the worst, because, growing up in Egypt, I never drank white milk—I always drank it with Milo, which is like Ovaltine. So, I had to drink white milk, look at the camera, and smile, which was just impossible to do. But I had to! My dad was the producer!
R.J.: So, you grew up in Egypt.
H.G.: Cairo, the Heliopolis district. [My father] had a studio in Cairo proper. I don’t remember much about Egypt. I remember that my dad left and came to Canada on a journey to make a film about the obelisks, so he traveled all over the world. His intention, though, was not only to make a film but to also find us a new place to live. He decided that Montreal was the place, so that's the only part that I remember as a child.
I've also written poems about this, about the ‘56 war. There were snipers right across the building on the roof and I would hide under my bed to protect myself. It was panic writing.
R.J.: So, you moved because of the war.
H.G.: Yeah, my dad left in ’58 and through great difficulty we followed him three years later in 1961.
R.J.: Why Montreal?
H.G.: Because of the multicultural, multi-language atmosphere. He felt that we can grow with the city. Before the war, he had contacts in California because he was a correspondent for many international news outlets: Hearst, Movietone, BBC. When I look through his documents, I see contracts and contacts from all over. But because of the war, all those contacts left Egypt and he sort of lost connection. At that point, we were supposed to move to California, but then decided Montreal was the right fit.
R.J.: What was it like coming to Montreal as an Armenian kid from Egypt?
H.G.: We arrived in '61. One of the early memories I have is being beaten up in the schoolyard by three kids after school. The irony was one of them was the son of Ukrainians, one was the son of a Russians, and they felt like they were more Canadian than me with my thick accent. I didn't have many experiences like that—it was an isolated experience. I very much enjoyed growing up in Montreal—to no end. I bring up that experience of being beaten up, only because of the irony of the situation: I am an immigrant being beaten up by other immigrants who think they're more Canadian than I am. They also had accents, but much milder than mine.
R.J.: And your filmmaking career started in Montreal?
H.G.: In Montreal, I met one of my dad’s best friends, who, even in my teenage days, would have me along to film weddings. I would be holding his light. He then opened a studio and I started working there. It was a sound studio that did post-production: post sync and lip-sync. So, I really got into the business as a sound recordist and then as a mixer but I wasn't really interested. The owner knew very well that I wasn’t interested in sound at all, but it was an opportunity for me. Whenever I had the chance, I would close the doors of his studio and record my poetry on tape and send it to radio stations. Some stations actually aired my poetry, which I thought was amazing. We’re talking mid-hippie era here, so the culture was very much in.
In the seventies, I started doing sound for the French department at TV Ontario—Ontario's publicly funded television. They would hire me from Montreal. Then, I think it was in ’75, a friend and I started making some shorts and I guess that's the beginning of my filmmaking career.
We did four shorts that we sold to CBC. They were all based on archival photographs—historical archival photographs—of Montreal. Then, I went to Mexico and lived there for a while, where I made two shorts: one was on painter Myra Landau. I was one of the filmmakers who invested very heavily in Super 8 film technology very early on. I had a really incredible camera, which would even allow me to sync sound with a tape recorder. It was an exciting time. The second [short film] was about a guy selling kites on a beach in Veracruz.
Following that, I ended up on a year-long road trip from Montreal to South America, which resulted in a photographic exhibition.
R.J.: A year-long road trip sounds quite the experience.
H.G.: What’s funny is that wherever we ended up, I was always looking for Armenians. When we were in El Salvador, I went to the village of Armenia. There, I interviewed a whole bunch of folks to learn why this place was called Armenia. We couldn’t figure it out. I then met an Armenian in Quito—who was, according to him, the only Armenian there. I met Armenians in Panama, where I was for several months. The violinist in the symphony orchestra in Panama City was an Armenian from Argentina. I think the British ambassador’s wife was also Armenian. We would gather… all seven of us!
In Cali, Colombia, I met an old man who must have been 80. He asked me where I was from and I figured how I’m going to explain that I am an Egyptian-born, Montreal-bred person of Armenian heritage, so I simplified and just said “Yo soy de Armenia” (“I am from Armenia”). He was thrilled because he thought I was from nearby Armenia, Colombia. “We’re neighbors!” he said.
R.J.: Did you ever get to that Armenia?
H.G.: Yes. We were researching the origins of the name and I ended up speaking to several historians, even the city’s major. They told me that the city was once a little town of nothing with one grocery store. The owner of the grocery store was an avid newspaper reader, who in the late 1890s, was reading about the massacres of the Armenians—it was no secret those days, it all over the papers. So, either she initially called her store “Armenia,” or they just went ahead and named the town after the country. [Editor's note: Read Vartan Matiossian's in-depth article about the origins of Armenia, Colombia's name. "An enduring myth: The Origins of the name 'Armenia' in Colombia," was published in the Journal of Armenian Studies, 1-2, 2010]
R.J.: Your ten documentaries all explore the different facets of Armenian identity, but it seems like your quest started much earlier—even on your journey throughout South America.
H.G.: My interest, until today, is not specifically Armenian identity, but rather a more global question of identity and, more specifically, my identity.
When I started working at Radio Quebec, an opportunity came knocking. There was a new office that was starting up next to mine, which was born out of a subsidy from the Quebec government to do a new series called “Planet.” The objective was to do 72 half hours on various ethnic communities, including the Armenians. I became the assistant [director] at that point and helped produce segments not only about the Armenians, but also the Chinese and of several other communities. While I was working at Radio Quebec, I would stay every night until midnight, one, or two o’clock in the morning, and write this one project.
After several years [at Radio Quebec] I left for Los Angeles to promote this project about a television series on the history of the Armenians. I felt that the Armenian communities were way behind in audio visual material to teach kids about our history. There I met some very famous—and wealthy—personalities at that time, but I couldn’t find the financing for such a series. One multi-millionaire bluntly told me that we didn’t need audio-visuals to tell our story. He had just sponsored an Armenian school for three-quarters of a million dollars—an astronomical amount back in those days—and the concept of enhancing the learning experience was foreign to him. “We have books,” he said. I guess I was 20 years ahead of my time, I don’t know.
I couldn’t get the series off the ground, but it led to a single episode in a 13 one-hour series on the cultural evolution of mankind. So, the question of identity has been a continuous thread in all my projects.
After producing and directing hundreds of programs for TV Ontario—many of them for kids—I had a major awakening in ʼ88.
R.J.: An Armenian awakening?
H.G.: Yes. Obviously, you know what happened that year…
R.J.: The earthquake?
H.G.: Well, before the earthquake. The Karabakh (Artsakh) movement. I would walk through the corridors of work screaming “Karabakh is Armenia!” and my colleagues all probably thought I was nuts. And then the [Spitak] earthquake happened and it was then that I decided that I wanted to do a documentary about the quest for identity: about the conflict within me—between my Canadian identity, my Egyptian identity, and my [Armenian] heritage, my cultural identity.
At that point in time, the Armenian identity and the country was associated with the Soviet Republic for so many non-Armenians, but for me, and I’m not sure if it’s because of how I’ve been brought up, but Armenia was not there, not in the Armenian plateau. Armenia, for me, was above—floating above Mount Ararat, floating in the clouds. We all lived in a myth those days of what Armenia was.
R.J.: Some still do…
H.G.: Right. So many, even today, are not going to Armenia, walking on the grounds of Armenia, but are “floating on Armenia.” I still may be floating on Armenia, but in a different way.
I got some financing for this program, but it kept getting delayed because of logistics. Remember, it’s the early 90s and they were some bad years for Armenia. Thousands of people died in the winters of those “dark and cold” years. Before venturing off, I spoke to someone here [in Toronto] about what Armenia was like, what it was like to shoot footage there. The man—I won’t give you his name—totally depressed me. He went off about how it’s terrible and that the people there are impossible to work with. Luckily, I didn’t pay much attention to what he said, because when I did end up going, Armenia was exactly the opposite of everything he described: the most beautiful people I had ever met, each person with an incredible story to tell. I ended up going three times in less than a year between ’93-‘94.
The beauty of all my trips to Armenia—from my first trip to my last—was that there was no planning necessary. I would arrive there and everything would come naturally, organically. From the musicians in my musical films to the intellectuals featured in my other films, we weren’t looking for each other; it just worked out. The synchronicity of life is just so obvious there: we were all in sync.
The trilogy of films is a result of countless interviews and an ongoing quest for identity: “Armenian Exile,” “My Son Shall Be Armenian,” and my latest film “Uprooted.” Although “My Son Shall Be Armenian” was the first of the three to be released, “Armenian Exile” was actually filmed before. “My Son Shall Be Armenian” was actually produced by the National Film Board of Canada and it remains the only Armenian content film in their entire catalogue.
R.J.: The title of the first release of the trilogy is “My Son Shall Be Armenian.” Was it equally important that your son shall also be a filmmaker? How important is it for you that your son has inherited your craft?
H.G.: I think that there's beauty and continuity. When we talk about immortality: That is immortality. Each generation becomes immortal through their descendants. I've rendered my father immortal by being who I am and in addition, I am who I am: I have my father and me and I have given them both to my son. And he interprets it in his own way and that’s OK.
Check out Goudsouzian's films on his official website hagopgoudsouzian.com!
(Video: Goudsou Productions)
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