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‘What Will Become of Us’: Doc about Armenian-Americans asks candid questions and tells remarkable stories

June 24, 2020

Interview

By Rupen Janbazian

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New ‘What Will Become of Us’: Doc about Armenian-Americans asks candid questions and tells remarkable stories

“What Will Become of Us” is a deeply personal film, which follows the lives of 10 Armenian-Americans, all of whom have been impacted by the Armenian Genocide. We recently discussed the film with director Stephanie Ayanian (co-directed with Joe Myers) in this h-pem exclusive.

Stephanie Ayanian grew up surrounded by art. 

“My father was an art educator and my mother was an opera singer,” she explains during our telephone conversation. “But I never thought I wanted to go into the arts myself.”

While pursuing her undergraduate degree at Penn State, Ayanian (née Garoian) was unsure what she wanted to major in. “I took courses in everything from Psychology to Physics, and I just couldn’t figure out what I wanted my focus to be.”

All that changed during a conversation in her dorm room one day. “My roommate said: ‘You’re always complaining about what’s on television and about the movies that you watch. Why don’t you get into Film?’ I didn’t even know Film was offered at our school,” Stephanie explains.  

Ayanian enrolled in a film course and was instantly hooked: “I was in love,” she recalls.  

While many filmmakers grow up making home movies and experimenting with cameras, that was not the case for Stephanie, who only discovered film in college. “I haven’t turned back since,” she says.

Stephanie credits her parents with giving her the liberty to choose her own path; she knew that no matter what she chose to do in life, she was going to be supported. “Many Armenian-Americans of my generation were kind of told what they had to become: a doctor, a lawyer, and so forth. I knew, early on, that I had the choice of what I wanted to become. That was pretty amazing,” she explained.

Stephanie grew up in an artistic environment, so that meant visiting museums and shows at a very early age. And though, as a child, she felt like she was getting dragged along, today, Stephanie appreciates the fact that her parents taught her to enjoy and appreciate art, music, and culture in different ways. “Going to all the museums isn’t necessarily what a nine-year-old wants to do when visiting a new city. But I get it now.”


And surrounded by (Armenian) culture

Though Armenian culture was central in the Garoian household, she admits that it was not at her personal forefront. “For the first 10 years of my life, I was raised in Northern California, and though I identified as an Armenian, I didn’t have any Armenian friends in elementary school, I wasn’t all that involved in the community—in many ways, I had a typical American upbringing: Girl Scouts and sports and stuff like that,” she explains.

 Stephanie speaking to university students at the Feb. 2020 ARS Norian Youth Connect program at Columbia University (Photo: Knar Bedian; The Armenian Weekly) Stephanie speaking to university students at the Feb. 2020 ARS Norian Youth Connect program at Columbia University (Photo: Knar Bedian; The Armenian Weekly)
 
It was especially important for her parents and grandparents, though, for her and her brother to know where they were from. “We listened to the music, ate the food, and would visit my grandparents in Fresno frequently, but I didn’t grow up speaking the language. My parents put me in Saturday school, and I remember feeling like I didn’t fit in. I didn’t want to go and eventually, I stopped going. And my grandmother used to tell my father that they should have taught me Armenian,” she goes on.
 
Though Stephanie says that she didn’t feel like she missed out by not learning the language in her youth, she has decided to learn the language as an adult and has taken multiple courses. Stephanie also feels it's important for her own children to learn Armenian. “Some of it [the lessons] stick with me and some of it doesn’t, but I am making sure that my kids know the language and that they do go to an Armenian day school five days a week. Though I don’t feel empty without the language skills, I do realize that it is an important aspect of our culture. Exposing my children to the language is a beautiful thing, especially in a society that values bilingualism.”



Honoring the past, documenting the present

The idea of making “What Will Become of Us” came to Stephanie back in 2014, on the 99th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide. “I wondered if anyone was making a film to commemorate the centennial anniversary [of the Armenian Genocide],” she explains. Stephanie then decided to do some research: she spoke to several organizations, scholars, and industry experts to learn more about what had been done and what was being planned in terms of films. She quickly realized that so many of the films that have been made in the past are about the history of the genocide. “I wasn’t interested in retelling the history. I felt as though the films that have been made were all so well done—they all stood as historic evidence of the genocide,” she explains.

 Karine Shamlian sits with her grandmother, Armenian Genocide survivor Asdghig Tetezian Alemian (Photo courtesy of Stephanie Ayanian) Karine Shamlian sits with her grandmother, Armenian Genocide survivor Asdghig Tetezian Alemian (Photo courtesy of Stephanie Ayanian)


She and her colleagues decided that something different had to be done—that a different kind of story had to be told. They concluded that the story needed to be about who Armenians are today, a century after the genocide.

Stephanie and her co-director, Joseph Myers, went forward with the idea with the rest of their team. Their intention was to create something that was not only fresh, but also inspiring. “Through this project, we also wanted to empower a new generation of Armenians who care about their culture, but do it in a way where they have the freedom to choose what that means to them.” The film would also pose a question that has loomed over generations of Armenians left largely unanswered: How can the descendants of the Armenian Genocide honor their people’s past, while liberating themselves from the trauma of the horrific crime?

Stephanie and her team launched a Kickstarter fundraising campaign for the documentary project and raised enough seed money to begin the project. The working title of the film was “A New Armenia.”


From ‘A New Armenia’ to ‘What Will Become of Us’

The film’s name eventually evolved from “A New Armenia” to “What Will Become of Us.” “Not only does [the new title] have a broader appeal, but that is really the question that is on all of our minds. What do the next 100 years hold for Armenians in the United States? Will we assimilate or stand out? Can we do both?” she asks.

“What Will Become of Us” is a deeply personal film, which follows the lives of 10 Armenian-Americans, all of whom have been impacted by the Armenian Genocide. While the story focuses on Armenians in the U.S., it also tells a more global story that is relatable to all immigrant communities who have faced trauma. (Check out the film's trailer in our video section below!)

Stephanie admits that it was difficult to zero in on the 10 individuals featured in the film. As the sole Armenian in the group of filmmakers, she was tasked with doing the research: contacting organizations, churches, and individuals to find folks they could feature. “My filmmaking partners are awesome, and they’re the ones who really got me into storytelling. They said: ‘Let’s make sure we pick people who have a story to tell and are currently doing something we can document.’ So, I looked for active stories—not things that happened in the past,” Stephanie explains.

It was only after speaking to hundreds of people that Stephanie and her collaborators were able to narrow it down. The result is something special: A film, which follows 10 Armenian-Americans (seven stories)—both famous and not so well-known—as they traverse the centennial of the Armenian Genocide. Part of the beauty of the final product is how uniquely different each story is, but also how the narratives develop and complete each other to make one cohesive story of survival, perseverance, and thriving.

Famous oud player Richard Hagopian teaches his grandson, Andrew how to play an Armenian folk song (Photo courtesy of Stephanie Ayanian)Famous oud player Richard Hagopian teaches his grandson, Andrew how to play an Armenian folk song (Photo courtesy of Stephanie Ayanian)
 
“It was important that the stories also resonated with non-Armenians,” explains Stephanie, who intended to feature various elements of the Armenian culture through her subjects. That is perhaps why such a broad range of Armenian-Americans are featured—from a former investment banker (Jon Simonian) to a pop sensation (Sebu Simonian of Capital Cities; unrelated to Jon) to a comedian and satirist (Lory Tatoulian) to a full-time activist (Aram Hamparian of the ANCA); Stephanie made sure to cover as many bases as she could for an hour-long film.
 
“When we set out on this project, we wanted people to learn who Armenians are, where we are from, and more about us, sure. But, perhaps more importantly, we wanted for audiences to understand that we are a people present today with real stories and that our stories as Armenians may not be all that different from other cultures. I wanted this film to be a window, through which others can see their own stories through the Armenian story,” she explained.



Reaching the public

Stephanie knew from the get-go that the film would be perfect for public broadcasters—specifically for PBS (Public Broadcasting Service), the most prominent provider of educational television programming to public television stations in the U.S. 

Since its first public broadcast screening in Detroit back in March, the response to “What Will Become of Us” has been overwhelmingly positive. “I’ve only really heard positive things, which is lovely,” Stephanie says about the film, which has screened on public broadcasting services in several major cities, including Fresno, Philadelphia, Boston, and Denver, as well as cities across Rhode Island and Southern California. (For a full list of past and future broadcast dates/regions, check out the film's official website).  “[Film] is an art form, at the end of the day, and people are going to have different reactions. Some may connect to one story and one character, but not the others, and that’s fine,” she says. “I love hearing how the film is resonating with people in so many different ways.”

Crew Members Joseph Myers and Stephanie Ayanian film in Armenia with John Sweers. (Photo courtesy of Stephanie Ayanian)Crew Members Joseph Myers and Stephanie Ayanian film in Armenia with John Sweers. (Photo courtesy of Stephanie Ayanian)
 
The film, which will eventually be broadcast in several more cities in the coming weeks and months (many stations are planning Fall 2020 broadcasts), also tells the stories—even if inadvertently—of the types of Armenian-American families, which are often ignored. One of the stories features a “quarter-Armenian” who travels to Armenia with his non-Armenian wife, on a volunteering mission; the other features a same-sex couple raising an Armenian family in New York.

Stephanie says that she and her team did not intentionally feature anyone because of their family background or orientation, but is glad that their stories were highlighted. “We included those stories, not because the individuals were part-Armenian, non-Armenian, or gay—we chose them because we felt they were remarkable people, working on some very interesting things,” she explains. “When we present the stories of people, their families are oftentimes included. It is a wonderful way to show the diversity in Armenian families in America."
 
For Stephanie, it was crucial to include diversity within the Armenian community today, some of whom have been marginalized. By doing so, “What Will Become of Us” pushes certain conservative boundaries and breaks longstanding barriers, which have existed in the Armenian reality for decades. “There are multiracial Armenians, there are LGBTQ+ Armenians, there are people who speak the language and people who don’t, people who have grown up immersed in an Armenian identity and those who are just learning. They may have been judged about their identities, but I think it’s important to look at who we are as Armenians today and what we all bring to our culture because of our wonderful, different backgrounds,” she says.



What will become of ‘What Will Become of Us’

The film's theatrical poster (Poster courtesy of Stephanie Ayanian)The film's theatrical poster (Poster courtesy of Stephanie Ayanian)

Stephanie foresees the broadcast release to go strong for another year. “The wonderful thing about the way we are releasing the film is that each station is able to broadcast the film as many times as they want over three years,” she explains. This means that the documentary will have quite a long life in the PBS broadcast world.

Stephanie and her colleagues will not limit the film to just public broadcasters, though, and will also be submitting to a number of

film festivals. She even had a number of screenings and speaking engagements lined up across the country, which, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, have been put on hold for the time being.  

Fortunately, Armenian-American organizations like the Armenian General Benevolent Union (AGBU) and the Armenian National Committee of America (ANCA) have been actively promoting Ayanian’s film since its release. AGBU’s Performing Arts Department organized a virtual screening/Q&A, while the ANCA has launched an online campaign to help encourage PBS stations across the U.S. to broadcast “What Will Become of Us.” The ANCA’s campaign targets 50 media markets across the U.S. that have not yet shown the film.

Not all of the stories Stephanie and her team filmed and developed made it into the final cut, however, she does want them to see the light of day. “We actually have a few films that we are really interested in completing. Some of those stories are further along in editing than others,” she explains. Completion funds are necessary so that the stories can be properly produced. “That is why I am currently in the process of looking for funding,” she explains.

While “What Will Become of Us” is beautifully produced and does a remarkable job of connecting with each character, all in under an hour, the film also leaves us wanting more. “There are so many stories, which we couldn’t include,” Stephanie said. “I am certain that we will find a way of shedding light on them, too, and presenting them to the world.”

We, at h-pem, look forward to it...


Live in the U.S. or Canada? “What Will Become of Us” could be coming to your local public broadcaster. Check out the film’s website for a full list of broadcast dates!
 



 

 

Video

  • 'What Will Become of Us' (Television Promo)

    (Video: storyshop Vimeo page)

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