Film producer Sona Tatoyan speaks to healing the Armenian Genocide

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Sona Tatoyan with Lys Anzia – WNN Interviews

Aremenian woman rocking baby in cradle

This image of an Armenian woman rocking her baby in a wooden cradle was taken in an unknown location inside the Ottoman empire in 1908. Taken before the official outbreak of the Armenian Genocide as great suffering and death followed Armenian families as they were forced to be part of the ‘Long Walk’, this photo shows the ‘too often’ challenges of life for many Armenians and the hardships in the years leading up to April 24, 1915. image: Gallica-BNF-FR/Bibliotheque National de France

(WNN) Istanbul, TURKEY, WESTERN ASIA: She believes in a new future for all Armenians. That’s what Syrian/Armenian/American actor and film producer Sona Tatoyan shared in a recent one-on-one interview with WNN – Women News Network.

Tatoyan, as producer of an inspired upcoming film based on the book “Three Apples Fell from Heaven,” is working to capture a vision that brings the words of author Micheline Aharonian Marcom alive. “Three Apples Fell from Heaven” exists to help heal the collective heart of all us who have been in pain, shares Tatoyan in her recent interview.

It’s hard to believe that one hundred years has passed since the wheel of mass atrocity began in earnest on April 24, 1915. Taking an exact count on the death and suffering is impossible but global experts indicate numbers up to 1.5 million murdered Armenians lost their lives under Ottoman rule.

Today this act has not gone unrecognized. Twenty-one countries have formally recognized the reality of the Armenian Genocide. This does not include Germany who has plans to jump in as a new nation recognizing the genocide officially on Friday April 24. Each nation must recognize the genocide through government resolutions, laws and declarations.

These days it may not be easy to speak the truth inside Turkey where the history and acts of the Ottoman leadership, at the turn of the 20th century, became part of a widespread plan to push out and eliminate all ethnic and religious minorities in the region. Turkey today continues to ban any act that points to the Armenian Genocide as fact.

“Officially, discussion of the Armenian genocide is taboo in Turkey, even 100 years after the crimes. But the issue is becoming harder for the country to suppress and many Turks are rediscovering their long-lost Armenian identities,” said Der Spiegel International in a recent April 21, 2015 article by journalist Ralf Hoppe.

Over ten decades Armenian women have been the ‘memory keepers’ as history continues to bare down. But it is also many of these same women who have held an ongoing wish for a new world for all Armenians, inside and outside the diaspora.

“It is possible,” say today’s younger generation of Armenian women and girls who believe that peace has a name and its name is “Change.”

“Change in the ways minds think and the methods we wield is a necessary action which must be executed,” says the Armenian United Nations Association Youth Division (AUNA).

“We acknowledge that the youth segment of society is the only force which is capable of leading this change in consciousness in their communities and in our nation as a whole,” adds AUNA.

As wishes for the return of long lost cousins, grandparents, great grandparents, great aunts and uncles and other family members continue, young Armenians everywhere are now looking toward a new future. They’re also looking for acceptance, inclusion, freedom, recognition, respect, community and human rights.

“I’m really starting to grasp that there are only two forces in this world: love and fear,” outlined filmmaker Sona Tatoyan in her recent interview. “If you ain’t feeling love, you are feeling fear!” she continued.

“But we are all made of the same stuff. We are all human. We just need to be able to open our hearts to each other and therefore ourselves to grasp this,” Sona added.

This fascinating one-on-one conversation with filmmaker Sona Tatoyan will open us up to the strength and weakness of our global humanity itself:

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Lys Anzia with WNN – Women News Network: Let’s begin by talking about ghosts and the millions of ghosts of those who have lost their lives within the specter of the Armenian genocide. Most often it is the voice of women who are the ‘memory keepers’ of atrocity. There’s no doubt as we reach the 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide, the story of “Three Apples Fell From Heaven” shares with us the beauty and agony of suffering itself. Can you talk about this with us? Why do you think it’s so often the women in the family who have been the ones holding the memories of genocide?

Sona Tatoyan:

The beauty and agony of suffering. Yes. Well, from my own life experiences I have seen how pain is a catalyst for going deep into uncovering parts of myself. Pain makes us stop. Makes us look. Makes us have to face the thing that ails us.

This is the process of growth and evolution, if we allow it to be. In our myths, from the goddess Innana to Persephone and on and on, we tell of the need to go into the underworld and lose what we have in order to rebuild it in truth and strength. It is the process of the human journey, from darkness to light.

When we crack open, we have the opportunity to see experience our vulnerability, which is our humanity. The understanding [is] that all is one, underneath the play/story or ‘maya’ of daily life.

I cannot speak for all womankind, but I will say that for me storytelling is what connects me to myself and to the rest of us having this very human experience.

Perhaps women have also been allowed to express their emotions, traditionally. Society puts a pressure on men to be stoic, strong and move forward.

The irony is, if we don’t go into the pain, we cannot get out of it and move forward. What you resist, persists I’ve heard it said. But we have to understand that it is a movement– not a resting place, pain! Storytelling, the passing on of memory, is a medium for that movement

Sona Tatoyan

Actor and film producer Sona Tatoyan. Image: S. Tatoyan

WNN: Can you share that first moment you became inspired to make a film out of author Micheline Aharonian Marcom’s incredible book? What was your vision for your film at the beginning? Has that vision stayed with you as the production now progresses? Or has it changed?

Sona Tatoyan:

I will never forget the moment Micheline’s gorgeous novel crystallized [in my mind] as cinema. It was while reading a passage in which one of the protagonists, Lucine, walks through a devastated Kharpert with her new born child in her arms after her own husband has been beheaded. She sees the heads of men she used to know displayed on pikes. She imagines them talking to her. She repeats their names breathlessly to her child–like a mantra–to remember, to pass on to her progeny.

The passage is so vivid, gorgeous, arresting in its description the poetry of it captured me. And yet, there was the moment when I realized the horror of its content which is so repellent. It was this wild juxtaposition of beauty and horror which was so destabilizing.

And I saw it in my head–immediately a visual translation occurred–like a Carravaggio painting stunningly framed, lit and saturated; a thing of beauty to behold, mesmerizing and yet its content so incredibly disturbing. I saw it complete in my head. Literally a vision.

Remarkably, that vision has stayed with me.

This project has had an energy around it, the ghosts!; a magnetism that has brought to it the necessary artists that have fallen in line with that vision.

This novel is not an obvious one for translation to cinema. It is a mosaic, it is written in poetic prose. It is completely non-linear with a pastiche of interwoven stories. It is a gorgeous piece of writing, but it is a novel. It is a testament to José Rivera’s genius as a screenwriter that he created an architecture for cinema that still holds Micheline’s breathtaking poetry.

And then there’s [film director] Shekhar Kapur: a cinematic poet, a mischievous rebel, a man who traffics in chaos; the food source of creativity. When he came on board it was like the cosmos really upped the game!

He entered the project with the same vision I had. And it’s been a partnership of such intense artistic passion. He himself survived the partition of India when he was one and a half years old in his mother’s arms escaping on a train from Lahore to Delhi. The train before them and the train after them arrived to Delhi full of corpses. Everyone had been slaughtered.

It is a miracle they made it out.

There is no one else that could make this poem for the screen, because for him it is deeply personal as well.

WNN: We all know that genocide always includes atrocity. But when it happens it’s never just atrocity against the individual, but against an entire civilization. This is certainly the case for Christian Armenians in 1914. How do you see Armenians working today to heal the generational wounds that continue to exist with families who have worked so hard to ‘move on’?

Sona Tatoyan:

I see Armenians today thriving all over the world and I see such an incredible, inspiring group of Armenians in present day Armenia working to make that nation strong. I admire what they are doing tremendously–many are dear friends–who have left comfortable first world lives to go to a motherland and nation build.

This is not easy. It is not quick. It takes guts and passion and determination, and at our best, we have that in the Armenian DNA.

This is all part of saying, “we are here.” And not only here, we are strong and powerful and have an epic thirst for life and growth.

The challenge for us is how do we remember and honor our past but not drown in it? How do we use it as a catalyst for moving forward even stronger and more determined? How do we mine the darkness to find a deeper appreciation of light … of life?

WNN: So many great and important questions have come up through you during the film production for “Three Apples Fell From Heaven” like: “How do we sublimate trauma and turn poison into medicine? How do we let darkness give birth to a new dawn?” This is talking about healing here; about moving through to a new doorway in order to reach a new life. And with this these remain some of the most important questions of our century. Can you share with us your vision for a new world for all Armenians living now in the diaspora?

Sona Tatoyan:

Ah, wow. A very large question! But I will start and speak for myself.

My journey with this film is what has been cathartic for me. It is now 10 years since I first came to Turkey. To the ground zero of our trauma. And when I first came, I was an enraged and righteous girl. The Turk was evil. Pure evil. And it was “The Turk.” Very clearly, black and white.

When I came here and began to have interactions with people–all throughout Anatolia–and to hear the stories on the ground and see that there are large swaths of the population who absolutely know what happened. There is a distinction between a people and a government.

We must always remember this.

Vintage Armenian religious materials

Vintage Armenian religious books and materials show a rich history during the days of the Ottoman Empire. Image: Orlando Carlo Calumeno Collection

Of course there are people who believe and follow the ideologies of their governments. After all, there were George Bush supporters in the States, many! But we can not color an entire people by the choices their governments have made and continue to make.

Each time I meet a person of Turkish descent it is a whole new conversation. There is the moment: where do they stand in regards to the truth? What do they know or not know? How do we navigate this? Each time it is another opportunity to have a dialogue. It is endless, this. It will happen for my entire life. It is a part of my work as a human being to continually face this exchange; to keep processing it and being a light bearer; to keep going into the underworld, so to speak, and hopefully come out with a bit more light and do my best to share it.

Trauma breaks us. Fragments us. Disconnects us from ourselves and each other.

I know this personally, and I feel it culturally as A Syrian-Armenian-American. But if we are able to see it as an opportunity then we are getting somewhere. We are mining the dark matter; we are in the process of alchemizing gold.

This film has been making me more than I am making it.

It has directed the course of my life for 13 years now–like a possession–a need to understand and heal. I think a very important shift happened for me once I stopped feeling like a victim. Once I realized that the past is the past and can’t be undone no matter how much sadness and rage I feel, but how the future unfolds and the journey of my own healing is in my hands.

Victimhood is a very disempowering thing. I have experienced very deep personal trauma at a young age, so I know it on a personal level as well.

Over this past year I spent 6 months in India in a sort of come to God moment in my life. And I’m really starting to grasp that there are only two forces in this world: love and fear. If you ain’t feeling love, you are feeling fear! But we are all made of the same stuff. We are all human. We just need to be able to open our hearts to each other and therefore ourselves to grasp this.

For me art has the capacity to do this. Storytelling has the ability to connect us emotionally, beyond the “I am an Armenian. I am a Turk” etcetera. We must be the custodians of our own path to healing. And I think that comes from compassion; from remembering; from always working for the truth, which is large. But that truth is love.

From understanding that the truth is the most powerful and potent thing; to educate the misinformed and miseducated; to do it from a place of love, not blame/fear; to say “this is our collective story. This comes from knowing that our presence on those lands–along with the others who were also exterminated, the Assyrians, Greeks, Jews–was what made the place beautiful. The cleansing of these ethnicities has left these lands bereft.

The tragedy is not just ours. It belongs to every fiber of Anatolia.

WNN: Marcon’s book and your focus with your film speak so powerfully from the heart and wisdom of the feminine. During the late 19th and early 20th century a great renaissance in writing, culture, thought and mysticism came to many Algerian women. Do you feel this was tied closely to the use of poetry back then. And the use of poetry today in order to ‘tell the story’?

Sona Tatoyan:

Poetry helps us go immediately to the source. To the well of our common humanity. To the place we feel, without even knowing. Poetry ignites intuition.

This world is inherently poetic. Somehow we have lost touch with that in our daily 21st century lives. But there are so many things that poetry can allow us to know that intellect/reason and linearity can never articulate. Poetry taps into the mystery, the cosmic.

Poetry is in exchange with our highest selves.

WNN: Unbelievably there continues today to be deniers out there who have refused to believe that crimes against humanity did occur against Armenians in what is now publicly known and called “The Genocide”. Why do you think this denial continues? Can you help us understand?

Sona Tatoyan:

Oh, man. Yeah, it’s hard. Imagine if one day you were told that your grandparents were mass murderers? That the entire history you knew as yours was founded on so much systematic violence and then a century of mass efforts [passed] at fabricating its denial. That could be one very tough pill to swallow!

I believe any event that happens, happens in a dynamic. The Genocide didn’t just happen to the Armenians. It happened to the Turks in so far as they hold this legacy of perpetration.

Bearing the pain of victimization is deeply fragmenting and traumatic, but I can’t imagine what the legacy of perpetrating Genocide feels like.

Having to face it after so long also; like a lie you can’t stop from telling; and then that moment you have to come clean. The trauma of that, the inability to understand why your ancestors would do such a thing?

Why would they cover it up afterwards? Why would they teach you lies and alter the story?

And yet, that is also human. Which means that this too exists in all of us potentially. I think the challenge is understanding that the shadow in the human organism that is driven by fear–and goes towards it–just goes into it so you can find that light!

The late Turkish-Armenian activist/journalist/columnist Hrant Dink who was assassinated in Istanbul in 2007 said this:

Who will diagnose our condition?
My answer is this: Armenians must help cure
Turks and Turks must help cure Armenians. There is
no other prescription, no other doctor, no other effective treatment.”

We must engage in dialogue – through our hearts.

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For more information on film producer Sona Tatoyan and her upcoming film “Three Apples Fell from Heaven” LINK HERE

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Sona Tatoyan is a first generation Syrian-Armenian-American stage and film actor, writer, producer, and director with bases in New York, Los Angeles, and Armenia. Ms. Tatoyan is a graduate of the William Esper Studio where she studied with the legendary Bill Esper. Speaking English, French, Armenian, and some Spanish and Arabic Tatoyan is in pre-production with the feature film “Three Apples Fell From Heaven,” a historical epic on the still denied Armenian Genocide, to be directed by internationally acclaimed filmmaker Shekhar Kapur (Elizabeth, The Bandit Queen) with a screenplay by Academy Award nominated screenwriter José Rivera and co-produced by Leonardo DiCaprio’s production company Appian Way. She is currently penning her second feature script The Summit and the Well, an exploration of the fractured nature of modern Armenian identity as seen through the personal journey of a female protagonist’s healing of sexual trauma. As a storyteller, Ms. Tatoyan is inspired by the universal issues of home, identity, love, family, connection, healing through facing truth, and the confronting of pain/trauma as a means to emancipation/illumination. She believes exploring the untold stories of her scattered people is an opportunity to share her rich, ancient, multi-faceted culture with the wider world.

Human rights and social justice journalist Lys Anzia is the founder and executive editor of international award-winning WNN – Women News Network. In addition to WNN her written and copyediting work can be seen in The Guardian Development Network, Thomson Reuters Trustlaw, AlertNet, Vital Voices, The Nobel Women’s Initiative, and many other publications. As an ongoing advocate for global women, Anzia has also spoken on the topic of human rights activism and media, as well as organizing other UN panel events through the United Nations NGO Committee for the Commission on the Status of Women in New York City.

Recognized by UNESCO for ‘Professional Journalistic Standards and Code of Ethics” WNN began as a solo project. Today it brings news stories on women from 5+ global regions to the attention of international ‘change-makers’ including the United Nations and over 600 NGO affiliates and United Nations agencies.

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©2015 WNN – Women News Network
No part of the text in this article release may be used or reproduced in any form without prior permissions from WNN. All other media is copyright of the owner(s) and may not be used or reproduced without their permissions.

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