By Sheri Linden
Garin Hovannisian's first feature-length documentary, which premiered in Toronto, follows an Armenian opposition leader as he galvanizes his put-upon fellow citizens.
Had they unfolded in a work of fiction, the events of I Am Not Alone might be hard to buy. Over a mere 40 days, one man's cross-country walk to protest political corruption draws a small following that blossoms into huge gatherings and acts of civil disobedience, ultimately taking down Armenia's authoritarian regime. Not only that, but in what might otherwise be considered a heavy touch of Hollywood corn, this people's power movement gains an adorable, loyal mascot in the form of a stray dog who joins the march on day one.
These recent events, not widely reported in the United States, are captured from the impassioned front lines as well as the more calmly considered aftereffects in Garin Hovannisian's eye-opening documentary. Filming alongside the movement's leader from the first days of the 2018 rebellion, and incorporating footage recorded by citizen journalists and phone-wielding protesters, the director manages to convey personal and national histories in succinct fashion. He's less interested in political specifics, which aren't always clear, than in a communal sense of awakening. In this heightened political moment, the film (whose executive producers include Joe Berlinger and System of a Down's Serj Tankian) will likely find eager audiences on the fest circuit and beyond for its compelling vision of contemporary nonviolent revolution.
At the center of the uprising is Nikol Pashinyan, a well-known journalist, activist and politician in his early 40s, who on March 31, 2018,embarked on a 14-day walk to the capital, Yerevan. His goal was to rally his fellow Armenians and prevent Parliament from electing the country's two-term president, Serzh Sargsyan, as prime minister — a move that would essentially make him leader for life.
Ignored by the state press, Pashinyan's protest gathered steam on social media, and it didn't hurt that a streaming-friendly pooch named Chalo joined the band of walkers and proved as indefatigable as they were. Pashinyan was disappointed to find only a couple of hundred supporters in the capital when he arrived. But, as the film vividly illustrates, the crowds would grow dramatically. Hovannisian are DP Vahe Terteryan are right in the midst of things as the insurgent refuses to give up and brainstorms his next steps — "Take a step" being the movement's motto. The cameras are at the center of a swirl of action, fatigue and tension over the threat of physical violence, the state military poised to stop the protesters' progress.
What the film captures above all is the contagion of resistance for a populace that had long felt beaten down by ingrained corruption — a fact of life that Pashinyan stood up against even as a schoolkid, as he recalls in one of several interviews interwoven through the protest footage. In the spring of 2018, in Yerevan and beyond, citizens mobilized through an impromptu social media network in creative acts of civil disobedience — some of which, in defiance of longstanding noise curfews, involved nothing more than pots and pans.
There are glimpses too of an eternal quandary surrounding antiauthoritarian dissent, the matter of short-term vs. long-term considerations. An admiring but schedule-focused bus driver pleads with Pashinyan to stop blocking his vehicle. Frustrated by human roadblocks, a commuter, shouts, "Let me go, I'm late for work" — to which a marcher responds, "This is for your children's future."
Hovannisian's interview subjects, including Pashinyan's wife, journalist Anna Hakobyan, and other activists, provide insightful commentary. But most extraordinary and unexpected are the sit-downs he includes with Armenian establishment leaders, among them Yerevan's exceptionally thoughtful police chief, Valeriy Osipyan; Armen Sarkissian, the president who succeeded Sargsyan and made astute use of his largely symbolic powers; and, Sargsyan himself, a chess aficionado and man of carefully chosen words.
It's debatable whether the peaceful transfer of power in a tiny European nation offers lessons to a sprawling, divided superpower like the U.S., but with matters of oligarchy and authoritarian leadership front and center these days, I Am Not Alone is an inspiring portrait of democratic self-determination. Through its lens we witness the awakening of the "sleeping volcano" that Sargsyan warns Parliament about, just days before his government will be dismantled. But it's not so much an explosion as the lifting of a national depression, a shaking off of doubt and despair. As one activist puts it, the people had "forgotten how to dream."
Venue: Toronto Film Festival (TIFF Docs)
Production companies: Avalanche Entertainment, Serjical Strike Entertainment
Director: Garin Hovannisian
Screenwriter: Garin Hovannisian
Producers: Garin Hovannisian, Alec Mouhibian, Tatevik Manoukyan, Eric Esrailian
Executive producers: Serj Tankian, Joe Berlinger, Dan Braun, Raffi K. Hovannisian, Suren Ambarchyan, Alen Petrosyan
Director of photography: Vahe Terteryan
Editor: Barry Poltermann
Composer: Serj Tankian