Serj Tankian on Making Music for a Revolution


From Vice.com

by Graham Isador

After serving his two terms as president of Armenia, Serzh Sargsyan advocated for changes in the constitution that allowed him to continue his time as leader. It was an indication of larger corruption in the country. When Sargsyan and his Republican Party came to power in 2008 protestors contesting the validity of the election were killed by police. There were rumours of bribery among high-ranking officials, and that an elite class had used their status to consolidate the country’s wealth and influence. During his 10 years as leader the country fell into poverty. Hundreds of thousands of Armenians fled their homeland in search of a better life elsewhere.

Eighteen days before Sargsyan was sworn into power for a third term—this time as the country’s prime minister, in a move mirroring Vladimir Putin—opposition leader Nikol Pashinyan put on a backpack, went on Facebook Live, and said he was going to realize a peaceful revolution. Pashinyan, a former author and journalist, began marching across the country with a poem. It was the beginning of a 40-day movement that led to massive acts of decentralized civil disobedience and the eventual overturning of the government.

This is the backdrop of I Am Not Alone, a documentary by director Garin Hovannisian and produced/scored by System of a Down’s Serj Tankian that premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival. Hovannisian describes the events of the documentary with awe.

“During that time, this absolutely impossible fantasy came to life,” Hovannisian told VICE. “The country was swept up in this extremely cinematic, splendorous, change. It was a revolution we had never seen in our lifetime. That’s why we’re so excited to present it to the world.”

I Am Not Alone is masterfully told; its joyous storytelling, brisk pacing, and dramatic tension implore audiences to share in the victory of Pashinyan and his country. The documentary serves as a hopeful reminder that political change is possible in a time where that message is desperately needed. Recently we had the chance to sit down with Hovannisian and Tankian to discuss their film, the role of art in political activism, and the power of active democracy.

VICE: For those who aren’t familiar, can we talk about the broad strokes of Armenia’s current political situation?
Garin Hovannisian: In March 2018 Armenia was hopeless. After serving his two terms as president of the country, Serzh Sargsyan—the all powerful ruler—made amendments to the constitution to continue in power. It was safe to say that in the minds and hearts of the vast majority of Armenians, change was impossible. But on March 31, 2018, which happened to be Easter Sunday, an opposition member of parliament and journalist named Nikol Pashinyan began marching across the country. He was calling for a non-violent revolution to bring down the corrupt government. Our movie is the story of the next 40 days.

Serj, in the documentary you talked about your initial skepticism around Pashinyan and his political actions. Later you became a champion of the revolution. What changed for you?
Serj Tankian: There have been many protests that have happened in Armenia. This revolution was based on years of learning what to do and what not to do, for both the population and the government. While last year’s peaceful events happened over 40 days, the seeds had been planted over many years. It was all a learning process. It took many smaller acts to get here. Over the years as those events—those movements—would happen, I’d get calls. As an Armenian diasporic figure I’d get asked to join the movements for progressive change in the country. I always wanted to. But I also didn’t want my presence to procure some type of violence. I was concerned about my responsibilities.

When I’d be talking to friends on the phone, I would ask: Why is this time different? And they’d explain that this was a cultural revolution. There had been protests where the anger was at a boiling point. But in this case it was youth having fun with the revolution. It was people running around and blocking roads, then running from police. It was fucking hilarious and joyful...I’d watch it on Facebook Live and knew I needed to be there.

But undercutting that fun is a very real threat of violence. It creates a dramatic tension in the film.
Garin: There was always that looming threat among the joy. Ten years ago during a similar protest 10 Armenians ended up dead on the streets of their capital. The events of March 1 2008—where protesters were killed—was very present in the consciousness of us all. But I think that threat, the stakes, also fuelled the playfulness. That we were all doing it for a reason. That the tactics could be different and lead to different results.

How consciously were you constructing a narrative?
Garin: I think about narrative arcs, but this was a story that was handed to us on a silver platter. And the reason that’s true is because the author of the revolution—Nikol Pashinyan—was in fact a writer and author. He began this revolution with a poem. It began with a piece of art. And in this poem he begins by saying: Today I take my step / I take my step today. He’s scripting what he wants to happen. The refrain of them poem is—from which we take the title of the film—is I am not Alone. But at the start he was completely alone. The revolution started because he believed in it. He imagined what could happen, spread it to a core group of believers, and seeing if that could be contagious. It became its own thing. The movie was there. We just had to capture it.

What do you think art’s role is in political consciousness?
Garin: In addition to being an executive producer and composer on IAm Not Alone, Serj has been a voice of justice for the world and the Armenian people. His music and his message for social change helped inspire this revolution. The main theme of Serj’s life has been that music can change the world. That activism and music are in sync with each other.

Serj: We were both activists before becoming artists. That’s normal for us. My realization with Armenia’s injustice began over 10 years ago with the March 1 deaths at a protest. I started to be more aware of the economic injustices, the judicial injustices. I started writing open letters to the former president Sargsyan, challenging his victory. I had a schism with the ruling elite because of my stances and my popularity.

In 2015 when we played the Armenian square with System of a Down for the 100th remembrance of the Armenian genocide there were 50,000 people in the crowd including Nikol Pashinyan and his wife Anna. When I first met Nikol during the revolution he told me that if System of a Down could get that many people there, they could do it too. It was just beautiful. To me it’s always been about justice. When I went to Armenia for the revolution it was a once in a lifetime experience. People were elated. You’ve seen people happy before but never like this. It was like emancipation. Which is why we needed to show it in the film.

Is the point of the art to move people beyond awareness and into action?
Serj: Art is an intuitive medium. When you’re moved as an artist, you can inspire other people. It makes you do something. We can show pictures of how we’d like the world to run. We can show the injustices. We can share stories like this film.

But the magical key in the revolution was decentralized civil disobedience. Historically that had never been tried as a form of progressive movement. Many people in the square could sit down and get arrested. They could confront the authorities with violence. But that wasn’t what happened. All of the plans from the organizers failed miserably until they stumbled upon the decentralized civil disobedience and broadcast it through social media. People began copying the actions. Blocking the streets. Blocking public transit. Marching. It became this fun thing. People quickly realized that with the power of numbers you could overwhelm the police. You could overwhelm the government. You could show them who is in charge. That’s what Armenia did. That was art too. Using our bodies and our minds we showed the government who is in charge of the country. That victory felt different. It was peaceful. This concept can be used by other countries and other people to disarm their oppressors in a most unique and beautiful way.

Garin: When I think about who this film is for... There are people across the world engaged in lonely battles. With their village. Their school. Whatever the structures they’re in that—they feel—need change. And that person is always confronted with the “reality” that change is impossible. Change is impractical, unrealistic. That person feels like they’re by themselves, that they’re longing for something on their own. But the message of the film is the title of the film. I am not alone. You are not alone. If truth and justice are on your side, if you believe in what you’re doing, if you pursue what you’re doing, then soon you’ll discover others. Your fight is not in vain. I hope this movie carries the message to those fighting lonely battles: That you are not alone.