A deceivingly lighthearted Armenian comedy about the Soviet state and its great nemesis, the shepherds: “We And Our Mountains” at the goEast Festival of Central and Eastern European Film4 min read

 In Caucasus, Review, Reviews

One of the foremost Armenian classics, Menk’ yenk’, mer sarery (We And Our Mountains) from 1969 was screened during the goEast – Festival of Central and Eastern European Film and is currently available on Klassiki. It is a rare comedy drama that takes a clear jab at the Soviet bureaucratic apparatus and gets away with it, flying high on clever dialogue extolled ever since, enriching the Armenian quip vocabulary.

Adapted for the screen by Hrant Matevosyan, a leading Armenian writer of the 20th century, from his own novella and directed by film and theatre director Henrik Malyan, We And Our Mountains is a highly literary satire, with the Armenian highlands setting the stage for an absurdly ominous encounter between urban law enforcement and a band of shepherds.

Led by Ishkhan (played by the legendary Frunzik Mkrtchyan), the sulky band of shepherds, worn down after a day of cutting hay, slaughter a few stray sheep for dinner, only to (sort of expectantly) realise afterwards that these animals actually belonged to a neighbour Revaz (played by the experimental filmmaker Artavazd Peleshyan), who unsuccessfully defies his friends, gets ruffled up instead, and given a meagre compensation for his loss.

The next day, however, a zealous police lieutenant (Sos Sargsyan) from a nearby city shows up at Revaz’s doorstep to investigate the matter, brandishing the attitude “There are no small crimes” and rigorously pursuing the ‘criminals,’ even if Revaz refuses to file a complaint. Nothing will stop the lieutenant from acting with due diligence, even as he befriends the shepherds – even helping them with their chores – in some form of  cognitive dissonance. What exactly is the point of commiting to help Avak (Azat Sherents), Ishkhan’s father, to organise his wedding, if you’re simultaneously trying to get him sent to the gulag?

This doublethink, smartly encapsulated by the conflicted lieutenant’s dilemma, is only one of the Soviet paradoxes that the film explores. The juxtaposition of the state and its meddling, un-nuanced powers against the long established, efficient rural traditions and ways of living is another, encapsulated by the fact that a small misdemeanour brings on disproportionate consequences. The absurdity’s apogee is reached when one shepherd, Shakespeare-reciting Pavel (Khoren Abrahamyan), comments that the journey of bringing the shepherds and their flock to the city for trial will result in the sheep losing so much weight that the state will end up losing not two, but eighty sheep. Nevertheless, the dice has been cast, and there is no escaping the brutality of the Soviet state’s illogic.

We And Our Mountains is also concerned with the place of the peripheries in the global landscape, not just against the local authorities. The first sequence with which the film begins playfully asserts that as the audience is assaulted with the footage of rock ‘n’ roll, the civil rights movement, nuclear threat and the like, only to abruptly cut to the quiet, rural Armenian idyll and the shepherds at work. However, these men are not oblivious to the world out there; Avak philosophises about the possible motives behind the assassination of John F. Kennedy, only to be dismissed by Ishkhan: “Why do you care?”

It is quite an unusual sight to see the rural populace portrayed without clichés that would assume any farmhand to be an ignoramus. The dynamics between characters are always surprising and delightful, and the strength of the story rests on playful dialogue and the star-studded cast. The rich details woven into the dialogue, for me, make it a film to be rewatched; for example, the fact that the lieutenant bursts into Russian whenever he gets furious is suggestive in quite a benign, but potent way. His character development is painful to watch, as he goes through a personal, revelatory journey while continuing to be trapped in his role as the enforcer of the law – helpless and, he realises, possibly himself at fault in the eyes of the state, as well.

We And Our Mountains makes for a deceivingly lighthearted watch. Simultaneously funny, menacing and absurd, it lures the viewer in with the vistas of the Armenian highlands and charming characters, yet muses on matters much less quaint. The power of the punitive Soviet state to uproot its peoples for whimsical reasons, concentrated in this small, symbolic tale, remains one of the inconceivable nightmares of the 20th century.

Feature Image: Still from We And Our Mountains
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