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Film screening: Grandma’s Tattoos

Date: Tuesday 16 April 2013
Venue: SOAS, University of London
Speakers: Suzanne Khardalian (director), Peå Holmquist (producer)
Chair: Ms Ani King-Underwood

The audience that assembled at SOAS and filled the Khalili Lecture Theatre for the newly founded Programme of Armenian Studies’ inaugural event, the screening of director Suzanne Khardalian’s film Grandma’s Tattoos, had not come for an evening’s light entertainment. Near as we were to 24 April, when the passing of ninety-eight years since the Armenian Genocide would be commemorated around the world, this moving and unsettling film was all the more poignant. Dr Krikor Moskofian, founder and director of the Programme of Armenian Studies, introduced the panel and gave a warm welcome to the audience, before handing over to the chair, Ani King-Underwood, to present the film.

Following Khardalian through Lebanon, Syria, Armenia and the USA in her search to find out the meaning behind the tattoos her late grandmother, Khanoum, had on her hands and face, we hear stories of brutality and inhumanity that make one’s blood curdle. The film is about the women and girls who, abducted as children, were marked forever as the property of their kidnappers with tattoos on their hands and faces, forced into lives of sexual slavery, enduring the unspeakable. The film was dignified yet uncompromising in its honesty, and what it taught me of the fate of the Armenians during the genocide, I shall never forget.

After the film, Khardalian spoke for a little while on her personal relationship to the genocide. She started by saying that she had seen the need to use a personal story to “make sense” of the genocide, to explain it in human terms rather than in the language of statistics and huge, unimaginable numbers. As Khardalian noted, however, the excruciatingly personal nature of the tragic events of 1915 often makes the memories too painful to be expressed, and in the course of making the film her questions are often met with silence or denial of any knowledge. In one particularly disturbing scene, Khardalian is asking her great aunt, Khanoum’s sister Lucia, how she got the tattoos on her hands. Lucia says she doesn’t know, that the kids used to tattoo each other, that they chose to have them done.

When pressed, though, she loses her patience, saying:

Why should I, for God’s sake, say the Turks did it? It’s a long story. It’s enough to say the children did it. Let’s leave it at that!

The film had obviously struck a chord with the audience, and their response was emotional; although questions were asked, many who put their hands up to speak wanted to share their equally sad childhood experiences of silence and frustration, of having questions but not being told the answers. One audience member said that the film had made her realize why it was that her father had never known anything about his family history, another chipping in to agree with her, another saying that they, the grandchildren of those who survived the genocide, were too young to understand what had happened at the time, that they couldn’t blame themselves. As both the film and the audience’s reactions made clear, even nearly one hundred years on, the echoes of the Armenian Genocide are still reverberating, the wounds have scabbed over but not healed, and that healing will be a slow process.

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