‘Amerikatsi’ Review: Confronting Identity in the Face of Displacement and Sovietization

Image Description: Prison cell with a window

Identity is complicated and multidimensional. 

Emmy Award-winning actor and director Michael A. Goorjian brings to the forefront the complex interplay amongst identity, politics, and migration in Amerikatsi.

The title of the film directly translates to ‘American’. Goorjian portrays Charlie Bakhchinyan, a young American man from Poughkeepsie, New York, who repatriates to what was then Soviet Armenia. Aiming to reconnect with his Armenian heritage, Charlie is met with the harsh reality of the Soviet regime and is forced to navigate his changing sense of self within the confinements of prison. Through immersing the viewer in Charlie’s experiences, Goorjian tells a story that transcends boundaries, cultures, and generations. 

The comedy-drama film premiered last year at Woodstock Film Festival but was only recently released in the United States. It was filmed in Armenia throughout 2020, and the crew faced challenges as a result of COVID-19 protocols and guidelines. Nonetheless, the film proves to have accomplished its goal in moving audiences.

Charlie’s story begins when he escapes to the United States as a young boy, fleeing from the violence of World War I and the Armenian Genocide. Having grown up in New York, he has fashioned a strong American identity, one that evidently brings him trouble when he returns to find his ancestral homeland under Soviet control. His return reflects the reality of thousands of diasporan Armenians who were enticed by Joseph Stalin’s repatriation efforts to the Armenian Soviet Socialist Republic (‘ASSR’) in the years after World War II. Hoping to return to their Õ€Õ¡ÕµÖ€Õ¥Õ¶Õ«Ö„ (‘Fatherland’) and help rebuild it, these repatriates were instead faced with hostility (both from Armenian Soviet citizens and the regime), housing shortages, poverty, repression, and other terrible conditions. Soviet officials and some ASSR nationals deemed the repatriation campaign a success, when in reality, many such as Charlie faced the opposite of what they were promised.

Upon his arrival, Charlie befriends Sona Petrova (portrayed by Nelli Uvarova), the wife of a Russian military official named Dmitry (Mikhail Trukhin). When a line of people waiting for basic necessities—a common scenario throughout the Soviet Union—breaks out into chaos, Charlie saves Sona’s son. She consequently invites him to dinner where he dons a flashy, polka-dot tie. Dmitry is evidently peeved, and perhaps jealous of the quirky American and his friendliness with Sona. At the dinner, Charlie’s attire, in addition to his loud voice and public displays of religiosity, catch the attention of other Soviet officials in the dining space. Nonetheless, Dmitry offers to help Charlie get a better housing situation and find a good job.

Whilst Amerikatsi does not seek to be a historical film, I wish more context was given surrounding repatriate history and Armenian culture. For one, I can tell from what little Armenian Charlie speaks, that he speaks in a Western dialect. Former Ottoman Armenians, like Charlie, typically were literate in the Western form of Armenian, which has many differences to Eastern Armenian. To untrained ears, the differences between Armenian dialects may not be immediately registered, especially in a film that also features Russian and English. His public religious gestures are also a hallmark of diasporan identity, who held more strongly onto aspects of culture diluted by Soviet imperialism in the ASSR. Charlie’s identity, when grounded within the broader context of diasporans, makes more sense, especially as the film seeks to show the multifaceted nature of identity and its complex relations with migration.

The night of the dinner, Charlie is thrown into prison, thus revealing Dmitry’s true intentions. Immediately, Charlie is faced with the harsh conditions of confinement and his struggle with a sense of belonging. He goes back and forth between his Armenian and American identities, struggling to reconcile the two.  

The linguistic dimension to this film is particularly important. There are key moments when the film emphasises this. Charlie is branded a ‘bourgeois’ and ‘cosmopolitan’ American, and he struggles to not only understand others but also to be understood. Communist terminology is often thrown his way, and he can be seen at one point in his cell struggling to learn some communist lingo. 

Russian was the lingua franca of the Soviet Union. Charlie’s hopes of working on his Armenian are sometimes stunted by the barriers between dialects, in addition to his lack of knowledge in Russian. His own imprisonment is a result of mistranslation amongst himself, Soviet Armenians, and Dmitry. 

The word ‘akhpar’ is commonly used throughout Amerikatsi and is an excellent example of why historical context and understanding of the Armenian language enriches this film. Similarly, it marks a shortcoming of the film in its inability to make this more transparent for those unfamiliar. ‘Akhpar’ means ‘brother’ in Western Armenian; however, the word is used in a derogatory sense towards repatriates and diasporans who were not literate in Soviet-standardised Eastern Armenian language and culture. This further demonstrates the new brand of ‘Armenianness’ that developed as a result of Soviet imperialism. A new sense of national identity was created that no longer seemed compatible with the diaspora, fostering a sense of ‘otherness’ for migrants. This identity, of course, still maintained important aspects of Armenian culture but in a way that would not threaten the authority of the Soviet regime. Interestingly, there were points in the film when ‘akhpar’ was used in a more endearing tone, blurring the lines between dialects and underlying the broader important themes of reclaiming identity, friendship, and love. 

The film exposes the ways in which Soviet rule perverted identity and people’s sense of self and belonging. The legacy of imperialism and colonialism is felt throughout the world, and the film particularly may resonate with those from countries with a Soviet legacy both in its aesthetics and history. The arrival of repatriates coincided with the political repressions of the late Stalin period. The brutal Stalinist regime is responsible for the displacement and population transfers of many ethnic groups in the former Soviet Republics. Armenian repatriates were imprisoned in fear of being ‘nationalists’ and were among the thousands of Armenians deported to Central Asia or Siberia during Operation Volna in 1949. Charlie, himself, is almost deported to Siberia towards the end of the film.

Though Amerikatsi has shortcomings in relaying the nuances in history and Armenian culture and language, it does an outstanding job in speaking to universal themes, more so than other Armenian films I’ve seen. 

Charlie’s imprisonment defines the whole film. He forms a parasocial relationship with a prison guard who is coincidentally Sona’s brother-in-law, Tigran (Hovik Keuchkerian). Through his cell window, Charlie observes Tigran’s home and learns about Armenian culture, customs, and the ways in which he connects with his heritage beyond language and Soviet influence. 

Tigran likewise demonstrates the way Soviet influence has adversely impacted Armenian identity, even for those considered part of the dominant culture. A gifted artist, he finds himself often in conflict with his wife because she fears he will be punished by the Communist Party. Tigran paints in secret, having been punished for painting Armenian churches, symbols, and other objects seen as threatening to the Soviet regime. He thus navigates his own identity within the constraints of imperialism and a brutal dictatorship. As time goes on, Tigran becomes cognisant of Charlie and forms a strong, unspoken friendship with him that defies any cultural differences.

The film’s score and cinematography guide the viewer through the ups and downs of Charlie’s confinement. The positions of cameras leave the audience as a voyeur, secretly observing Charlie in his cell and the ways the prison guards interact with him. Simultaneously, the camera often frames Charlie’s same viewpoint, letting us see and hear the world around him through his perspective. When he observes Tigran’s home, we see Tigran and his wife in the way Charlie does. We can also barely hear the conversations as a result of Charlie’s far distance from their home. These muffled noises place more emphasis on action and emotion, further showcasing how human connection goes beyond language. The music of the film combines both Soviet and Armenian cultures and reflects the film’s changing moods.

As an Armenian-American myself, the film touches upon the spectrum of identities different Armenians fall on. Despite having parents who grew up under the ASSR, I still feel a strange sense of ‘otherness’ when visiting Armenia. I can speak Eastern Armenian, but migration and the Soviet legacy have likewise impacted my identity and my sense of belonging—both in the U.S. and in Armenia. I therefore deeply relate to and empathise with Charlie’s character, and I’m sure many diaspora groups will too. 

The tension in identities is still prevalent in Armenian culture today. There’s an important scene in the film where one of the prisoners looks at Charlie and says, ‘You want to see real Armenians? That’s us,’ while pointing to other prisoners caught in arguments and fights. You can hear words such as ‘akhpar’ thrown around in those exchanges. The film does a tremendous service to the Armenian community by showcasing the silliness of this inner conflict. 

It points its fingers at a broader, common enemy: imperialism. It is a source of division and destruction. Soviet Armenians, like repatriates, are victims. All those subjected to harsh rule, colonialism, imperialism, and other brutal regimes have been negatively affected by it. The film features two important Armenian symbols: the stork and Mount Ararat. The stork in Armenian mythology represents good fortune, and Mount Ararat, despite now being within Turkey’s borders, symbolises Christianity and unity. Both symbols reoccur during Charlie’s confinement, tying him further to his Armenian heritage and giving him hope to continue to live. 

Amerikatsi is not an exceptional piece of cinema. It falls short in conveying a lot of important background, especially for non-Armenian audiences. However, the purpose of this film was for its emotional message. It wasn’t intended to be just for Armenians. It holds a powerful message about hope, unity, and perseverance in the face of injustice and imperial powers. It likewise demonstrates the ways in which displacement and geopolitics can impact identity and a sense of belonging.

In today’s tumultuous world, holding onto hope in the face of adversity is more pertinent than ever. I encourage viewers to watch Amerikatsi and let Charlie take you through a journey of survival and empowerment against all odds.