CPH:DOX 2024 review: The Black Garden (Alexis Pazoumian)

“Pazoumian has ended up making a unique historical document, filled with beautifully composed imagery put into a complex framework.”

Alexis Pazoumian’s The Black Garden begins with a somewhat unusual sequence for a documentary. We see a beautifully composed image of rolling hills in Armenia, with two young boys running across the frame. Then we cut to an image of the two boys running towards a cross on another hill, another cut as the boys arrive, and then a cut to a closeup of the boys shouting into the air. The reason this sequence is unusual is because it’s obviously been planned in advance and then carefully put together from several takes. Some might say sequences like these don’t belong in documentary filmmaking, that they are too staged. But it makes sense in Pazoumian’s film, which is a film about planning. Planning for life and planning for war.

The hills we’ve seen surround the small village of Talish in Nagorno-Karabakh, the region that has been fought over by Armenia and Azerbaijan since the nineties. The village was destroyed by forces from Azerbaijan in 2016, but as the film begins three years later, a small group of people have returned and are trying to rebuild everything. The first part of the film follows these characters as they pick up their lives again, eat dinner, go to school, talk about why they came back. We see the kids receiving military training at school, and watch as everyone sings patriotic songs together. And we see images of the destroyed buildings. In another film, we might have seen those buildings slowly being repaired over the years.

But it wasn’t to be. In 2020 Azerbaijan attacked again, and this time earned an overwhelming victory. When we meet the characters again, they are all in exile, and a young soldier has lost his leg. But they still plan to some day go back, to continue the fight. As the years pass, the military situation becomes more and more dire, and yet everyone is still doing military drills, talking about returning, and steeling themselves for battle with more patriotic songs.

Visual artist Alexis Pazoumian shows a keen eye for beautiful and dark imagery, but always makes things more complex. When we see the soldier slowly rebuilding his body and doing impressive gymnastic stances on only one leg, it becomes a powerful image of strength after loss. But when we then see him go right back to military training, this time clearly hobbled by a prosthetic leg, the will to fight on becomes something much more tragic. The film is clearly on the side of Armenia as they suffer one setback after another, and the Azeri army goes from just attacking Nagorno-Karabakh to going after positions in Armenia proper, but it still might leave you with a wish for Armenia to just give up before it becomes worse.

I’ve never seen a film quite like this. A film that captures the losing side of a long-running conflict, as everything all of a sudden falls apart. It seems like the entire Armenian society has been preparing to fight for decades, with everyone always doing drills all the time, and every song we hear being a patriotic song about noble fighters and the beauty of the contested regions. But now it all turns against them.

It takes so much work to fight a war. The soldiers have to go on patrol, train endlessly, and everyone else can volunteer to deliver supplies and should stay in shape in case they have to go to the front too. And the mental work is even more important, as people won’t fight without the right patriotic mindset. The way Pazoumian focuses on this work reminds me of how Sergei Loznitsa showed the work it took to keep the Euromaidan revolution going in Maidan, as meals had to be prepared, speeches had to be delivered, and so on. But Loznitsa’s film ended in triumph. In Pazoumian’s film, you might just wish for it all to stop. In one scene, two young boys spend the afternoon at a fun fair in Yerevan, laughing and playing, and a hope creeps into the viewer for Armenia to surrender right then and there, so these boys can keep on laughing. This can’t be the film Pazoumian was planning to make. But sometimes things don’t go as planned. He has ended up making a unique historical document, filled with beautifully composed imagery put into a complex framework.