Michael A. Goorjian’s Amerikatsi is both poignant and farcical, with a sprinkle of quite literally ‘observational’ comedy in Soviet-era Armenia.
In 1948, survivors of the Armenian genocide during WWI were invited to return to their homeland, which was now under Soviet rule. Life was tough, with scarce food and limited opportunities under Stalin’s tyrannical thumb. It doesn’t exactly feel like a historical period that would inspire warmth, humour and almost relentless optimism in filmic form, but that’s exactly what Michael A. Goorjian’s Amerikatsi does. It’s a film about hope and finding escapism during even the toughest of times, that also wants to make you laugh a little.
Charlie (Goorjian), who survived the Genocide by hiding in a trunk that was summarily shipped off to America, returns to Armenia with a vigour and desire to learn more about his homeland. While at first he’s a little adrift, with only a tentative grasp of the language, things pick up when he saves the young son of compassionate Sona (Nelli Uvarova) and stern Party officer Dimitri (Mikhail Trukhin) from a crushing crowd. They invite him to dinner, as a thank you, but his hapless naivety about Soviet life has him criticising his living conditions, crossing himself and, most egregiously, wearing a polka dot tie.
Dimitri, under the guise of scaring Charlie and amusing himself, has him arrested for ‘cosmopolitanism’ and taken for a bit of a shakedown with some stern-faced prison officials. But communication get a little confused between Dimitri and his colleagues, and Charlie finds himself faced with a prison sentence of indeterminate length. His new home is even worse, a dark and dingy cell with dirty clutter and a rickety bed. But when an earthquake destroys part of the wall outside his window, he finds that he’s able to see straight into the home of prison guard Tigran (Hobik Keuchkerian, and begins to treat his ‘neighbour’s’ daily life like a soap opera.
Goorjian’s film might have required quite a bit of set up, but it doesn’t really get too complicated. At first, its humour is quite broad, with Charlie’s naiveness and eternal optimism running the risk of becoming irritating over a full two hours. But it mellows as the film progresses, with gentler visual gags and slightly subtler farce. It isn’t looking to be satire a la Iannucci’s The Death of Stalin, and it isn’t too interested in making any pointed commentary about Soviet-era Armenia. Instead, it’s a film that wants to showcase the struggles of the diaspora at that time, but it also wants to have a little fun.
Amerikatsi is funny, but also more hopeful and emotionally poignant than the beginning would have you believe. Charlie develops an almost parasocial relationship with Tigran: he eats his meals at the same time, joins in on toasts and boardgames, takes an interest in his art, and even bribes another guard to help Tigran find something lost in his kitchen. It not only helps Charlie, to have quasi-human interaction and stop himself from the despair a Soviet-era prison would surely inspire, but it also offers something other than a prison-yard comedy, which could contextually have been a little tricky to pull off.
But Goorjian maintains a delicate balance, toeing the line between drama and comedy, and keeping it just emotionally resonant enough to avoid crossing over in to absurdity. It’s a deeply personal story, as Goorjian’s paternal grandparents survived the genocide, and you can feel the heart poured into it. But Amerikatsi also isn’t reinventing the wheel, it’s Rear Window if Hitchcock threw in a few jokes and group exercise routines. It isn’t trying to be scathing or overdramatic, it’s trying to offer feel-good entertainment and shed a little light on an often-forgotten people. And it succeeds in both.
Amerikatsi had its UK Premiere at the 2023 Glasgow Film Festival on 10-11 March, 2023. The film will be released in select US theaters in NY (Quad Cinema) and LA (AMC Glendale) on September 8, 2023.