Can storytelling help overcome war trauma? This Armenian film lab wants to reshape the narrative of the Syrian conflict

Top image: Sasha Baranovskaya
The hakawati — Arabic for storyteller — once played a central role in Middle Eastern society, drawing together communities and disparate crowds. Based in Armenia’s lush Lori region, the modern-day Hakawati Project hopes to do similar work: healing the wounds of the war in Syria by forging new bonds and new stories.

The Syrian War has affected the lives of millions, but much of the media narrative around the crisis has been shaped by those who view the conflict from the outside. No experience of war is the same, yet for many survivors, it is still disorienting when their memories of an event do not match the story that is told to the world.

Actress, writer, producer, and activist Sona Tatoyan is a first-generation Armenian-American from Syria who grew up between the Armenian community in Aleppo and the United States. “As a child, I was struck by how history books in the United States never mentioned the Armenian Genocide, even though these stories were essential to my family’s identity as survivors of conflict,” Tatoyan told The Calvert Journal. “From an early age, I knew I could not trust official accounts of history.”

Tatoyan felt as if part of her identity had been erased. She realised that there was a deep problem in how mainstream narratives constructed reality. Years later, when her family in Syria found themselves as victims once more, Tatoyan realised that she did not want individual stories such as theirs to be overshadowed by Western mainstream discourse. The Hakawati Project was born in order to fight back.

Scheduled to take place in the northern Armenian region of Lori in the summer of 2021, the project encompasses a comprehensive, two-month filmmaking lab aimed at those from communities affected by the Syrian conflict. During the programme, the participants will gather in Armenia to take part in workshops in different disciplines of cinema, before releasing six short films to tell the story of the Syrian crisis in fresh, unseen ways. “We hope that victims will be able to harness the power of the narrative,” Tatoyan says, “using it to tell their own stories and democratise the mainstream discourse”.

Despite still being in its development phase, the project is already transnational in practice and Armenian in nature, bringing together professionals and activists from Armenia, the diaspora, and abroad. Organised in partnership with the Sundance Institute and Film Independent — both LA-based nonprofit arts organisations — on the ground, the project relies on the TUMO Center for Creative Technologies, an educational program in technology and design based in Armenia, and The Independent Filmmaker’s Community of Armenia. Following the pilot edition of the project, Tatoyan’s long-term dream would be to set up an independent film institute in Armenia. “It is through storytelling that we understand commonality and truly put ourselves in someone else’s skin,” she says.

As a country with a history of suffering and rising from the ashes, Tatoyan believes that Armenia will serve as an appropriate spot to build more bridges between victims of the Syrian war and international audiences, who are now often numbed and overwhelmed with faceless statistics and anonymous stories. At the start of the 20th century, Syria served as refuge for the thousands of civilians fleeing the Armenian Genocide, later becoming home to one of the biggest Armenian diaspora communities in the world. A century later, Armenia has taken in around 20,000 Syrian refugees, most of them of ethnic Armenian background.

Armenians, she says, are storytellers by nature. “The streets of Yerevan are named after writers, poets, and musicians. Armenians have historically been victims of the narrative, yet have found ways to transform it and move forward,” Tatoyan says. “With the arrival of Syrian refugees, Armenia has the chance to sublimate its own trauma and turn it into a valuable lesson”. The Hakawati Project aims to amplify the voices of those often silenced in mainstream media to help them transform the discourse and overcome wartime trauma. “Whoever tells the story, has the power to shape the culture. Filmmaking, both healing and informative, can reshape the narrative of the Syrian conflict.”