Modern Armenian Documentary Filmmaking: Issues and Perspectives
Modern Armenian Documentary Filmmaking:
Issues and Perspectives
By Raffi Movsisyan
The study was ordered by Media Initiatives Center in the framework of CAUCADOC Project.
In any study of contemporary Armenian film there is an element of subjectivity. The outcome will
be influenced by the researcher’s specific knowledge of the field and personal connections.
Regardless of the time period in question, the issue remains the same: whether it pertains to the
last twenty years or the last year, it is impossible to speak about the state of contemporary
filmmaking with precise facts and figures because official statistics do not exist in the field.
The following factors remain unknown:
● The number of filmmaking companies in Armenia;
● The number of films made each year in Armenia (because in addition to the National Cinema
Center, Hayk Documentary Film Studio, and television companies, countless films are produced by
independent studios and individuals);
● The ratio of films produced with film versus other formats;
● The percentage of films produced in each category (feature, documentary, animated), the
proportion of full-length features versus short films;
● The production cost of each film, the average film production cost in Armenia, the total amount
spent annually on film production;
● The number of joint production films produced, the countries with which such partnerships were
made, and the way in which finances were divided;
● The number of Armenian films that participated in international film festivals, and the awards
that they won;
● Average production and post-production costs in Armenia;
● The number of distribution companies in Armenia;
● The number of films imported to Armenia through these companies;
● The number Armenian films bought by local and foreign distributors;
● The number of films screened yearly, monthly; the ratio between local and foreign films shown in
● The number of screenings per film;
● The number of film-goers (yearly, monthly, daily);
● Earnings (yearly, monthly, daily, and per screening).
These issues are particularly prevalent with documentary films. The spread of digital technologies
has made it possible for any individual to make a documentary film. Therefore it is absurd to even
imply that it is possible to obtain concrete figures on the number of documentary films produced
over the past several years in Armenia.
There is no state agency charged with obtaining information on the abovementioned points (which
only cover the main issues and can be expanded), which stands in the way of regulating the field
and long-term planning. While we do not have exact figures, it is helpful to take note of areas
where it would be helpful to acquire more information.
This study is based on research conducted on the experience and policies of public and private
studios, television companies, and individuals. It aims to paint a general picture of the production
and post-production processes of documentary films over the last five years, the issues that arise in
the process, the primary methods of distribution and screening, and prospects for development.
The study is also based on interviews with representatives from public and private studios that
produce documentaries, representatives from television companies, and independent filmmakers.
Both direct and indirect references are made to these interviews throughout the report.
Production mechanisms and primary issues of state agencies involved in documentary
The RA Law on Budgetary Systems was adopted on July 21, 1997. Since 2005, financing of cultural
initiatives is done on a project basis, according to which policy measures are included in
Budget allocations related to culture are made according to each year’s Law on the RA State
Budget. According to the Law on the RA State Budget, the responsibility of allocating funds for
filmmaking is divided between two legal entities: the National Cinema Center of Armenia and Hayk
Documentary Film Studio. The latter, as its name suggests, is responsible for the allocation of funds
Hamo Beknazaryan HayFilm Studio is a state nonprofit organization, which operates under the
Ministry of Culture. According to sections A and C (organization’s activities and purpose) of the
bylaw of the National Cinema Center of Armenia (NCCA) state nonprofit organization, the Cinema
Center produces movies and TV films and has creative freedom in the genre of cinematographic art.
The funds allocated by the Ministry of Culture to the National Cinema Center are given to two
primary areas: the production of feature films and animated films. Even though there is no mention
of the production or support of documentary films, on the NCCA’s official website (www.ncca.am)
there is a section devoted to the most recent documentary films supported by the organization.
Since 2008, according to the NCCA’s website, around 15 documentaries have been filmed with the
support of the organization. So it appears that two different entities carry out the same function of
allocating state funds to documentary film production.
In 1982, the Documentary Film Studio of Armenia merged with Hayk Film Studio operated as its
documentary film unit. In 1990, the documentary film unit left HayFilm Studio and began to operate
independently as Hayk Documentary Film Studio, a state nonprofit organization.
In comparing the documentaries produced by the NCCA and Hayk Documentary Film Studio, there
is no real difference in the fates of the films, but there are differences in the production principles
of the two entities. While Hayk Studio’s budget is decided on a project basis, the NCCA, which
functions as a foundation, independently manages a predetermined budget. This means that there
are two different allocation methods for funds that come from the same budget.
According to information provided by Hayk Studio, since 2008, the studio has produced around 71
films. According to the creative director of Hayk Studio, Ruben Gevorgyants, of the roughly 86 state-
funded films produced by the NCCA and Hayk Studio since 2008, none of them have been
distributed, either within the country or abroad. Only one film, Harutyun Khachatryan’s “Endless
Escape, Eternal Return” (2013) is a joint production, produced in collaboration with Switzerland and
Holland. From the Armenian side, filming was supported by the Golden Apricot Fund for Cinema
Development and the NCCA.
Regarding the lack of joint production films, Ruben Gevorgyants, states: “With documentary films, if
you don’t look around, apply to the different foreign organizations here, no one will give you
funding. Our studio participates in different film markets and forums, but we have not had any
success yet in that regard, because we are a very idiosyncratic country. Our issues in international
relations and the Karabakh issue give rise to serious challenges. That’s why nobody wants to give us
money; they stay away from those topics. And, to be honest, we don’t need it, because even
though state funding is minimal, there is an old group of documentary filmmakers – and some
young ones, too – who don’t work for money, but because they have to work, they make films.”
Some experts would disagree. According to film producer Armine Anda’s report, which was
presented at a discussion about the Law on Films on November 12, 2013, “Joint productions are
especially important for countries like ours that produce on a small scale. Firstly, they bring down
production costs to a certain extent, which makes it possible to increase the quantity of films
produced with state funding. Secondly, joint productions increase the possibility for distribution and
sales in the partner country.”
It is hard to believe that the management of state funds and films produced with the support of
state funds is in the hands of the very companies that produce the films. These films have a very
short life span; after one or two screenings, they are simply forgotten. Part of the solution to this
problem would be the establishment of a film production school.
The absence of producers is a major issue in contemporary Armenian filmmaking. While there are a
few producers of feature films, the role of is all but missing in the sphere of documentary
filmmaking and in working with state entities. One of the main reasons for this is that we have not
altogether moved away from the idea of having state studios, or from the practice of directing state
funding exclusively towards state studios. For the same reason, even competitions announced in
the field do not seem genuine. Independent producers are not given full authority over the way
funds are spent or over the final product, and those who are listed in the credits as producers are
simply the leading members of these entities’ film crews.
In his 2010 analytical report, “Armenian Film”, film critic Mikayel Stamboltsyan notes: “Today, there
are two expert committees operating independently of each other that evaluate applications and
decide how state funds will be spent. One of the committees works alongside the Ministry of
Culture, and the other, within state-supported organizations. This is the same system that operated
during Soviet times, when the screenplay was first approved by the studio, then by the state film
board (Petkino) and finally, by the Union’s film board. The difference is that in the past,
subordinates could not reject the approval of their superiors, nor could they made independent
decisions. Today, as Ruben Gevorgyants mentions, there are instances when a screenplay that has
already been approved comes out and is replaced by another.
For the sake of transparency, the same principle should be applied across the board. The body that
disburses state funds cannot also receive and manage these funds. When looking at international
best practice, cinema centers, foundations, and institutes never produce, distribute or show films.
This is to avoid the risks of conflict and interest and corruption. Independent expert committees
work alongside these entities, with rotating membership, made up of experts who cannot be even
indirectly linked to the works they are discussing and evaluating. These committees work under
regulations approved by the ministry. The activities of the committees are transparent and open to
the public. In Georgia, for example, since the adoption of the National Law on the Development of
the Film Industry, the Georgian National Film Center works under these principles.
One of the obstacles to the establishment of independent producers and one of the reasons why
the entities that receives state funding also produce films, is related to taxes and customs.
Currently, funds received from state nonprofit organizations are not subject to value-added tax
(VAT). But if those funds are distributed to independent (private) producers, then they are taxed. So
it follows that state support is either not accessible to independent producers, or independent
producers are forced to work for a subdivision of the state agency if they wish to receive state
To solve this problem without getting into amendments to tax legislation, we must study the
experiences of countries that have faced and overcome the same challenge, such as the Russian
Federation, Georgia, and Azerbaijan. In forming the annual budget, there should be a provision in
the article on “state support of films” about VAT. As a result, after funds are distributed to
producers, additional funds will be returned to the budget.
Most of the above mentioned gaps are due to the fact that we do not have a law on the film
industry, which would both regulate legal and economic relations in the industry, and clarify its
infrastructure. The law would not only regulate the relations between the state, the general
population, and the film industry, it would also become the legal basis for the establishment of an
independent school for producers.
In addition to making films with state funding, involvement in state policy for documentary films,
and the production of documentary films ordered by the government, Hayk Documentary Film
Studio is also involved in chronicling current events. As Ruben Gevorgyants states, the studio
receives instructions on the documentation of important events from the Ministry of Culture.
Currently, in order to fulfill that function, the studio collaborates with Armenian television
companies. That is to say, it takes pieces filmed by these companies and archives them. The
documentary filmmakers that collaborate with the studio also take part in this chronicling process.
The significance of such chronicling at the state level and the mechanisms used, technical quality,
and issues of this function is an entirely different area to be researched.
The policies and production features of private documentary film studios
A vast number of films in Armenia are produced by private studios and companies. Television
companies also produce made-for-TV documentaries. The main reason why television companies
take it upon themselves to film documentaries is the weak relationship between public and private
companies, studios, and independent filmmakers, or the absence of such relations altogether. We
will address this issue separately, but will first address a surprising fact about documentary film
production by television companies.
Television documentaries are typically filmed not by directors invited by the company or directors
who work with other studios, but by the television company’s reporters. For the most part, these
productions are simply investigative reports that exceed the timeslot allotted to more standard
reporting. Of course, this can also be classified as a brach of documentary filmmaking, a cross
between classical documentary filmmaking and television.
Contemporary television documentaries that do not prioritize the transfer of information and are
more style-driven are very rare. Private companies and studios in Armenia that produce
documentaries are faced with these opposing approaches to filmmaking and often try to combine
Bars Media is one of these companies. It produces films in collaboration with international
television companies, which are aired on television stations around the world and participate in
festivals. Since 2008, Bars Media has filmed three full- length documentaries: “A Story of People in
War and Peace,” directed by Vardan Hovhannisyan, “The Last Tightrope Dancer in Armenia,”
directed by Arman Yeritsyan and Inna Sahakyan, and “Donkeymentary,” directed by Arman
Yeritsyan. The studio also films shorter documentaries for NGOs and through grants, which are
targeted at a local audience. Over the past five years, the Bars Media has released ten such films.
There is one important characteristic in Bars Media’s filmmaking policy, which is rarely encountered
in our local productions, even in feature films. “Our studio does not only produce films to be sent to
festivals or to be sold to television companies,” says Bars Media producer, Inna Sahakyan. “We try
to do both at the same time. With each film, we aim to make back the amount invested. In terms of
the screenings and distribution of the films, the studio is very flexible and takes into account the
market demand. Bars Media can offer different versions of a film, with different formats and
lengths, based on the demands of different television companies. Along with television versions of
films, the studio also has director’s cuts to be shown at film festivals. In this regard, Bars Media is
unique in Armenian film production. This might be the reason why the studio’s films have, along
with their commercial success, been well received at festivals.”
Though Bars Media’s films have been aired on television stations around the world, to date, the
studio has not had a single collaboration with local television companies, either in the production
stage or in the airing of completed films. “Our local television companies are not prepared to invest
in documentary films or to participate in joint productions,” says Inna Sahakyan. “It is plain to see
that the film policies of local TV stations are different. They invest in in-house production, meaning
that they’re the ones filming TV documentaries. Of course, this gives rise to several issues because
there is no clear distinction between documentary films, television documentaries, television
reports and other programs. There are many issues, but the most critical one is the absence of state
support. The amount of support is in this case is not the main issue. What is more important is for
that support to be there are visible. When a film is supported by the presenter’s government, there
is a much greater likelihood of finding opportunities for joint productions, specifically when it
comes to joint productions with international television companies, because for them it is
incomprehensible why your country’s TV industry has not invested at all in the production.”
Interestingly, Vardan Hovhannisyan’s “A Story of People in War and Peace,” a Bars Media production
on a topic of local relevance, whose main characters were participants in Artsakh’s fight for
independence, has had more success in terms of sales and distribution abroad than in Armenia.
This example further proves the absence of film distribution in Armenia and the systemic failure of
policies meant to bolster the development of the film industry.
The Media Initiatives Center (MIC, known prior to July 3, 2013 as Internews Media Support NGO)
plays an important role in making the interrelations between documentary films and television
more visible. The Center produces films whose first area of distribution is television. So the Media
Initiatives Center’s documentary films must first be considered as additions to the scope of
television offerings. Over the past five years, the MIC has filmed over 50 documentaries.
“For us, documentary film is primarily not just an art, but an opportunity to voice issues that we
think are important, and to begin conversations around them. At the Media Initiatives Center, we
value films that are based on information that is circulated in the news and media,” explains the
director of Media Initiatives Center, Nune Sargsyan. “We can’t say that our films have achieved
success in festivals, and we don’t necessarily strive for that. Often their filmmakers are young or are
coming from the field of journalism and are taking their first steps in non-feature film. In that
regard, the documentary non-feature films we produce serve as teaching tools. An example of this
is the documentary series about the antagonism of different countries.”
The Center’s films are distributed free of charge to television companies. One of the MIC’s
documentary film production policies addresses engaging young journalists in the documentary film
process and forming a new generation of documentary filmmakers. For the MIC, formalizing the
collaboration between television and documentary film is not an end in and of itself, because
according to the organization’s experts, television is the first avenue of dissemination for
“In my opinion, purpose and distribution policies of many documentaries filmed in Armenia today
are not clear from the start. And this is the reason why the majority of them are sleeping on the
shelves,” says Nune Sargsyan. “As for the documentaries that are in demand by foreign television
companies, but not by our television companies, I think it’s caused by a lack of cooperation and
incongruous goals. If the films are in demand in the external market, then internally their screening
should be encouraged in some way. Those films should definitely be broadcast by local TV
companies. It’s important for the Armenian audience to see them. Of course, copyrights and other
related rights should be protected. Nowadays, only showing documentary films on TV is not
enough; different avenues must be found. Otherwise, cooperation will end because ‘it doesn’t get
the ratings’. The presentation, the allotted time slot and other factors play a role in determining
Ordfilm Production Company primarily produces commercial documentary films targeted towards
the local market. The company was founded with the intention of making documentary films with
both public and private support, but as the studio’s founding director, Hayk Ordyan, notes, it
became apparent fairly quickly this model for a documentary film studio was not possible. “It’s
obvious that favorable conditions are not yet in place to cooperate with private and public studios
or foundations,” says Hayk Ordyan. “I tried to complete a project with the support of the Ministry of
Culture, but it became apparent that it would only be possible if I were to work with the National
Cinema Center of Armenia. The National Cinema Center of Armenia has its own stipulations based
on which it allocates funds. And based on those stipulations, you can only apply as an independent
producer or director. In the end, negotiations with the National Cinema Center broke down on the
premise that they were not that interested in documentary films. The other avenue through which
to receive state funding is Hayk Documentary Film Studio, which is primarily concerned with the
production of its own films.”
One of the primary goals of the Armenian government in providing state assistance, which is also
manifested in our national policy on the development of the film industry, is the establishment of
private film companies. Presumably this relates to all genres of film, including documentaries, for
which a clear path for public-private partnership does not currently exist.
In a joint production effort with H1, the public broadcasting company, Ordfilm produced the first
three of a series of 15 profile-documentaries on Armenian national heroes. Production was later
stopped because H1 considered the project to be too expensive and did not even cover the studio’s
production cost. Currently, the studio produces commercial documentaries for a number of
companies, the earnings of which allow them to produce one non-commercial documentary per
year. Since its establishment, Ordfilm has produced ten such documentaries.
Of course, there are more private companies that produce documentaries than the ones mentioned
above.These companies were chosen because though they differ in their production methods and
goals, the issues they face are characteristic of other companies in the field. Many directors film
documentaries alongside private studios and foundations with state funding. These are usually
independent low budget initiatives that are short lived because their distribution is at the discretion
of the director.
Assessing the effectiveness of the main channels for broadcasting local
It is an undeniable fact that the final target of film production, distribution and screening is the
viewer, or the consumer. In the entirely state funded Soviet film policy, the viewer was the final
destination and target of the creation and distribution chain. Today, however, the role of the viewer
has been completely reversed. The viewer is now the starting point of the production-distribution-
consumption chain. This is how it works in countries with more experience in filmmaking, where
the consumer is viewed as the primary investor in the film, with the money that he/she pays to
view it. This is the result of a well-functioning distribution mechanism. In Armenia, unfortunately, it
is still too early to talk about distribution, especially when it comes to documentary films, whose
distribution path is especially riddled with obstacles.
The same primary means of the dissemination of films are used around the world: cinemas,
television, DVDs, and the internet. In Armenia today, we have four functional cinemas: two in
Yerevan with five screens, one in Gyumri, and one in Berd with two screens, with a combined total
of around 2000 seats. For a country with a population of more than 2.5 million, this is a very small
amount. For documentaries, the cinemas in Yerevan usually serve as a platform for premieres,
which are one time only, free-of-charge events.
Since 2008, only two locally produced documentary films have been released in Armenian cinemas:
Edgar Baghdasaryan’s “From Ararat to Zion” and Vardan Hovhannisyan’s “A Story of People in War
and Peace”. It is important to note that Vardan Hovhannisyan’s film, produced by Bars Media, which
he directs, was very well received internationally and achieved great success at festivals, but went
virtually unnoticed in the local market. Edgar Baghdasaryan’s “From Ararat to Zion” was also
produced by a private studio, Vem Media Arts. This film was relatively successful in the local
market. According to the director, around 25,000 people went to see the film.
Taking into account the scarcity of cinemas, the primary means of disseminating local films to the
public should be television. But relations between local television stations (both public and private)
and documentary production companies (both public and private) are practically non-existent.
Our television companies do not even take the basic step of broadcasting local films, let alone
following the international practice of using television as a significant means to promote the
development of the local film industry. In searching for the root of the problem of the existing
unfavorable conditions, the objective is not to lay the blame on one side or the other, especially
when it comes to private television companies. The issue is more visible with public broadcasters,
because TV stations funded by the state budget should at least be more interested in broadcasting
films made with state funds. In this case, again, the issue is the failure of cultural policies. This
should be one of the main points in the as yet non-existent Law on Films.
The only television station in Armenia that has a spiritual-cultural focus is Shoghakat. It is important
to note that Shoghakat does not air commercials, which means that securing ratings is not their
main objective. Regarding the company’s policy on local documentary films, the director of
Shoghakat, Ara Shirinyan, notes: “Our station does not have a specific mode of operation or policy
towards documentaries. Shoghakat functions according to TV regulations. Though we do not
consider it of prime importance, we try to attract a wide audience. We’re never driven by ratings
and we think that, if the station has its regular viewers who know that when they turn on our
channel, they will come across spiritual and cultural programming, then we are fulfilling our
function. The amount of airtime we devote to documentaries is in keeping with the accepted
demands of the Armenian television audience. This approach is long overdue for a review, the
policy is quite outdated, as are all assumptions about today’s television viewers. In this sense, we
don’t see the whole picture. The only real marker in today’s terms is ratings, which is not enough
for us. I think now is the time to work a little bit against ratings.”
Interestingly, TV companies spend the majority of their airtime on their own productions. They
often produce made-for-TV documentaries, although productions presented as documentary films,
upon examination, can be classified as a separate category of television production in terms of their
production quality, but not as documentary films per se.
“When necessary, Shoghakat, too, films its own documentaries with in-house directors. These are
typically filmed as investigative journalism reports. For the most part, our documentary filmmakers
are journalists, who also prepare news reports, says Ara Shirinyan. “Of course, in filming TV
documentaries, they are more free in terms of time and the depth with which they can cover the
topic. We also film documentaries that are in line with international standards. Of course, there are
fewer of these - maybe one or two a year. They are mainly filmed by independent artists and
writers who apply to us. Often, they are joint productions, such as Vahe Yan’s 2011 film, ‘Two Paths’
which was commissioned by the French-Armenian Development Foundation.”
“We do not have the means to pay for the rights to show films that we like. And those films that are
offered to us free of charge typically do not meet our station’s artistic standards,” continues Ara
Shirinyan. “Of course, it’s not the station’s role to evaluate the film, but if you are showing a film, it
means that you accept its artistic quality. Documentaries that win awards at festivals are not usually
suitable for TV viewing in terms of format and length. And the approach of preparing a director’s
cut of documentaries for TV viewing is still not in practice here. Maybe this is the primary reason
why studios and TV companies can’t find a way to work together.”
It is obvious that airing local documentaries is not a priority for TV stations.
Another means of dissemination is through DVDs, a culture that is not fully developed in Armenia,
and does not even work in the case of feature films. This relates particularly to state-funded films,
because several films produced by private studios come out on DVD after being released in
cinemas. The internet is as yet the only free channel of distribution, through which the person who
bears the rights to the film can essentially give up these rights and distribute the film through
online channels or websites. It is difficult to foresee a format for profiting from online distribution
or at least protecting copyrights and related rights, in the near future.
Along with the many issues that arise in the production process, there are issues in post-production
and film distribution. The life of a large portion of documentaries ends after the participation in a
few local, or very rarely, international film festivals. Even success in festivals does not guarantee
that a film will be shown in the country where it was produced, to the audience it was made to
address. Films that do not have the chance to participate in festivals lay dormant in storage, despite
the fact that at least 3 million AMD is spent on the creation of each film.
Based on this study, it can be concluded that the primary obstacles for the development of the
documentary film industry in Armenia are infrastructural uncertainty, the lack of clarity and
ineffectiveness of the mechanism for disbursing state funds, and the absence of a system for the
distribution and sale of films. In these conditions, it becomes impossible to take on the practices of
countries with more established film industries (private initiatives and competition in the
production, distribution and screening of films).
It is important for private companies to have the opportunity, as independent legal entities, to have
access to state funds for documentary filmmaking. This will encourage producers of documentary
films to come to the forefront. To this end, reviewing tax legislation in relation to film production
will also be a significant step.
A separate and equally important issue is the absence of a state-approved procedures to protect
and revive the country’s legacy in film. During Soviet times, after each film was completed, the
studio was required to give original materials (negatives, optical and magnetic disks, etc.) to the
State Film Fund or the State Film-Photo-Phono Archive. In fact, this practice continues in many
Thanks to this accepted method, Armenian films produced up to1991 are safely kept in the film
libraries of Russia, and the copies of some of these films (countertype or positive) are kept in the
Armenian State Archive.
Some time after independence, the Film Library became separated from the State Archive, so that it
would perform the functions that are performed by Russia’s State Film Fund or the film libraries of
other countries. But a few years later, the Film Library was returned to the State Archive. Today, it is
not important what body the Film Library is under; what is important is that its operations are up to
international standards. It is hard to say where the original materials and copies of
films produced after 1991 kept. It is not entirely out of the question that in a few years, these
materials will be impossible to find. Films are archived in the same public and private studios and
television companies where they are produced.
A method must be developed by the state for film archiving to be carried out by a state body,
according to which the documentaries filmed each year will be recorded and archived. This, in its
turn will make the process of establishing official statistics easier. Without precise statistics, the
regulation and long-term planning of any field are impossible.
The majority of the existing problems in the field are the result of the absence of a Law on Film. The
adoption of such a law is imperative, and must include measures to solve the problems brought to
light by studies in the field. Solving these problems will make it possible for Armenian documentary
non-feature films to overcome to current situation and enter a path of development.
Author: Raffi Movsisyan