By Ali Moosavi.
A praiseworthy debut feature for Armenian director Arman Nshanian.”
Songs of Solomon, which is Armenia’s entry for this year’s Foreign Language Oscars, uses the life of the Armenian composer known as Komitas to cover an era of history which includes the Hamidian Massacres of Armenians by the Ottoman Empire just before the advent of the twentieth century. Komitas was one of the pioneers of Ethnomusicology, which is the study of music from the cultural and social aspects of the people who make it.
We see Komitas as a young orphaned boy developing a lifelong friendship with two girls, Sarkis, an Armenian and Sevil, a Turk. Komitas is a musical prodigy who is discovered by a priest and sent to study music. A concert given by the adult Komitas for Sultan Abdul Hamid II of the Ottoman Empire bookends the film. As we watch the two girls grow up and get married, we witness the roots of hostility of the Ottomans against the Armenians, which reached its zenith in the Armenian Massacre of 1915.
Of course, undoubtedly Songs of Solomon, made by Armenians, can be accused of being prejudiced, one sided and untruthful by Turkish people. However, the historical facts tend to back the Armenians. Parallels can be drawn between this film and those about the Holocaust. The image presented of Turks is not too dissimilar to that we’ve seen of Nazis in Hollywood movies. It seems that again it takes one leader to turn a nation into ruthlessly turning against a particular sect and nationality within their country. We don’t see enough of the Ottoman leader to judge whether he had enough charisma to sell his ideas regarding Armenians to his Turkish compatriots. Sevil, her husband Osman and a Turkish mayor are the token Turks sympathetic to the Armenians’ cause, but they are needles in a haystack.
It is unfortunate that, unlike the Allies and Axis in World War II who mended their differences and became friendly nations, and the German people accepting their wrongdoings towards the Jews, the hostility between Armenians and Turks still lingers. It is therefore better not to dwell on the historical and political aspects of the story and look at the work from an artistic angle.
The ruthless Turkish colonel Abdullah (Artashes Aleksanyan) ranks alongside the likes of Amon Goeth (Ralph Fiennes) in Schindler’s List in terms of cold-blooded brutality. Thanks to Aleksanyan’s powerful acting, this character is fleshed out more than the others. While his shadow hovers over the story, Komitas is the least developed and, apart from a little bit about his childhood in the beginning of the film, and him conducting an orchestra and chorus in the end, we learn nothing about his life. Of course, covering so many characters at such a turbulent time in history in a two-hour film is not possible and requires at least a TV mini-series; but then, that may have lessened the impact.
Some of the dialogue in the film can be accused, with some justification, of being too inflammatory and anti-Turkish. An example is when colonel Abdullah visits the market stall where Sevil’s husband makes china ornaments. When Abdulla starts destroying the ornaments that he has painstakingly made and hand painted, he tells Abdullah,
Perhaps if you Turks put a little effort into building your own culture, instead of destroying others, you too would have something to be proud of. But I’m afraid that’s not going to happen. Take a look at your soldiers’ boots. Is that the extent of your culture?”
Armenian culture is showcased throughout the film, from their traditional dances to their music.
A scene where Abdullah visits Osman and Sevil’s house looking for Sarkis, whom they’ve hidden, is tremendously tense and powerful, with first class direction, acting (specially by Artashes Aleksanyan), editing and cinematography. In terms of the suspense and emotion it generates, it invokes the best of Hitchcock.
Songs of Solomon has a powerful and shocking story to tell and does it rather well. There are however many unanswered questions which make one rush towards the internet and history books after watching the film. For example, did the hostility of the Turks against Armenians have nationalistic roots? religious reasons? was it driven by envy? How did Komitas survive the massacres?
From a cinematic viewpoint, Songs of Solomon is a praiseworthy debut feature for director Arman Nshanian. He is better known as an actor and does a double duty in this film, appearing as Osman, Sevil’s husband. Whether the film is too one-sided or not, we can leave to the historians but it is well worth seeing as a stand-alone film, which examines how the people of one nation can be turned against another nation, with whom they have been living side by side and in peace and harmony for so long.
Ali Moosavi has worked in documentary television and has written for Film Magazine (Iran), Cine-Eye (London), and Film International (Sweden). He contributed to the second volume of The Directory of World Cinema: Iran (Intellect, 2015).