Facing Forward
By Emma Ward

Dir. Shoghakat Vardanyan, Armenia, no distributor

1489 screened Saturday, March 16, at Museum of the Moving Image as part of First Look 2024.

Shoghakat Vardanyan’s 1489 is a film born out of poignant necessity. Intertitles at the documentary’s start lay out a timeline of rapidly escalating devastation. Early fall 2020 sees the onset of the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War, the armed resumption of an unresolved territorial conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Seven days later, Vardanyan’s younger brother, Soghomon—an Armenian soldier and music student—disappears. Ten days after this, Vardanyan decides to use her phone’s camera to create an audiovisual record of her family’s steadfast search for information that may not exist and a brother and son who may not be found. While the war concludes a few weeks later, two more years will pass before the family finds any semblance of closure, allowing Vardanyan to finish shooting what has become, however unintentionally, her first film.

1489 foregrounds Vardanyan’s grieving parents. They are aware of the camera and discuss its presence but rarely, if ever, perform for it, except as an extension of Vardanyan, holding up objects or documents for her to see. There is an openness in the way her parents’ address her and her camera; one assumes they would have been more guarded with an outside film crew. Medium and long shots (often at slightly haphazard angles) or handheld close-ups prioritize functionality over stylistic flair, although as the film continues, we see Vardanyan make more considered choices about shot composition and framing. In one particularly vulnerable scene towards the end, her camera remains steadily focused on her parents’ shoulders and hands, leaving their faces—and their expressions of grief—just out of frame.

It is in moments like these that Vardanyan’s undertaking seems particularly extraordinary: to process on camera and in real time the disappearance and death of your brother, and then to fashion it into a coherent cinematic reflection. Yet, in 2024, this kind of public-facing, phone-camera-mediated grief is increasingly common (and Vardanyan handles her situation with more quiet grace and cinematic elegance than most). The disparity between what is private and what is shared is one of many such contrasts dramatized here. Repeatedly, Vardanyan weaves back and forth between depictions of creation and destruction, presence and absence, the emotional and the bureaucratic. That these apparent paradoxes coexist onscreen emphasizes the incomprehensibility of the family’s situation as a whole, an incomprehensibility that Vardanyan seeks not to understand, explain, or argue with, but simply to bear witness to.

Throughout 1489, the family’s loss takes on an existential gravity, intrinsically tied to issues of faith and purpose. As Vardanyan places herself in the center of the frame, her father paces back and forth, disappearing and reappearing on either side. He muses, “I’ve spent my whole life, dear child, so that I can find my happiness in you. So that I can close my eyes in peace and see everything blooming around me [...] and then evil comes and wants to tear everything down. You understand? My whole life would be reduced to nothing.” In a later scene, Vardanyan’s camera peers through a doorway to find her father kneeling and praying. Her mother, barely visible in the blurry reflection of a window, prays, too. Vardanyan returns (implied to be later that night, although the film’s elliptical editing makes it unclear whether it’s the same day) to find him still praying in the dark by the light of a single candle. When finally Soghomon’s remains are found and given to the family, his mother murmurs through tears, “The Lord turned my boy into Saint Soghomon [...] My boy’s bones are shining with light [...] My child’s bones are sacred.”

In sharp contrast to the solemn reverence given to Soghomon and his family’s search in moments like these, a sense of frustrating bureaucracy emerges throughout the film. 1489 takes its title from the code assigned to Soghomon’s remains indicating “Body of Individual Missing in Action.” The once vibrantly alive brother and son—whom we see only in one short home video clip and several family photographs—is reduced to a mere four digits. Early on, while the family is still searching for any information, Vardanyan films herself making phone calls to determine if Soghomon’s name is on the list of injured or dead. The phone conversations feeluncannily familiar, following the same circuitous beats as any mundane customer service call—she’s put on hold, told to try the same number that redirected her to this one, and eventually notified that the speaker lacks authorization to give her any further information. Vardanyan ends her documentary with a final display of such administrative banality superseding personal grief. In a four-minute continuous shot, she films morgue workers stapling Soghomon’s covered remains into a coffin, laying his personal effects inside, and drilling the coffin shut. As family and friends look on, the room is silent but for the repetitive sounds of stapling and drilling. The coffin is carried outside and placed in a hearse, but if Soghomon is given a funeral service or burial, Vardanyan does not share it, ending her film here.

In a more peaceful world, Vardanyan’s first film could have been a portrait of her artist father. From 1489’s first shot, evidence of his work fills the frame; photographs, sketches, and finished pieces line the walls of his studio. He creates relief sculptures, from book-sized wall hangings to elaborate carvings the length of a door. Outside the studio, still more sculptures litter the yard and porch. With these images, a defiant assertion emerges: here there may be destruction and death, but there is also creation and life. This thread runs through 1489, subtle but persistent. Vardanyan quietly and repeatedly affirms acts of creation, no matter how small, from close-ups of her mother’s sewing machine as she fashions pillowcases for soldiers to the epitaph at the film’s conclusion that identifies Soghomon as a “Composer, Pianist, Saxophonist,” but not a soldier. Amidst the rest of the film’s relentless drumbeat of death and loss, these small details can seem insignificant, but Vardanyan allows such incongruities to linger. In the film’s most jarring edit, she cuts from a shot bathed in glowing natural light of her father gently freeing a trapped bird to barely visible nighttime footage of a relative relaying the news that Soghomon’s remains have been found. The juxtaposition of the two scenes, visually and thematically, epitomizes 1489 as a whole: light and dark, life and death, hope and finality.

Early in the film, Vardanyan challenges her father’s mounting despair when he speaks of how destabilized he feels by Soghomon’s disappearance. “But you create powerful images, you make powerful sculptures,” she retorts. “Isn’t that strength?” He demurs, and 1489 likewise offers no easy answer. By the film’s end, we have witnessed the toll of war, the family’s spiraling grief, and unflinching shots of Soghomon’s decomposing remains. The idea that any act of creation has something to say in the face of such devastation seems unfathomable. But Vardanyan’s earlier question echoes: “You create powerful images […] Isn’t that strength?” The existence of her film is an answer to her own question.