In conversation with…Hayk Matevosyan

Hayk Matevosyan is a very talented filmmaker born in Armenia and raised in the United States, where he graduated from UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television under the guidance of the American screenwriter of Armenian descent Mardik Martin.

Interested in experimenting with different forms of audiovisual languages, the director had the opportunity to create music videos, installations, narrative and documentary short films, and to live fundamental experiences, such as his last two projects realized under the guidance of Werner Herzog and Béla Tarr; all challenges that they allowed him to go deeper and deeper into that mysterious universe which is cinema.

We asked the director a few questions while waiting his debut feature film with which he’ll came back to his native land.

–  What was the first film that made you want to become a filmmaker?

In fact when I was 6-7 years old I wanted to become an Armenian priest. I remember telling my parents that when I grow up I will join the church. Well that changed drastically when I watched the movie Gladiator (2009) on a big screen when I was 9-10 years old. That was the first time I saw a film on a big screen in a movie theatre with the audience. It was a life changing moment for me. After that day I had decided that I want to do what was done on the screen, of course at that age I had no idea what are the exact aspects of filmmaking, but I had the urge to imitate what I saw on the screen. I would take the VHS camera and start filming my friends and family members. I would tell them to say or do certain things and create short videos with some sort of stories. I guess I was directing them without realizing it.

Syria, My Love
Syria, My Love (2016)

–  You were born in a country that seems to live in a constant state of war, you had to leave it at a young age. I think it’s always difficult to leave the place where you were born and where you lived your childhood, especially if it’s a forced choice. Is the decision to shoot your first short “Syria, My Love” (about a Syrian-Armenian artist who, after losing his family in the civil war, refuses to abandon his studio in Aleppo before he can finish his final painting). a declaration of love for your country of birth?

I was born in Armenia and my memories of it are the constant inspiration for my work. Inadvertently everything I write or film has its roots buried deep down in my DNA as an Armenian. So both my very first short film you mentioned as well as anything else I do, have an Armenian DNA in them.

–  However, your arrival in the United States has opened the doors to the world of cinema to you; you studied at UCLA, one of the most prestigious universities in the world, especially for those who want to study the cinematographic arts, and you had the screenwriter Mardik Martin as mentor. Has this allowed you to develop your creative freedom? Do you think that if you had stayed in your country you would have had the same possibilities?

I’m fortunate to have been studied at such a film school like UCLA, where I gained invaluable learning experience, but also have met so many talented and likeminded students who inspired me to be better as a filmmaker.

Meeting Mardik Martin was one of the life-changing moments for me. Our relationship went beyond being mentor/student, but it was more like a father/son relationship. It would be impossible to describe with words the wisdom I have learned from Mardik about cinema and about life. He had pushed me to be more brave and free in telling my stories. Mardik also came to the US when he was 17 and studied at NYU along with Martin Scorsese eventually to collaborate on writing iconic films like “Mean Streets”, “Raging Bull” and etc. Mardik’s and Scorsese’s professor/mentor at NYU was Armenian, Haig Manoogian, who helped both to jumpstart their careers in Hollywood.

So in a way Mardik wanted to do the same by mentoring another young Armenian who is just starting his first steps in the industry. He wanted to pass the immense knowledge and experience to a younger generation, which he did with the uttermost pleasure. Unfortunately, Mardik passed away last year, but the wisdom and knowledge about cinema and life that I was blessed to hear from him are driving forces for me now to constantly improve, learn and strive to be the best possible version of myself.

Hayk Matevosyan with his mentor, Mardik Martin
Hayk Matevosyan with his mentor, Mardik Martin

–  Do you think that there is always something personal in your cinema, that this is also a means of seeking answers?

I think that without even realizing it my work is personal. What makes it personal is my own way of looking at the stories. I mean, as a person we are all different in our interpretation of life. The stories we tell are the same since the ancient Greek plays and the Bible, but the way we tell them is what makes each filmmaker different. As we all know there are no original stories out there, but it is all being recycled and retold. What I mean by that is the originality consists in the personal vision of the filmmaker. How do you see the world? The prism that I look at life is my own and that’s what makes my work personal. I channel my memories, my Armenian identity and my cinematic sensibility to seek answers through the realm of cinema and beyond.

–  What I notice from your works is your ability to always face new challenges and above all to use different aesthetic expressions, experimenting in the field of audiovisual and performing arts. Does this respond to your desire to be open to any possibility or is it part of a process in which you are looking for your vocation?

I guess I’d say that I always try to push boundaries when it comes in telling stories. What I mean by this is that I try to tell a story through the very personal and intimate perspective. I love experimenting and innovating old ideas from a deep subconscious perspective at the same time challenging myself to be bold and experiment with the cinematic language.

Matevosian’s Video for Bei Ru’s 'Tortoisehead', inspired by Jodorowsky's “The Holy Mountain”
Matevosyan’s Video for Bei Ru’s ‘Tortoisehead’, inspired by Jodorowsky’s “The Holy Mountain”

Your last two short films represent a turning point for you. Meeting two people so important and fundamental for contemporary cinema is not for everyone. Tell us about your experience working with Werner Herzog and Béla Tarr.

Yes, absolutely. I think that my way of thinking about cinema and storytelling changed after meeting both Werner Herzog and Béla Tarr. I consider these opportunities to learn from them at 2 separate filmmaking residences gave me a fresh and bold look at what cinema is capable of.

Herzog and Tarr have very unique cinematic styles, yet they share very important trait; they both are not afraid to experiment and push boundaries. Making short films under their mentorship was invaluable experience, but above all just being around such legendary filmmakers and listening to them talk about mysteries of life and cinema was something that I will never forget.

Voices in the Silence (2018)

–  “Voices of Silence”, the short film that you directed in Peru under the mentorship of Werner Herzog, made me think of “Aguirre, the Wrath of God” (1972) when the boat that crosses a stream appears recurrently, an image that arouses at the same time the passage of time and uncertainty towards an unknown future. A reproduced image that arouses an inner image. Are you, like Herzog, also looking for the mystery and ecstasy of images?

Actually it is very hard to interpret my own films, but what I would say is that sometimes when I write or direct, I lose the touch with the reality and sort of get into this unexplainable mystical/transcendental state. I could choose images or words to film at that moment without consciously making the decisions. I’d describe my directing style in that way it kind of streams from my subconscious; the choices I make as a director.

–  Also in “Voices of Silence” I noticed a particularity I don’t know if it was an intended effect. The villagers you film initially seem to carry out their activities regardless of the camera, but after a while they turn directly to this. Did you give specific instructions to these people on how to behave or did you leave them the freedom to express themselves as they wanted?

No, in that film I wanted raw and authentic moments. I remember Herzog specifically praising those moments when I was editing it with him, he would encourage me to use more of those moments of reality that at the same time felt very poetic.

Clouds Over Corippo (2019)
Clouds Over Corippo (2019)

–  In “Clouds over Corippo”, made under the mentorship of Béla Tarr, time seems to have stopped. The short is about a man who stopped talking five years ago; he lives in a ghost town, wandering through deserted streets, a silent observer of the life that flows around him. This suspension of action invites us to focus on the rhythm of mind rather than that of story. Something doesn’t necessarily have to happen for the viewer to ‘get inside’ the film, do you agree?

Yes, I agree with that. But as I mentioned earlier, I love to experiment and use images as a means of transcendental-meditation. In this film I wanted to deliberately show the reality of time instead of manipulating it with fast cuts. Also I remember when Béla Tarr was on the set with us, he was very careful in giving notes on how to direct or place the camera; instead he would communicate with me visually. What I mean is that, he took out his phone and showed me a few images of paintings by Caspar David Friedrich. He said try to let the time pass by as we see the character and the landscape clash like in the paintings he showed me.

–  What are your next projects?

I’m working on a few projects currently, but the main one I’m focused on is my debut feature film called “Echo of A Falling Sun”, which is a story about a mother and son in a remote Armenian village. I’m currently in a development stage of that project.

Interview by Elisabetta Orsi

Hayk Matevosyan Vimeo page: