Director: Hamo Bek-Nazaryan
Continuing my trend of delving into a country’s old cinematic classics instead of its recent festival submissions, which started with Sambizanga (Angola) and continued with Fuego (Argentina), my next entry is considered the first Armenian film ever made. Namus was made by ethnic Armenians and was filmed and premiered in Armenia, which at the time was still a member state of the Soviet Union.
Armenian filmmaking originated with several high profile adaptations of existing Armenian literature, which became instant hits and lasting local favourites. Namus falls into this category, as a historical drama based on a novel by Alexander Shirvanzade. Voiced dialogue in Armenian was added to the film in 1960, and the film was restored in 2005 – both testaments to the importance placed on it even decades after its production.
Like its source novel, the film criticises the traditional customs of Armenian families. Namus begins with an earthquake that destroys a wall between the houses of two families. Thankful for their lives and bonded by the shared hardship, the parents agree to join their families by having their children marry when they come of age.
Jumping forward several years, the engaged couple Seyran and Susan have genuinely fallen in love. However, the Armenian code of honour “namus”, from which the title is taken, forbids the couple from seeing each other before their wedding. As is inevitable in romantic dramas like these, they do so anyway.
When they’re discovered, the marriage is called off and Susan is engaged to another man – the rich merchant Rustam, who is capricious and cruel. And therein lies the film’s conflict. Without spoiling anything, the film builds to a climax involving Seyran desperately racing through the countryside on horseback, and a knife-wielding villain threatening Susan as pictured in this entry’s header image.
I’ll tentatively recommend Namus, especially to those with an existing interest in silent cinema. It’s fascinating to pick apart its relationships to other films from the era, the most obvious of which are unsurprisingly early Soviet filmmakers like Kuleshov and Vertov. However, the horseback sequence mentioned above has echoes of D.W. Griffith’s silent Hollywood classic The Birth of a Nation – particularly in its use of intercutting between two locations. Furthermore, the costumes and sets are at times reminiscent of German Expressionist films like Nosferatu or Metropolis. Despite its age and, to me, foreign cultural context, Namus is still fascinating and valuable as both a piece of storytelling, and a piece of history.