14 May, 2020 12:43

Parts of a Circle: History of the Karabakh Conflict: A Film Review 

By Tigran Grigoryan

On May 12, British peacebuilding organization Conciliation Resources published its ''Parts of a Circle: History of the Karabakh Conflict'' documentary which was made in collaboration with Yerevan-based Media Initiatives Centre NGO and Baku-based Internews NGO. Production of the film started in 2011. It consists of three parts which tell the story of the conflict outbreak in the late 1980s, the war, and the negotiation process. The published film is a shorter, summarized version of the three parts and lasts a little over an hour.

The trilogy was finalized in early 2016. However, according to the Caucasus Program Director of Conciliation Resources Laurence Broers, even before the April escalation there were serious concerns about the fate of some of their partners and interviewees who had been criminally prosecuted in Azerbaijan for peacebuilding activity in the past. After the April War, a final decision was made to disseminate the documentary carefully and gradually. In recent years a number of screenings of the documentary for invited audiences were held in Stepanakert, Yerevan and Baku.

Now that the film's shorter version is finally available for the general public, we have an opportunity to analyze it in more detail. It is already obvious that this is a fundamental work that will be used for the study of the Karabakh conflict in the coming decades. Over time the documentary will become as influential as Thomas de Waal's “Black garden.”

The film has quite a good format. It gives an opportunity to get familiar with the perceptions of different important episodes of the conflict in Azerbaijan, Armenia and Artsakh. The fact of the equal presence of Karabakhi actors and views in the documentary deserves special praise. Opinions about various events are expressed by ex-President of Azerbaijan Ayaz Mutalibov, ex-President of Armenia Levon Ter-Petrosyan, and ex-President of the NKR Arkadi Ghukasyan. The principle of inclusiveness was respected in the process of film-making as well. Media teams from Azerbaijan, Armenia and Artsakh participated in the production of the documentary. This format of joint work, however, also has its flaws. Some attempts of subtle propaganda are, nevertheless, noticeable. For instance, in the section about the Sumgait pogrom, there is an attempt to put a part of the responsibility on the Armenian side, noting that numerous Azerbaijani refugees from Soviet Armenia had moved to Sumgait before the pogrom. The name of the only ethnic Armenian who participated in the pogrom is also mentioned, which is an important episode of Azerbaijani propaganda narratives about Sumgait. But overall such small shortcomings do not hinder our ability to receive quite balanced information about different phases of the conflict.

Another strength of the film is its realism and sobriety. There are no patronizing tenets in this documentary, widely used by the proponents of the liberal peace theory, there are no idealistic and romantic reflections about a bright future. The grim reality of the conflict is presented. Moreover, neutral audiences are mainly given an opportunity to understand rational incentives behind the actions of the sides in different episodes of the conflict. For instance, the first commander of the NKR's self-defense forces Arkady Karapetyan explains in simple and straightforward language that the liberation of Shushi was a matter of life and death for the Karabakhi side. In the section where the Kelbajar operation is discussed the strategic importance of that region for the Armenian sides is emphasized, etc. Rational factors are not irrationalized in the film. That is surely laudable.

This documentary is also extremely valuable because of the variety of exclusive footage and interviews it contains. It gives us a chance to receive information about the crucial events in the history of the conflict and the negotiation process from the main actors. Azerbaijani and Armenian former officials frankly express their views about different peace proposals, Vafa Guluzade and Gerard Libaridian talk about the essence of their informal negotiations, the former US co-chair of the OSCE Minsk Group Carey Cavanaugh makes interesting comments on the Key West talks and the preceding process.

Perhaps the most interesting and exclusive episode of the documentary is the confession of Azerbaijan's ex-President Ayaz Mutalibov that he was given the go-ahead to launch “Operation Ring'' in exchange for Azerbaijan's “yes” stance during the USSR referendum of 1991, which was boycotted by Armenia.

''Parts of a circle'' can truly be considered as one of the few internationally supported successful projects in the Karabakh context, which has a very concrete and useful result. I believe it's obvious that one shouldn't expect an end product from such projects which will fully satisfy any of the parties to the conflict. However, the creation of such a documentary about our conflict was an objective necessity. 

Some marginal circles in Armenia have been recently targeting and labeling people, who partake in projects with foreign funding. That is why it needs to be said that all the Armenian journalists and activists who participated in the production of this documentary and properly presented Armenian views on the conflict, did a bigger job for the protection of our interests and rights than all the newly-emerged fake patriots combined.

Tigran Grigoryan is a political analyst from Nagorno-Karabakh. He holds a Master’s degree in Conflict, Governance, and International Development from the University of East Anglia.

Read the article in Armenian.