Home #Hwoodtimes 2019 AFI FEST documentary I AM NOT ALONE – REVIEW

2019 AFI FEST documentary I AM NOT ALONE – REVIEW

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By: Christus Ahmanson

Los Angeles, CA (The Hollywood Times) 11/18/2019- How do you break through the police without violence? With open hands.”-Nikol Pashinyan, Prime Minister of Armenia, I Am Not Alone (2019)

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The directorial debut of Garin Hovannisian, I Am Not Alone is a documentary that chronicles the recent revolution that took place in Armenia in 2018 and the man, Nikol Pashinyan, who ushered it in over the course of forty days while marching steadfastly across the country. By the conclusion, the reality of a successful peaceful revolution is tangible enough to move any viewer who has ever felt disempowered by their own political system. The film begins with background, explaining the popular resentment towards Serzh Sargsyan, who had served as Prime Minister and President of Armenia for ten full years, eliminating term limits and bolstering his party’s strength along the way, as well as Nikol Pashinyan’s prior imprisonment for protesting Sargsyan’s ascension to power in the late 1990’s and Pashinyan’s subsequent election to parliament in an attempt to loosen Sargsyan’s grasp on the state.

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The narrative is focused and well structured around Pashinyan, making what would otherwise be a messy foreign conflict easy to follow and feel informed about. As well, because this was a modern revolution, many of the key events were live streamed by multiple people, giving the filmmakers a wealth of footage and angles to supplement their interviews with. Subjects include all of the major players in the narrative, as well as the president that preceded Sargsyan, Armen Sarkissian, United States diplomats for official foreign takes, and members of the Armenian diaspora like executive producer and composer Serj Tankian. This deft combination of interviews with key figures, clarity of pre-recorded footage, and proficient handling of necessary exposition makes I Am Not Alone more than just a documentary, but a riveting journey inside the revolution as it occurred from an on-the-ground perspective. 

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Frustrated with working inside the confines of a corrupt governmental system, Nikol Pashinyan took to the streets on March 31st, 2018 after parliament refused to take Serzh Sargsyan off the ballot for a new prime minister. Pashinyan hoped to gather dissatisfied citizens during his walk to the capital, but ended up creating a platform for discontent that grew beyond a single rally and into a velvet revolution. Though Pashinyan is the character we follow most closely though the revolution’s narrative, the real arc to follow is the people of Armenia’s, who grow past feeling powerless and disenfranchised to righteously angry and committed to revolutionary change. As Pashinyan walks through city and village streets on his way to Yerevan many people do not join, saying they are simply too busy and beaten down to participate. However, through a constant presence on social media and despite silence from national and foreign news, Pashinyan’s message of change is able to reach the many people who feel similarly about Sargsyan’s reign. A groundswell is able to grow that meets Pashinyan in the capital nearly two weeks later.

In just this first act, I Am Not Alone lives up to its title by showing us how a single man is able to use social media to get down and dirty and show a battered populus that they are, in fact, not alone. The next step? Doing something about it together.

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In the second act, the documentary explodes into high gear and it’s message about the power of popular organizing in the age of social media and its ability to enable democracy under repressive conditions becomes more salient. Some viewers may be uncomfortable with the destruction of property present in some scenes, but the damage to property is nothing compared to the damage the Armenian police inflict upon their fellow citizens as the film progresses. Though it may be distressing to some to see Pashinyan kick down the door to a public radio station, the first thing he does once inside is apologize to the staff. It’s inspiring to see him and the rest of the revolutionaries treat their adversaries with a calm respect even despite years of political repression and imminent state violence. This is sense of kindness within the revolution becomes especially obvious once the filmmakers reveal they were able to interview Serzh Sargsyan himself as well as his chief of police, Valeriy Osipyan, who came face to face with Pashinyan shortly before his officers began detonating explosives in the crowd behind Pashinyan. The introduction of Sargsyan as an interviewee is a delight. The man has clearly been set up as the antagonist and seeing a low sweeping shot of him looming over a desk villainously monologuing about chess manoeuvres cements that arch quality the film has prescribed him.

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The third act flips the preceding two around in a fantastically entertaining turn. After a climactic confrontation between Nikol and Serzh it seems like hope is lost. The audience is forced into a gripping tension as they wonder how the revolution can possibly proceed after losing many to the police. However, this is when the people of Armenia take the revolution into their own hands. The civilians still standing, especially the women, continue forth with a fervor that even Serzh Sargsyan and his compatriots are unable to ignore. The people demonstrate the effectiveness of a decentralized revolutionary vanguard. As hard as the police try, they are unable to arrest any lynchpin leaders because the movement isn’t built around demagogues, but the public.

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Even as state opposition escalates, the people marching in the streets show a commitment to peacefully resolving the conflict that pays off in the end. Seeing Serzh Sargsyan submit to the will of the people is a cathartic moment nearly no other film can match because it’s real. The people won, in real life and after a time which had beaten them into a depressing complacency. Seeing Serzh Sargsyan go from smirking in contempt at Pashinyan, hand still bandaged from a shrapnel wound, to gracefully bowing down to Pashinyan’s call for immediate resignation is a triumphant moment of victory it’s impossible not to be elated by. After being beaten and shot at, seeing the sea of smiling people waving peace signs, flanked by priests and soldiers alike, conveys the exact tone of the revolution: fiercely passionate and assertive and also gentle and loving. At a time of increasingly likely political unrest here in the United States, having an example for peaceful revolution to follow is not only inspiring, but useful.