By Armineh Johannes
Omar Sharif was breathless from running after a departing train at Paris’ Austerlitz station. “Are you tired,” I asked.
“No,” replied Sharif. “Hagop is tired!”
The star of such block busters as Lawrence of Arabia and Dr. Zhivago was shooting a scene from his latest film,Mayrig, the story of an Armenian family after the Genocide. He plays Hagop, representing director Henri Verneuil’s father, in a movie which also stars Claudia Cardinale as the title character.
Mayrig is based on Verneuil’s novel of the same title, which sold over 200,000 copies within two weeks of its release in 1985 and has since been translated into 10 languages.
Verneuil, born Ashod Malakian, is convinced that this work is the crowning masterpiece of his 45-year career in filmmaking. “It is the most personal film I ever made; it is a film which can be characterized as on the margin of my career,” he said.
The story traces the sublime, tender, loving relationship of Verneuil’s dear ones, the Zakarian family. “In mutual modesty, though we never expressed ourselves in words, not wanting to put emphasis on something so obvious, through the years I realized that we loved each other since birth,” he said.
It is his 35th film and, with its sequel, 588 Rue de Paradis, had a budget of 140 million francs ($25 million), making it one of the most expensive European productions. Shot in France, Switzerland and Tunisia, both films run for 135 minutes each. Mayrig received its world premiere in Marseilles on November 25 and was scheduled to open in Paris, Switzerland and Belgium two days later. It is expected to go on wider release in other countries soon, and will be dubbed from the original French into English, German, Spanish and Italian. The sequel is planned to debut in Paris on January 15. The two-part saga spans Verneuil’s early life, starting at age seven, when he arrived in Marseille from Turkey, and ending at age 45; but he feels uncomfortable describing Mayrig as his life story.
“I wished to pay tribute to my family and, through them, to all Armenian families. I had promised my mother that I would talk about our past, what we had been and not what we are today as a diaspora.
“It took about 45 years for the whole project to ripen and take form in my mind and the desire of making a film came to me after I had the book published.”
For 59-year-old Sharif, who plays Hagop from age 35 to 85, the role represents a fulfilling new challenge. “It is different, but in the past two or three years, I have started a new career playing the roles of an older man. It is very interesting and I was very happy to play this role in Mayrig.
“Henri spoke to me about making this film five years ago,” explained Sharif. “Every time we had dinner together he would say that he wanted me to play the role of his father in Mayrig. Years were going by and nothing was happening until one day he told me, `we are shooting.’
“It is a film which does not resemble others since there is no sex or violence, apart from the scenes of the massacre. There is just family love, so it is different, and I think it is either going to be a great success or the public is not going to like it.
“But in any case, I know that all Armenians will go to see the film, and they will go to see it two times, so that represents already an important number of spectators!”
Nor is it the first time that the Egyptian-born actor has encountered Armenian culture. “One of the reasons why Henri asked me to play in the film is that I have known Armenians for a long time. In fact, I grew up with them in Egypt, I had many Armenian friends in Beirut and in Cairo. I would go to their houses, so I know how they live and think, and I know their cuisine! I also know some Armenian swear words,” he added, laughing. “I go to Egypt once a year, but there are not many Armenians there any more. Most of them left during [President Jamal Abdul] Nasser’s time.”
Verneuil, represented by the character Azad in the film, in 1924 arrived at the port of Joiliette in Marseille, accompanied by his parents and two aunts. Through his own family, Verneuil reflects the story of many Armenian families who experienced the Genocide and deportation, and were forced to live through tribulations and humiliations in their struggle to achieve some sort of credibility and success in their land of refuge, where they formed the Armenian Diaspora.
For many, the road toward integration entailed a certain alienation from their roots until later in life, when they felt they could revert to their origins again. “In a sense, we can say that it is a historical film because it relates all of the phases of Armenian immigration since the Genocide, starting with the death of Talaat and the trial of Tehlirian, and is continued by the arrival of Armenians in Marseille, amongst were the Zakarian family,” said Verneuil.
He had difficulty financing the film. “The first sponsor I found, an important French building contractor, was threatened by the Turkish Embassy that he would have his contracts canceled in Ankara if he provided financing for the film; everything was ready to be signed, and just one day before the signature, the sponsor gave in; I had to restart and find another sponsor.
“I do not know if the second sponsor was also influenced by Turkish threats; in any case, he also retreated. When I found the third sponsor, we signed the contract immediately and in total secrecy.”
That sponsor was Tarek Ben Amar, Mayrig‘s producer, said Verneuil’s son and first assistant on the film, Patrick Malakian. Quenta Communications, a group directed by Ben Amar and Italian media magnate Silvio Berlusconi, combined with the French television stations TF1 and Canal Plus, the finance company Soficas, and Verneuil himself to raise the money to make the movie.
Since Mayrig and its sequel were not being aimed solely an Armenian audience, said Patrick, Tarek Ben Amar saw no reason not to support it financially. They two French stations have the rights to turn the films into a mini-series for television viewers.
Had Verneuil received offers from Armenians toward the financing of the film? “No, not at all. I never asked them anything because I know that I could never get anything from them!
“I had a purely professional filmmaker’s approach to this project. Armenians give money to the AGBU or to similar associations just as it is expected from them – in order not to have a guilty conscience.”
Of the reaction among the French-Armenian community to his project, Verneuil said: “The Armenian community in Marseille reacted very well; when we had to film the arrival of immigrants in the port of Marseille, I asked for 300 Armenian extras, but 600 showed up; it was fantastic!
“The other part of the Armenian community, the well-to-do, relaxed bourgeois type-very Armenian but just to the necessary dosage in order not to disturb anything – wait impatiently for the film to come out. As usual, they wait for others to do something, then they will go and buy a ticket and see the film.”
The internationally renowned producer of Le Clan des Siciliens, La Vache et Le Prisonnier, Melodie en Sous-Sol, The 25th Hour, and The Battle of San Sebastian, is known as the most “American” of French film directors.
“What has been significant about making this film is that the family is Armenian – the characters as well – but the film has to appear like one which isn’t about Armenians, and it has to interest everyone. We cannot expect the public to show interest in the Armenian question’ would Armenians go to see a film on Bangladesh?”
The choice of Sharif and Cardinale, who, as Mayrig, represents Verneuil’s mother, not only gives the film star quality but was astute casting too. “The difficulty resided in the fact that I had to form a family: the father, the mother – who starts at the age of 35 in the film and gets to be 75 at the end of the film – and her two sisters who form rather different age groups, since the older sister did not get married in order to raise the two younger sisters; then the child, who is seven, then 12, 20 and 45. I had to form the Zakarian family; it was a difficult task but I managed,” said Verneuil.
“When you see the film, you will know that is an Armenian family. I thought of Claudia Cardinale after having seen the film Storia, where she plays the role of a mother; Claudia is a fabulous actress. She is extraordinary, so dignified – just like my mother was.”
The cast of 120 includes Isabelle Sadoyan (a well-known stage actress) and Nathalie Rousselle as the two aunts, and Jacky Nercessian as Apcar, a family friend. “I never took an actor because he was Armenian; professionally speaking, the fact that he is Armenian does not have any importance,” said Verneuil.
Is Mayrig his last film? “I do not know yet; as soon as I finish filming, I want to go to bed and sleep for a year and a half. But I know will be up and about in three days,” he laughed. “It took me six months to make the film, every day working for 15-16 hours. One Needs to be as healthy as a horse to make this film!”
But it is clear that this project was driven by more than the filmmaker’s desire to make films.
“It is in memory of my parents that I made this film, and through them I pay homage to the family in general,” said Verneuil. “The applause or the gratitude of those who are engaged all day selling something, and who remember at times that they are Armenian, and go to the benevolent gatherings and parties wearing their nice clothes and flashy jewelry does not interest me.
“I think I have some right to speak about Armenia, since I know very well my literature, my language and my religion. I sang at the church choir up to the age of 22, I started going to the church at the age of four, holding the candle; I am the child of the Armenian church for over 20 years. For Mayrig I asked Archbishop Kude Nacachian of Paris to bless the stage, I wanted to debut with Hayr Mer,” said Verneuil.
He hopes to attend the film’s premiere in Armenia. “I will have about 150 premiers at the same time in different countries, I will have to see if the trip to Armenian can be arranged. I had sent a group to Armenia to film the Easter Mass; even if it is for 40 seconds, there will be a reference to Etchmiadzin in the film.”
Archbishops even visited Verneuil from Armenia, asking how they could help. “I told them `just pray for me’,” he said laughing.
“It is all I could ask them.”