Hot Docs Review: ‘Under the Same Sun’

An oddly irresolute response to an unresolved conflict

4 mins read

Under The Same Sun
(Canada, 97 min.)
Dir. François Jacob
Program: Canadian Spectrum

One of the highlights of the recent Human Rights Watch Film Festival was the Armenian documentary, I Am Not Alone, using television and coverage live-streamed via cell phones to capture the country’s 2018 anti-autocratic revolution when journalist-turned-prime minister Nikol Pashinyan toppled the country’s autocratic government.

Under the Same Sun, directed by François Jacob (A Moon of Nickel and Ice) briefly touches on those same events, although it could not be more diametrically opposed, either in its resigned tone and elliptical, poetic esthetic. The subject is the century-old, ongoing Armenian-Azerbaijani ethnic conflict. The film’s introductory text explains how in 1988, Nagorno-Karabakh, a majority Armenian region within Soviet Azerbaijan, sought to unite with nearby Armenia. Subsequently, Nagorno-Karabakh became an independent, though internationally unrecognized, republic (NKR) while hundreds of thousands of Azeris were displaced from their homes. Jacob’s film is filled with moody shots of mountain landscapes and shimmery city skylines by night, accompanied by a moody electronic score and artful soundscape. Interview subjects, tersely identified, are shown in silent profile or speaking in disembodied voice-over. As the film shifts back and forth between tersely introduced characters, various towns and regions, even attentive viewers may have a sense of getting lost in the fog of war.

The film is bookended by interviews with the philosophical Azeri novelist, Akram Aylisli, who, in 2013, was subjected to house arrest and protests for his sympathetic treatment of Armenians. We also hear from Hikmet Hadjy-zadeh, an Azeri political analyst who says that Armenians “see genocide everywhere and they somehow put the blame on us.”

We follow Armenian-American activist, Anna Astvatsaturian Turcotte, a childhood refugee from Azerbaijan, now on a tour of Nagorno-Karabakh, on a mission to memorialize anti-Armenian atrocities and achieve international recognition for the de facto republic. A fourth subject is a young Azeri internet journalist, Davan Seyfullayev, who, in a late scene, has moved to the United States, where he and his partner arrange to have an awkward interview with Turcotte, each side incredulous at the other’s understanding of their shared history.

Amidst so many details, there is a dearth of overview here, apart from some welcome commentary of Armenian political scientist, Alessandro Iskandaryan: “In the Caucasus there isn’t a single spot of land that isn’t claimed by at least three different groups,” he says wryly, and each group can make a credible historic claim to declare that spot their homeland. Nagorno-Karabakh, he says, “is Jerusalem.”

Appropriately, the film’s title, Under the Same Sun, refers to the biblical Book of Ecclesiastes, suggesting that conflict and human resilience are inevitable. Still, a little more recognition of present-day realities couldn’t hurt. Any casual newspaper reader, for example, would know that Armenia, a majority Christian nation, is an ally of Russia, which sells arms to both sides. We know Azerbaijan, a majority Turkic Muslim country, is backed by Turkey, that the region is a major oil and gas transit route, and that OSCE Minsk Group, co-chaired by the United States, Russia and France, has been working to mediate peace. From the big picture perspective, Under the Same Sun is an oddly irresolute response to the unresolved conflict.

.Under the Same Sun screens at Hot Docs’ online festival. and at DOXA Festival.

Visit the POV Hot Docs Hub for more coverage from this year’s festival.

Liam Lacey is a freelance writer for and POV, Canada’s premiere magazine about documentaries and independent films.

Previously, he was a film critic for The Globe and Mail newspaper from 1995 to 2015. He has also contributed to such publications as Variety, Cinema Scope, Screen, and Entertainment Weekly, as well as broadcast outlets CBC and National Public Radio.

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