There’s a danger with political movements inspired by a solitary figure, namely that the initial inspiration to change things for everyone’s betterment becomes instead a personality cult. That danger does not seem to be on Goran Hovannisian’s mind in his summation of a three week period in Armenia in 2018 when he hones in on Nikol Pashinyan’s efforts to topple the government of former military commander Serzh Sargsyan, a campaign that involved a march across the country, days of protests and his eventually becoming the country’s next prime minister.
Pashinyan manages to avoid the pitfalls of becoming this kind of central agitating figure, we don’t find out problematic facts about him following his success and I’m not suggesting that Hovnanisian needs to treat him with any kind of caution or skepticism, but with so little an investigation of Pashinyan beyond his basic biography, this does make for a rather conventional documentary.
The story begins in 2008 when Sargsyan’s coming to power by dubious means is met with crowd protest that results in a number of people being killed by government militia. Ten years later, Armenia is suffering under massive rates of poverty and corruption and Sargsyan is looking to change the constitution in order to continue to rule as Prime Minister after his two terms are up. The film begins eighteen days before the Republican majority in parliament will elect him, and it galvanizes journalist and activist Pashinyan to do something about it: broadcasting live from his phone, he announces that he will be arranging a march from Gyumri to Yerevan Square, a distance of just under two hundred kilometers, which at first is a sparsely attended affair that sees only a few figures walking the distance until the sudden appearance of a dog, whom they name Chalo, turns the march into an event and its participants into beloved folk heroes. The participants walk from noon to evening every day, stopping at camps, taking two weeks to reach their destination and even inspiring a theme song (“the revolution needs a song”) from which this film gets its title. Organized protests in the country’s biggest public space, Yerevan’s Republic Square, don’t go as well as planned in the last few days before the election, “My Step” movement leader Mkhitar Hayrapetjan says that “the people have forgotten to dream”, but student strikes coincide nicely with the movement (“a revolution without students? I couldn’t imagine it”) and move things along.
Further acts of civil disobedience and protest finally lead to a head to head between Pashinyan and Sargsyan at a Marriott Hotel that does not go well at first for the former, who is told he is issuing ultimatums, but in the last analysis really goes badly for the latter: getting defensive in dealing with what he considers an impossibly stubborn man, Sargsyan loses ground when he mentions the killings of March 2008 and then walks off the interview, sealing his eventual fate. It’s a straight line you can draw between that moment and the outcome of both men’s careers…in fact it’s a pretty straight line you can draw through all the events of this engaging if not electrifying film. It’s possible it was made too soon after the events in question and is concerned only with the bullet points of events without giving them too much introspective analysis; an examination of Pashinyan and Valeriy Osipyan, head of Yerevan’s police and “the hardline enforcer of the regime”, and their simultaneous conflict and admiration of each other would bear looking into, as would the personality of the man himself. As a thirteen year-old he yelled at his principal for being corrupt, later as a journalist he founded a newspaper with Anna Hakobyan, who would also become his wife, then spent years being harassed by authorities and Sargsyan’s supports for speaking out against him and even went to prison for two years for inciting public disorder (it would be worthwhile to know about this time in prison and the months he spent in hiding and what effect it had on him).
The film treats it like a foregone conclusion that Pashinyan ended up becoming the country’s prime minister and not the cautionary tale that his detractors would have believed he would become, the only hint of a suggestion of criticism is the one talking head who tells us that “autocracy always grows under the guise of democracy”. Questioning the combination of Pashinyan’s own personal ambition or adoration of the spotlight would have made access to these figures more difficult for the filmmaker, Pashinyan is in power at the time that he is filming and, even though he isn’t the tyrant that his predecessor was perceived as being, care must be taken in how he is presented. Hovannisian gets interviews not just with the liberal heroes of the story but with members of the republican party, specifically the party’s spokesman Eduard Sharmazanov, who refers to what he calls “Nikol and Chalo’s March”, and, miraculously, Sargsyan himself, though the director doesn’t really get the man to reveal much that’s shocking or newsworthy (and that’s likely because he probably couldn’t), and thus doesn’t really change the fact that he operates as a symbol in this film and not as a person.
This is a wonderful celebration of victory for someone whose conviction carried him through some very tough times, and it’s amazing that the story happens in so very short period of time, but it never really gets to know its participants in more than a basic and two-dimensional way and will come across as hollow propaganda to anyone not already on board with its politics.