It is rare that a movie can make you laugh and cry in same two hours.
'Amerikatsi' sucks you into a colorful yet confined world of a Soviet Armenia labor camp prison, locked in the imaginative journey of an innocent American-Armenian repatriate wrongfully convicted of being an American spy. The repat, Charlie, is innocent in more ways than just his sentencing: his naïve pursuit to optimistically move to Armenia in 1940s paired with his endearing trust in strangers takes Charlie on a tumultuous journey to survive in prison.
As the film lands in theaters across the United States, the exploration of a world and characters created by writer, director, and lead actor Michael Goorjian marks 'Amerikatsi' as a a must-see movie, particularly one to be seen and immersed in by the darkness and silent community of a movie theater.
I saw 'Amerikatsi' at its premiere in the Alex Theater last Wednesday, plopped right in the middle as the lights dimmed. The film wastes no time taking you into the life of Charlie, as we witness him as a young boy locking himself in a luggage truck to escape during the Ottoman Empire's executed genocide of Armenians in the mid to late 1910s. Locked in what could be Charlie's coffin, we transport 30 years later to the state of Armenia under Joseph Stalin's Soviet Union, where a scram for food and housing leads Charlie to saving a young boy from being trampling, eventually meeting his Armenian mother who is married to a high-ranking Soviet Union military officer.
In the 1940s, thousands of American-Armenians were offered citizenship and housing in the USSR as part of Stalin's plan to repopulate Christian Armenians to their statehood. Many were left in impoverished circumstances, while others were thrown into recked labor camps, both in Armenia and Siberia. When Charlie goes to dinner with his new Armenian friend and her military husband, Charlie is suspected of being an American spy, and accused of displaying "cosmopolitan" attire for wearing a tie to dinner, a law violation in life of communism.
That night, Charlie is woken by Soviet officers and taken to a nearby labor camp prison, where he is sentenced to 10 years of hard labor.
Michael Goorjian, the actor who plays Charlie and the writer/director of the film, plays with your emotions like a puppet-master. Despite the despair and cruel conditions of the labor camp, he finds hilarious moments and interactions between unsophisticated prison guards and curious Armenian prisoners who have been brought in from all over the Armenian diaspora.
Seeing the film amongst strangers with your eyes glued to the silver screen, you find yourself belting laughing and then sitting still in shock, with a laugh then bringing you back to ease. It is a masterclass in filmmaking. The comedic and emotional depth of every character, whether a small cameo or an antagonist, grips you deeper and deeper into the story.
The world continues to explode with imagination when Charlie peers through his prison window to discover the life of a prison guard living in an apartment across the way, living vicariously through his trials and tribulations of daily life.
In his attempt to survive, both physically and emotionally, Charlie carves out a wanderlust life for himself in prison, forming unconventional bonds and coping mechanisms that make you root for not just Charlie, but even characters you had no sympathy for as the movie begins.
Seeing the movie with Armenians feels like you have an inside joke, one that is shared in the darkness of a theater.
As the film progresses, you constantly unsure of what will be the fate of Charlie or the simple prison guards, despite knowing the deep context of this seldom-told part of Armenian history.
Because of the lustrous characters and riveting roller-coaster of emotions the film takes you on, seeing 'Amerikatsi' at home on a streaming service does not do the film's beauty justice.
UPDATED OCTOBER 5TH:
The film is playing in the following locations:
For more information about the film 'Amerikatsi', visit amerikatsi.film.