"His polished, sometimes even poetic prose evokes a sense of curiosity and lament. In response to his family’s silence—and to the silence of a whole people still shellshocked by their grim treatment—Kalajian has become a professional storyteller and an excellent one at that." Kirkus Reviews

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Reasons to celebrate: Two stories about Armenians, and they both end happily

The original Men of Granite, the 1940 Granite City basketball team
I have a deal with my friend Stuart Alson, an independent movie distributor, producer and film-festival impresario: I write stories for his magazine, and he introduces me to interesting people in the film industry.

He’s always on high alert for Armenians, and that’s how I met Valerie McCaffrey—at least by telephone.

McCaffrey is well known as one of Hollywood’s top casting directors. She’s a bit less well known as an Armenian from Fresno, California, and our conversation convinced me that really needs to change.

The main topic of our chat was the film comedy Lost and Found in Armenia, which McCaffrey produced along with Maral Djerejian. It debuted in America last year but it’s about to get even wider international distribution through Stuart’s company.

I’d heard good things about the film, but my wife and I didn’t have a chance to see for ourselves until it popped up on Netflix recently. I recommend it highly by the only standard I ever apply to a comedy: I laughed.

Jamie Kennedy plays an American vacationer who drops in (quite literally) on an Armenian village. He is mistaken for a spy and interrogated in a language he can’t identify much less understand.

It’s a sure-fire setup, as the misunderstandings multiply. At its core, Lost and Found in Armenia is a simple fish out of water story, which is appropriate for a landlocked country. But nothing is quite so simple in Armenia.

Amid the humor, the audience gets a feel for the anxieties of a people whose history of turmoil and foreign conflict is contemporary as well as ancient. A scene later in the film makes it clear the villagers’ fears of incursion are not mere paranoia.

In all, Lost and Found in Armenia presents Armenians as real human beings in a real place, and it leaves the audience smiling. It’s a big plus for a country that gets little notice except in connection with controversy or tragedy.

McCaffrey had been to Armenia before but this extended stay made a deep impression. In village after village, families living in the humblest homes without so much as indoor plumbing insisted on sharing their bread, as well as their home-made vodka.

“We really should be more like these people,” she said. “They appreciate human life and relationships, and they love each other. I teared up at the end.”

Her next project isn’t an Armenian film, but it has some powerful Armenian elements.

Men of Granite tells the real-life story of a high school basketball team from Granite City, Illinois, a steel-mill town crowded with immigrants from Eastern Europe.

Just making the team was a triumph for these young men. Their parents may have been good enough to stoke furnaces, but no one believed kids with foreign-sounding names like Hagopian and Markarian could play such a fundamentally American game.

As it turned out, they played brilliantly: Granite City won the state championship. One of the players, Andy Phillip—of Hungarian descent—went on to become an NBA All Star.

The Armenian connection extends even deeper than several team members. The film is based on a book of the same name by retired Milwaukee Journal Sentinel sports writer Dan Manoyan, and the script is by Armand Kachigian.

They may not be marquee names yet, but the movie is set to star William Hurt as the coach, and Shirley MacLaine as the teacher who played an important part in the players’ lives.


I’m eager to see it, and to cheer for the kids from Granite City. I’m already cheering for Valerie (Boolootian) McCaffrey, who is helping Armenians tell the kind of stories we need to hear more often. 

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