Saturday, August 18, 2007

Armenia’s Architectural Language: Getting Lost in Translation

Armenia’s Architectural Language: Getting Lost in Translation

An Interview with Jane Britt Greenwood, AIA

By Khatchig Mouradian and Jason Sohigian
(Joint Exclusive: Armenian Weekly/Hetq Online)
April 16, 2007

WATERTOWN, Mass.—Jane Britt Greenwood has seen some of Armenia's struggles first-hand. An associate dean at the College of Architecture, Art, and Design at Mississippi State University, Greenwood and her husband went to Armenia after the earthquake of 1988 to assist in the establishment of the American University of Armenia (AUA).

After leaving Armenia, Greenwood began looking for ways to be involved in the reconstruction of the country she had come to love. As an architect, the rebuilding of Armenia's infrastructure interested her, but she was disappointed to find that the new buildings generally lacked the traditional Armenian character.

Working with the environmental organization Earthwatch Institute, Greenwood is now organizing four 11-day architectural research expeditions that will take international volunteers to Gyumri in June and July 2007.

Volunteers will identify and document the historical architectural elements and patterns in the historic districts, which will contribute to a database of architectural information that can be accessed by planners, architects and designers in Armenia.

For more information about this project or to join as a volunteer, visit:

The following interview with Greenwood was conducted by phone on April 4.

Armenian Weekly/Hetq—How did Earthwatch Institute become interested in the Armenia expedition?

Jane Britt Greenwood—I proposed a project to Earthwatch a few years ago in Haiti related to vernacular architecture. They were interested in that project, but there was a coup in Haiti so it was put on hold. My program manager for that project knew about my interest in Armenia, and he asked me for another proposal that dealt with architecture.

Earthwatch gets a lot of proposals for projects that do things like work with endangered species like turtles and manatees, but they don't have many projects that deal with architecture. When Earthwatch tries to promote sustainability and the environment, they recognize that architecture is a part of the issue of sustainability, so they asked me to write another proposal that dealt with vernacular architecture. Since my interest has been in Armenia for so long, I wrote a proposal for this Armenia project.

AW/H—What specific observations do you have about Armenia's architecture? What are the traditional features and what is being built today?

J.G.—From a scholarly point of view, the information that is being been written has been mostly about churches. That is part of the cultural identity of Armenia, but there are other smaller structures that have just as much to do with establishing the identity of this country. People often don't see the value of smaller buildings such as houses and municipal buildings, but they have a lot to do with placing a country within a context of social and political issues.

In recent years there has been an economic boom in Armenia, especially in Yerevan, and I have seen a homogenization that is taking place within the architecture there. Near the Opera, the buildings are like a mini Times Square where you have billboards that are illuminated and you've got these modern office buildings going up with the horizontal ribbon windows. And when you take photographs of them they could be going up anywhere in the world.

My fear is that—and this is typical for many cultures that are trying to move forward from an economic point of view and trying to position themselves on the world stage—they look at what is being built in other parts of the world and they think, “We need to build glass boxes, we need to be like everybody else.” While that is certainly good, it causes people to not understand the value of their history and their architectural history and heritage.

From my point of view, a lot of that heritage in terms of housing has already been destroyed in Yerevan—you just don't find it anymore. In Gyumri, in the Kumayri Historic District and the old Alexandrapol area, there still are existing examples of Armenian architecture from the early 20th century. And I haven't seen anything like that in other parts of Armenia.

In the long term, I would like to see this project branch out into other areas, because I think Goris has great a vernacular cave typology, and Dilijan has a different type of housing typology. You start to see that the architectural structures are really specific to a location and the different regional influences of the community and the people. From an architectural point of view and a research and an academic point of view, that is information that needs to be documented and preserved.

It would be a terrible shame for Armenia to lose that part of their culture and history.

AW/H—In some historic parts of the U.S., you can't even paint your house a certain color. Yet in a place as old and historic as Armenia, it seems like you can build just about anything. What is going wrong with architecture in Armenia?

J.G.—There are a few factors, from a housing point of view, and at least in Gyumri. People fundamentally want shelter, and they want shelter that is safe, dry and comfortable. In Gyumri, a lot of people are still living in domiks, or in one or two rooms of a house because the rest of house was damaged in the 1988 earthquake. Many of these families don't have the resources to repair the houses, or when they do they are not as concerned with maintaining this sort of historic character. It's not a high priority—and I certainly understand that.

While there is the Ministry of Culture and there are some entities that deal with preservation, I don't know how well standards are enforced. It really has to occur at the local, municipal level, but a lot of people are still struggling with the day-to-day issues of living and surviving, so these issues really aren't in the forefront for them right now.

AW/H—What are you expecting to get out of this expedition? What could it lead to?

J.G.—It is fundamentally an educational process, it's a way to educate citizens of the value of historic structures. There is value in the long term. There can be tourism value, if it can be promoted so people will travel to Gyumri to look at the houses in this historic district.

But we also have to be careful. Through the development of a “pattern language,” I would like to be able to establish design guidelines and a strategy for growth. When people want to build in this area, it's not that everyone has to build like historic Alexandrapol. But there are qualities and components about these buildings—in the way windows are designed, for example—there are sustainability issues that need to be maintained. There is a lot that we can learn from these structures that will help the planning of the future of Gyumri.

If and when the border of Kars and Gyumri opens up, there is going to be a big economic boom in Gyumri. So, that historic district is at risk of being destroyed through this whole notion of economic development, and if we go through this process of education and documentation and look at restoring some of these structures, we can get a foothold in helping people recognize the value of what they have.

AW/H—What are the prospects of getting work done on the ground in terms of implementation? Is there a framework for future suggestions for approaching the government or municipalities?

J.G.—One of my long-term goals is to purchase one of these historic structures and actually go through a preservation/restoration process. This is a way to create jobs in the area, because there are a lot of skills in masonry and ironwork.

Gyumri has a rich history of artists, so there is an artistic culture and crafts culture that is being lost. It's a way to create jobs for people, to create a niche in the country for creating these kids of artifacts, returning to ironwork, stonework, masonry work, and educating the public and educating people with specific skills. Through that we can approach the government, if we can show that we are creating jobs and creating an environment that is becoming pleasing for people.

I think Gyumri is a welcome relief from the heat and smog of Yerevan in the summer. It is a matter of trying to sell the vision of what Gyumri could be. I'm just one architect with these ideas—all I can do is start with my project. And with awareness at the grassroots level people will become more interested in this and we can see where it goes.

The politics in Armenia are very complex and I'm not the person to get into that, but through this project and by raising awareness maybe someone can work from these ideas and help move the government, or at least the Gyumri government, toward these ideas. I know it is not going to happen overnight—it is a very complex problem from a political point of view—but as an architect all I can do right now is try to document, preserve and gather oral histories from people about their lives in these houses, what has been important to them about these houses, what is the social structure of family life as a result of these houses.

AW/H—There is pressure on people if they speak out about these matters and say, for example, that construction projects are destroying the heritage of Armenian cities. The atmosphere in Armenia is difficult in that respect. Do you have local partners in Armenia that are helping you with this work so you can be successful?

J.G.—I have been working in Gyumri with the City Research Center. Over the past 5-6 years, they have been developing a digital database of the buildings—they have been photographing and cataloguing the buildings, which has been great. But they have not been analyzing the buildings, looking at trends, and looking at it from a social behavioral point of view. So my research is trying to take that to the next step. But I have heard that it is difficult if people try to speak out, so all I can realistically do is document it.

AW/H—Are the construction projects in Armenia following any guidelines or do you think they maintain the heritage of the country?

J.G.—My impression is that there are some guidelines but they are not being followed. But it is the complexity of the political system and the building codes. And you find that in the U.S. as well, so it is not something that is specific to Armenia. Even developers in the U.S. know there are rules but they try to get around them, and it really depends on how strong the entity is that is trying to monitor it. If you don't have a strong municipal government or preservation group, you really don't have a way to find out if the preservation guidelines are being followed.

Quite often money speaks louder than anything, especially in a country that has been deprived of economic development for so many years. And it is hard to argue with that—I understand that. So it is a matter or trying to take one step at a time so we can document this. These buildings could be destroyed by earthquakes—and a lot of the buildings have been damaged by water over the years. There may be a point where someone says it is not financially responsible or feasible to maintain the buildings. Even in the U.S. when they look at restoring a structure there is a financial bottom line.

AW/H—You mentioned earthquakes—is it true that some of the new buildings going up begin to crumble before they are even finished? Is the new construction being built to withstand earthquakes?

J.G.—It is my understanding that things are supposed to be built to meet earthquake standards, but whether or not they are, I can't answer without speaking to architects and building inspectors there. But that's what I find interesting about these historic buildings. A lot of the buildings in the Kumayri Historic District have withstood two earthquakes, while those built after the Second World War didn't. There are a lot of things we can learn about the way those buildings were constructed—there are thermal qualities to those buildings, and there are a lot of lessons we can learn from that to help guide us in the future.

AW/H—How is this expedition being promoted in the international community? How are you trying to recruit volunteers for the trip?

J.G.—Earthwatch has an aggressive marketing strategy for all of their projects. They are contacting people like yourself and other Armenian media, promoting the expedition among their own volunteer networks internationally, and there is information about the expedition on their website, In Armenia, we are going to distribute material at hotels around Gyumri and Yerevan, and we are hoping to do a TV spot when we get there in the summer.

AW/H—If this trip is successful, is there potential for other Earthwatch expeditions in Armenia?

J.G.—Absolutely. There are plenty of archeological areas that could be investigated. Earthwatch has expeditions that document flora and fauna. From my point of view, Armenia has some beautiful flowers and wildflowers. There is a lot of opportunity for Earthwatch to be involved in Armenia—it is just a mater of finding other individuals like myself who are interested in trying to do something like this.

AW/H—How did you get interested in Armenia?

J.G.—My husband and I were living in Boston and he was teaching and saw an ad in the Chronicle of Higher Education about an American university [American University of Armenia] that was being initiated by the Diasporan community in California. His background is in business and engineering, and those are two areas in which they were starting programs, so we went over in 1992.

The Armenian government had given AUA some property in Abovian to build a new American style university, and they hired me to be the university architect. So I was the liason with architects from the University of California.

There were a lot of changes. The original site we looked at was a munitions storage area, and the site literally blew up the day after I went to look at it, so we spent a lot of time looking for another site. My final recommendation was that they stay in downtown Yerevan because transportation was an issue for people and no one knew what the future would look like.

Being there for a year and a half, I found the people to be very warm and everyone makes you a part of their family. It is a beautiful country, with so many different facets—it is so small with a varied landscape. I really fell in love with it and was fascinated with it, and I was looking for some way over the years to get involved architecturally with what was going on there.

I left in 1993 and I didn't return until five years ago, and I have been going back every summer since then to develop partnerships and look for projects. And I finally connected with the City Research Center in Gyumri ( I have a real passion for the country and the people and I am interested in learning about the culture that built this architecture.

AW/H—In the Earthwatch Institute's catalogue you say, “Join me on this exciting expedition to Armenia—it will truly be a life changing experience.” How do you think people's lives will change if they participate in this expedition?

J.G.—They will have a better appreciation of another country and they will learn a lot about themselves. Going to Armenia was a life changing experience for me at many levels—I realized I was stronger than I thought I was both emotionally and physically, and I think other people will find this as well. It is still a hard life in Armenia, and people will understand from a sustainability point of view that, for example, you don't need to take a shower for 15 minutes and use that much water.

Those sorts of life experiences are what I mean—and with architecture we talk about sustainability, green design and waste—but when you can experience another culture that really does so much with so little, then people will understand that you can do a lot with a little, and there are a lot of things we can cut back on in our lives in the U.S. or in the UK or Australia or wherever you are from, and you can still have a rich and fulfilling life.

Volunteers will learn about themselves from this experience, and they will learn about Armenia and architecture. It will make them look at their environment in a different way. It will make them realize they can make a difference in their own environment. Any time you have an educational process, if you can reach one or two of your students each semester, you have done a good job because they can go and reach other people. Whatever little progress we make will be a big step toward change somewhere down the line. I may never see it, but someone else might see the work we are doing and carry on from there.

You have to start somewhere, and I think this is that start.

Khatchig Mouradian is the editor of the Armenian Weekly (
Jason Sohigian is deputy director of Armenia Tree Project (

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

An Interview with Vahan Hovhannesian

Dual Citizenship: An Interview with Vahan Hovhannesian
By Khatchig Mouradian
The Armenian Weekly
August 11, 2007

On February 26, the Armenian National assembly passed a law allowing dual citizenship. In this interview, conducted in Washington on April 23, Deputy Speaker of the National Assembly Vahan Hovhannissian discusses the importance of that law.
Khatchig Mouradian—My first question goes beyond the legalities of the dual citizenship law. In a sense, the dual citizenship law could bring the two divided wings of the Armenian nation together. What are your thoughts on this matter?

Vahan Hovhannisian—First, I must say that the passage of the dual citizenship law will be considered one of the greatest victories of the ARF in this term of the National Assembly. As you know, the law wasn’t passed easily. But at the end, it passed more or less the way we wanted it to. In the beginning, constitutional obstacles to dual citizenship were removed, and then the law itself was passed. Now the third act remains: the implementation of the law on the ground and the coordination of details. How do people apply? What documents will they need to present? How will the applications be processed?

You are right to point out that the law has many different layers. On the one hand, it has a huge moral significance. As we all know, the Armenian diaspora was not the result of emigration, it was the result of the genocide when people were forced to leave their homeland. Thus, if the homeland, though not complete, has been able to achieve independence, then it is forced to give all of its children the right to citizenship. In our opinion this law should have been passed as early as 1991, as soon as Armenia became independent. Due to various political reasons, that was not accomplished. But at least now we have been able to bring this process to its end, and now any Armenian who would like to receive Armenian citizenship can do so, thus gaining the rights of any citizen, not limited to voting.

Here I must emphasize that I hope the number of applications will be plentiful and the number of Armenian citizens will grow. In the international theater, a country with a population of three million and another country with a population of five million carry different weight. The dual citizenship law must strengthen Armenian’s position.

Aside from that, the introduction of dual citizenship in Armenia will encourage investments. It is one thing to make investments in Armenia out of a feeling of moral obligation toward the homeland. It is an entirely different thing to be a citizen and a full participant of the civic life of the nation, whether in politics, in the social sphere, or in other spheres.

In one word, the law will create new waves of Armenians heading toward Armenia. Thus, the law will have far-reaching positive results.

K.M.—Perhaps this was more widely felt in the past, but there are some in Armenia who say that the diaspora did not go through the difficult times that Armenians in Armenia had to endure in the last decade, and claim that this should be taken into consideration when thinking about dual citizenship. What do you think?

V.H.—Such thinking easily crumbles in the face of criticism, since a large section of the Armenian population did not go through those difficult days either, and did not participate in the war. The Armenian authorities back then shielded their sons from military service, had electricity and heating, and did not share the people’s suffering. Can we take away their citizenship because of this? I think this line of thinking is madness, especially since there is a price to pay for becoming a dual citizen of Armenia—that is, a dual citizen cannot run for the presidency or for a seat in the National Assembly. I think from the point of view of fairness, this law is perfect.

K.M.—Naturally the passing of this law was welcomed by the diaspora. The question in the minds of diaporan Armenians is when and how will this law be implemented? Can applications only be filed in Armenia or will embassies also be accepting them?

V.H.—We didn’t get to discuss the concrete steps to implement the law because the elections are upon us and naturally the Assembly is on a hiatus. But I think this will be one of the first issues discussed after the elections. A committee has already been established that is dealing with the details, including how one applies, what documents are needed, how applicants will have to prove their Armenian origin, etc. There are some points that need to be fine-tuned, and some time will be needed, but I think it is a matter of weeks and that it will be resolved quickly after the elections.

In reality, there are no obstacles for applying now. Meaning, just like before, any individual who wants Armenian citizenship must apply to the President of the Republic. It is natural, of course, that under the circumstances a new process for the applications must be created. It is also not a secret that the security services will need to review applications, as some will attempt to abuse the system.

K.M.—What are the expectations from those who will benefit from the dual citizenship law? What are their duties and what will they gain?

V.H.—As far as the Armenian government is concerned, dual citizens are first and foremost citizens of Armenia. Where their other citizenship was issued is of no interest to us. As such, they have the same duties toward the Republic as any Armenian citizen would. That includes serving in the military and other duties. Of course, when an individual is a citizen of Armenia and another country, we cannot allow him or her to become an Assembly member or President. But that doesn’t mean dual citizens will never be able to serve in those posts. After living in Armenia for 10 years, they may give up their other citizenship and receive full rights. There is one problem: How are people to pay taxes? There are international tax agreements and Armenia has signed such agreements with many countries. These will ensure that the individual doesn’t pay the same tax twice in two separate countries. And of course, those who have served in another army for 12 months will not have to complete compulsory military service in Armenia. Also, those who are past the age of 27 will not have to serve in the military, Dual citizens are also completely under the jurisdiction of the Armenian government. For example—and this is a rather bad example—if an individual commits a crime, the Armenian authorities will consider him as an Armenian citizen, and the individual won’t be able to claim, say, that he is a citizen of the U.S., or Syria, or France, and that he would like to be tried in those countries under their penal codes. As far as the authorities are concerned, a dual citizen of Armenia is a citizen of Armenia, and so if you were to commit a crime in Armenia, the Armenian authorities would prosecute you based on the Armenian penal code. The Armenian government’s approach to dual citizens is identical to the approach used by the United States. The U.S., too, recognizes dual citizenships, but treats all of its citizens, including its dual citizens, the same way. Armenia will do the same.

K.M.—In your view, what will the future bring and are there concerns for possible obstacles? Is it possible that the law will be transformed into an internal political tool?

V.H.—I don’t think that’s a concern, because in essence no one was opposed to the concept of dual citizenship. People’s hesitance had much more to do with voting rights—that is, there was the impression among many that diasporan Armenians, by becoming citizens of Armenia, were mostly going to vote for the ARF. This view, by the way, is far from the truth. I don’t think that kind of vote will be large enough to have any effect on today’s political landscape. On the other hand, if we really want the diaspora to be a political presence in our country, if we really want to create one nation in one state, and if we truly want to attract Western Armenians—the diaspora—into our political life, we must allow for their political preferences. So yes, all of those political parties that have come alive in Armenia over the last few years should start taking into consideration the interests of the diasporans, so they can gain their votes. This is a very normal process and there shouldn’t be any problems, especially since in the future the flow towards Armenia should be large. But I don’t think there will be enough applications in the next few months or enough citizenships granted that there will be a political imbalance in Armenia. I don’t think it will happen and I think the fears that it will are not grounded in reality.

K.M.—You said that this law would allow the Diaspora to inch closer toward Armenia. As for the opposite effect—how will it move Armenia closer to the diaspora?

V.H.—Here the issue is dual. If citizens of Armenia today were to gain citizenship in another country, they would not be immune from their obligations, such as serving in the Armenian army. This is one serious problem. The second problem is the issue of the Armenian population in Russia, who have close ties to Armenia, yet value their ties with Russia. We must work with the Russian authorities and come to some kind of agreement regarding the status of the Armenian population there, since it is the largest Armenian population outside of Armenia.

As for the rapprochement between Armenia and the diaspora, I think that’s going to take some time because the division between Western and Eastern Armenians, which was forcefully and artificially created by our enemies, was performed a long time ago. The division has been made. In that rapprochement between Eastern and Western Armenians, whole mentalities have to be reconciled with each other. And the issue is not just economic, it’s not about investing in Armenia or buying a house in Armenia. It is about Armenian grammatical rules, the literary language of Western Armenians and Eastern Armenians—which Armenian children in both Armenia and the Diaspora should start studying in equal amounts. These are very serious and far-reaching issues that need to be resolved. This rapprochement won’t be easy. For example, Armenia can’t just move a magic wand and pass a law forcing classical orthographic rules down peoples’ throats, because that means whole libraries will have to be corrected and a whole generation that doesn’t know the rules will become illiterate. Instead, this change requires long-winded efforts as well as a government plan. We have had a few Armenia-Diaspora summits to find solutions to these issues. Unfortunately, the solutions have not yet been found. The Armenia-Diaspora rapprochement, unfortunately, has not yet occurred.

Thursday, August 2, 2007

An Interview with Hrag Yedalian

An Interview with Hrag Yedalian
The Director of ‘The People’s Advocate’ Talks about His Debut Film
By Khatchig Mouradian

The Armenian Weekly
August 4, 2007

Criminal defense and civil rights attorney Charles R. Garry is associated with numerous high profile cases in the ‘60s, making him one of the leading attorneys of the 20th century. In his career, which abruptly came to an end when one of his clients, Rev. Jim Jones, led 900 of his followers to mass suicide, Garry defended Black Panther Party chairman Bobby Seale and the anti-Vietnam war activists known as the Oakland 7, among others. He died in 1991, at the age of 82.

In his autobiography Seize the Time Bobby Seale wrote, “We don’t know every detail of Charles’ life, but we can see that he is a man who is dedicated to the survival and the existence of the right to self-determination of human beings. We need a lot more history on Charles R. Garry so we can understand what motivates a man to be such a defender of the people’s human rights.” In the documentary The People’s Advocate: The Life and Times of Charles R. Garry, director Hrag Yedalian attempts to find out what motivated the Armenian-born Garry (Garabedian) to embark on that road.

Yedalian studies film at the American Film Institute Conservatory. The people’s advocate is his first documentary. This phone-interview was conducted on July 30.

K.M.—Why did you decide to do a documentary on Charles Garry?
H.Y.—I was this young person trying to get involved with different causes and all of that was pretty much motivated by my origin, by the fact that my grandfather was a survivor of the genocide. I wanted to take that motivation and channel it in a positive way. And quite frankly, I was born in the U.S, I grew up in the U.S., I went to school here. It’s pretty important for me to get involved with what’s going on here. Charles Garry’s story was fascinating for a number of reasons. Despite the fact that he was probably one of the most sought after civil rights attorneys during the ‘60s, here was this guy of Armenian descent, and he was defending all these people who were seen as the poster boys and girls for the “Revolution.” I wanted to look into the story but most importantly, I want to use the story as an example.
As an AYF member, I used to interact with literally dozens if not hundreds of youth my age, and I wanted them to see that in addition to Genocide recognition, there are so many profound issues that affect us. I felt that Garry’s example would serve as a positive influence. Garry was an individual of Armenian descent who went out of his way, became an attorney and defended human rights.
I’m sure Garry has been criticized for changing his name, etc. I’m sure Armenians of the time felt that he wasn’t “Armenian enough.” But if you look into his trial transcripts of any of the Panther cases, or any of the anti-Vietnam war cases, his opening and closing statements often include reference to his own people. When defending the oppressed, his essential argument for the jury was: These people are being oppressed, segregated in this country today. Throughout history, we’ve seen what has happened to, for example, the Armenian people, and we can’t allow our government to be oppressive in the same ways that other governments have been in the past. And that was his main thrust, that was the central focus, and he understood it. So addition to being an Armenian who was discriminated against in the Fresno area, he lived through the Depression, he knew how difficult it is for the poor to get by in the U.S. So it was the dynamic of all this that attracted me to his story and I really wanted to present it to the public in general and people my age in particular.

K.M.—Talk about the sources you used.
H.Y.—At Berkley, I took this history class titled “Rethinking the Sixties.” The purpose of the class was to work on a substantial paper that dealt with any topic of the ‘60s. After the first class I was already thinking of Charles Garry. I approached the Professor and told him that I’m very interested in writing about Garry, but because there isn’t a lot of printed material I want to go and interview people. After she gave me the OK, I called Roxanne and asked for her advice. She e-mailed me the contact information of people she had spoken to and interacted with, and that’s where it started. I started talking to people.
Roxanne had the benefit of dealing directly with Garry. I never had that benefit because Gary passed away in 1991. So I had to tell a story about Gary without Gary, basically. Obviously the best way to do that was to interview the people who were closest to him. So if you see the interviewee list, it includes everyone from, let’s say, Bobby Seal, the co-founder of the Panthers, to his longtime girlfriend, to his two brothers, who both passed away since. So you have all this oral testimony that’s actually quite fascinating. I wanted to intentionally make a film that was not the duplicate of Roxanne’s film. At the end, I wanted for someone who was really interested in Garry to get different pieces from each of the movies. The only interviewee that appears in both is Bobby Seal.
In addition to that, the main sources come from the archival footage that I found from local television stations in San Francisco. That’s where the gold was. I think I’ve used archival footage from at least six or seven sources if not more. Also, an important part of the film was Garry’s legal documents; they are all at UC Berkley and I spent a few months going through them. There are copies of paperwork and legal files that I was fortunate enough to obtain and go over. So it’s really the mix of four or five different types of sources in the film.

K.M.—Can you tell us briefly about your background? You mentioned your work in the AYF, but give us a more general background, your education, etc.
H.Y.—Well I went to two Armenian private schools. After I graduated from high school, what I really wanted to do was get firmly involved in the political process. During high school and after, I was involved with local political campaigns here in Los Angeles to get people registered to vote. I was fortunate enough to be a part of that process. And as I got more and more immersed, I decided to sort of take a different route. I got interested in organizational work, in international human rights work, and I wanted to go to law school so that I could try to do similar things. Garry’s a good example of what civil rights/human rights attorneys can do with their careers. After graduating Berkley, I started law school. I registered at UCLA Law, but a few weeks into it, because I was so involved with this documentary, I decided that it wasn’t the route to go. So I left law school for film school, and that’s sort of the route that I’ve decided on at this point—making films and hopefully trying to influence a few people through that work.

K.M.—So you’re still studying?
H.Y.—I’m still studying, yes. I’m going to start my second year in September.

K.M.—Let’s talk about the people you interviewed. Can you tell us how you made the selection, and about your experiences with interviewees like Howard Zinn?
H.Y.—To be in my position and to talk to these people was sort of an unreal experience because most of them are people who have influenced history. To have the privilege to talk to these people was a big deal for me.
You mentioned Howard Zinn. I’ll start with him. I’ve always been fascinated with his work, and I called him and told him that I was looking for a narrator for a film on Garry and whether he would be interested. Immediately, without hesitation—and I was actually shocked by it—he said he would definitely be interested in doing that.
I caught him at a very busy time in his life. He was going across the country, and if he was to do the narration, he would have had to spend a lot of time writing it. So we agreed to take a different route: He would be in the film, and he would provide the historic context. So, for example, when we’re talking about the anti-communist hunts during the 1950’s or the Vietnam War, he provides a brief context. There are four Panthers in the movie. There’s Bobby Seal, who was an obvious choice, and the other three are very interesting and important choices. One has to realize that although Charles Garry was defending Bobby Seal or others in court, he wasn’t constantly interacting with them because these were men in prison. He would visit them but he wasn’t interacting with them on a constant basis. He was interacting with the other people involved in the party. In fact, he was probably closest to David Hilliard, who was the chief of staff of the Panther Party. David talks about this on the phone. He and Charles Garry, they were partners during the late ‘60s. They would go around college campuses and David would represent the party, and Garry would talk about the legal aspects. And they would literally go on tours and raise money for these causes and talk about these cases. And then there is Ericka Huggins, who is an extremely sensitive person and truly admired Garry. I also interviewed Kathleen Cleaver because she knew the party inside and out, and she was very active with the first Panther trial. In addition to knowing Garry pretty well, she provides the historic background to most of these cases. Most of the interviewees were incredibly generous in lending their time and support to the film.

K.M.—Talk about Garry’s brothers, Harvey and Haig Garabedian.
H.Y.—Actually, the first interview I conducted was with both of the brothers in 2003. They were living in Fresno and I called them up, and we basically developed this friendship, and they would talk literally for hours.
They definitely didn’t know the details about, let’s say, his involvement with the Panthers, or his decision to take on this case or that case. They didn’t know any of that. What they did know, was about their roots, what Garry was going through as a child growing up in Fresno... That was the most important part.
Unfortunately, the brothers never saw my film. In fact, I don’t think Garry ever saw the final cut of Roxanne’s film, so it’s pretty unfortunate actually.