Who Is Arby? What is Arby? Encounter with the Theatre and Cinema of Arby Ovanessian

Arby Ovanessian (1942– ), a pioneer of new directions in Iranian theatre and cinema, is one of the most vigorous and dominant artists of the modern era. Being one of the leading voices, he played a significant role in the transformation of the Iranian cultural landscape. Ovanessian is polyvalent. First and foremost, he is a director, but his keen, discerning insight and relentless, multi-faceted abilities allow him to get engaged in any capacity imaginable in order for the work of art to happen. His wide-searching vision and boundless horizons make his work always alive and ahead of the present time. According to one theatre critic, Ovanessian is the perpetual torchbearer of the Iranian theater. In the preface of a book, The Theatre and Cinema of Arby Ovanessian, Peter Brook mentions that “Arby is exceptional. […] He is both a man of the East and of the West open equally to the visible and invisible worlds.” With his poignant thoughts and creative ways of exploration that extend the limits of one’s imagination, Ovanessian’s work offers a ground of research potentialities for generations of Iranian artists, scholars and students.

The panel focuses on deeper understanding of Ovanessian’s creative work. Through different voices – of a writer, a philosopher, a filmmaker and an architect – scholars provide a network of broad-ranging ideas that explore the significance of Ovanessian’s theatre and cinema. The first paper titled “In Touch with the Unknown: A Testimony on the Theatrical and Cinematic Approach of Arby Ovanessian” focuses on the question of encountering the unknown in relation to Ovanessian’s work. In the second paper, “Transcendental Style in the Cinema of Arby Ovanessian: An Analysis of ‘The Source’ (Cheshmeh, 1971),” the author leads a discussion on the importance of the question of transcendence in Ovanessian’s cinema. “Arby Ovanessian: A Significant Cinematic Presence Followed by a Self-intended Speechlessness” is a title of the third presentation which discusses the emergence, influence and deliberate absence of Ovanessian in Iranian cinema. The last paper “Evoking Architecture: Theatre of Arby Ovanessian and Its Architectural Expression” explores the close relationship between Ovanessian’s theatrical creation and architecture. Together, the proposed papers aim to contribute to the discourse on Ovanessian’s theatre and cinema and to further the understanding of the gravity of his work of art.


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The author intends to elaborate on the possibility of being in touch with unknown through an invisible internal movement in Arby Ovanessian’s theatre and cinema.

The essay first recalls the author’s initial encounter and the essence and vivid personal experience with the unknown during the investigative exploration in his book. The author discusses his research methodology which is based on records of dialogues between the author and the actors and other participants, representing a collage of their ideas. The purpose of the book is to provide a historical account based on primary sources with the aim to offer a space to further exploration rather than suggesting any definite interpretation that would impose specific meanings. The paper emphasizes that the presence of the unknown and the layered possibilities embedded in Ovanessian’s work require a research that is open and fluid and allows qualities to be constantly discovered. Moreover, it turns one’s attention to the question of the presence of Ovanessian’s thought at the contemporary time, despite his lengthy hiatus from Iranian theatre and cinema. The author, after several years of investigation, attempts to answer the original question that initiated his endeavor: whether Ovanessian’s influential work and the basis of his artistic creation and its multilayered raised questions reached far beyond a specific time period.

The second part of the paper discusses the appearance and expression of the unknown in internal movements of Ovanessian’s theatre and cinema; his creative work offers a ground where possibilities for the emergence of the unknown could be established.
Through references to specific instances of Ovanessian’s work, this part discusses the discovery and encounters, as one could describe as “being in touch,” with the unknown. Although the necessity of the presence of this invisible quality is crucial, the essay emphasizes that its condition and emergence is not predefined and predetermined; rather, it is unexpected and can only be explored through the inner invisible movements of Ovanessian’s creation. The paper also alludes to the relationship of the unknown in Ovanessian’s work with the audience which leads them to cross the “real time.” Moreover, the moments of “being in touch” with the unknown are beyond collective revelation: they become individual, intuitive experience.

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Though an immensely popular and influential artist in his own country in the years before the Iranian Revolution, the films of Arby Ovanessian have not yet achieved anything like a sizable following despite favorable critical attention. If only because his work represents a serious challenge to our sense of the significant, of the meaningful and the spiritual, Ovanessian would be worth our scrutiny. But there is another reason we must study him: his best film, La Source, allows us to cultivate a mode of “transcendental” we have largely forgotten or ignored. Ovanessian, reminds us, teaches us, that the business of art is but to be expressive of the Transcendent. It may well be accurate to say that one purpose of the transcendental style in the cinema of Ovanessian is to encompass many meanings in order to get at something greater than those meanings. If we know a transcendental style by its generation of an idea of spiritual unity we are progressively attached to that idea through the vision of Ovanessian’s film. Implicit in Ovanessian’s art, in the transcendental project, is the requirement of a vision which is always renewing the event of spiritual unity, moving our secular world on to the next stage of that quest which is always to be performed.

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In my paper I will focus on Arby Ovanessian, a distinguished figures in the history of Iranian theatre, his first official cinematic presence, "Cheshmeh" ("la Source"), his noteworthy role in the eloquent Iranian new wave in cinema, and his self-intended cinematic speechlessness in the following years. Arby Ovanessian and Cheshmeh, belong to a revolutionizing era in Iranian film history formed in the late 60's and 70's. This prominent movement was launched, shaped and empowered by a fast growing number of young film directors, including Ovanessian, who made his debut feature, Cheshmeh, in 1971. Unlike the other film directors in the movement, Ovanessian did not make any other film, and went through a silence cinematic fasting! Many of those filmmakers, such as Dariush Mehrjui, Bahram Beizai, Amir Naderi, and Abbas Kiarostami, continued their careers and today they are significant international figures in cinema. In my paper, I will mostly keep the centre of attention on the occurrence and the absence of Arby Ovanessian in Iranian new wave, and the influences his only film has had. I will verify historical related events as well as some highlighted characteristics of the film "Cheshmeh". On balance, I will analyse various influential elements, tied together, which, all in one, made Cheshmeh an important incident in Iranian film history, and Ovanessian a remarkable figure.

In 1973, already renowned as an avant-garde theatre director, he made his debut feature film, "Cheshmeh", within the Iranian new wave in cinema. The movement continued its escalating path up to the Iranian revolution in 1979, while Ovanessian's presence had been inadequate to only one rather important film. While most of the film directors in the movement were inexperienced but ambitious, he had already made his career in theatre, in related academic area as a university lecturer, and even had tried cinema once by his ambiguously unfinished project, Lady Ahoo's Husband, which caused many worth-mentioning stories, published all over the film magazines in Tehran of those days. The essential question is still remained unanswered. Why Ovanessian's cinematic presence in that prominent era was limited to only one quite notable film followed by a Self-intended Speechlessness?

In my paper I will endeavour to raise the question within an academic argument, rather than finding an answer. Occurrence and the absence of Arby Ovanessian in Iranian cinema, and his Speechlessness will be the main centre of my academic consideration.

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The intimate presence of architecture in Arby Ovanessian’s theatre is among the prominent characteristics of his artistic work that necessitate exploration. His theatre develops and nurtures exceptional ties between the narrative, the performance and the chosen site – the attributes and dormant qualities embedded in the place. If the places are historical, they come out of their passive state and become infused with theatrical dimension, allowing them to participate in the performance at the present time. Ovanessian’s production of “Vis and Ramin” staged at the ruins of Persepolis at the 4th Shiraz Arts Festival (1970) originated this intimate and mysterious relationship with architecture in his work. Before the backdrop of the walls and columns of Persepolis, the perpetual lovers Vis and Ramin come to life and become reunited. The performance, in return, gives a new meaning to the ancient stone engravings.

The paper investigates how architecture and its spatial experience are involved in the theatrical creation of Ovanessian. Touching upon specific examples, “Vis a Ramin” at Persepolis, “All at Once, ‘Beloved of God…’” at the Bagh-e Delgosha in Shiraz, the production of Albert Camus’ “Caligula” at Persepolis, “There Appeared the Knight…” at the tomb of Artaxerxes at Persepolis, and the production of Chekhov’s “Cherry Orchard” in Bagh-e Ferdows, this article intends to investigate Ovanessian’s exceptional ability to create reciprocity and correlation between the theatre performance and architectural environment of the place.

The places and buildings chosen for his theatre become attuned with the performance: they become part of the theatrical event. The expression of the architecture becomes compatible with the expression of theatre. This is a crucial characteristic of Ovanessian’s theatre: making the places theatrical. The spatial qualities of the place intertwine with the plot, moods, stories and play itself. Architecture becomes an expressive element of ‘mise en scène’ and part of a ‘wholeness’ of the theatre creation. Even natural phenomena, like those of the sky, setting of the sun, moon, wind and rain become ‘theatrical.’ The paper focuses on this very essential quality in Ovanessian’s theatrical creation: merging of the architectural surroundings with the narrative and performance; developing an inseparable relationship between theatre – as a place of public/individual involvement and emblematical revelation – and architecture.