Conversation with Roger Kupelian: Part Three

warriortreeROGER: How about you? If Aladdin gave you a lamp…

MARY: I enjoyed your collaborations with Serj Tankian. I’d like to see more of that.

If the genie visited me, I would probably make the same tired wish that all artists make: “Let me earn enough to live by my art.” We don’t have much imagination, do we? But really, that’s what it comes down to. We just want to work. And sometimes eat. But mostly work. And care for the ones we love. And work.

Apart from that, I’d be curious to see a play I’d written performed. That’s a whole new ball game for me and really fascinating.

Now, I’d like to ask you a different and more difficult question. I’d love to hear your thoughts on identity and the advantages/limits of a strong cultural focus when it comes to making art. Do you find you get pigeonholed as “an Armenian director”? Conversely, do you prefer to be identified that way? Do you think it enriches your contribution? Do people make assumptions about you?

ROGER: Ooo, you asked for this one…

I hope not… but people always look at the work you’ve done rather than the entire scope of what you are about to do. I try to mix the groups that work on these projects with me so that we get different perspectives. It is insulting, to be honest, when it is assumed that someone with my background, raised where I was raised, etc, is incapable of stepping outside of my skin, and looking at it from another angle. The music vids I did for Serj were not about the Armenian culture, for example, but the fact that Roger KupelIAN and Serj TankIAN did something together sends up a flag in some circles. (I’ve faced a lot of ethnic stereotyping within my 20-year stint in VFX, but maybe that’s because it’s based in Los Angeles, and they encounter Armenians on a daily basis. It’s the new group to feel ‘threatened by’. )

For EoB , I’ve had AMAZING support from diverse places, including my ethnic kin, but we’re not a culture used to supporting the media arts generally. Some other tribes are better at it and have been at it longer.

Take my Graphic Novel series – as much as it’s all in English and tries not to be too ethnocentric, it is about what it is. There’s an inherent bias to contend with, as it does not fit into any of the ‘known quantities’ and trendy topics currently circulating. I mean, I didn’t care. EoB was a labour of love and had to be expressed. People who like it like it. I didn’t wake up trying to take a mega commercial project one morning.

rogercomicconFor the documentary series, we had to make a different consideration, however.
For Western audiences, Rome has to be a very WHITE Rome (usually with Brit accents). Ethnics are usually the bad guys, tagalongs at best. (In fact the only show to try and ATTEMPT to change that a bit was TV’s Spartacus. It almost succeeded.)

EoB is about a more ‘Ethnic’ and Culturally Diverse version of Rome, what we call the Eastern Empire, and later on renamed Byzantium by German Scholars. We cover everyone who was big at the time. And Armenians were among those who were “big at the time”. We knew that to a modern audience used to a certain thing in a certain way, one had to be careful. I’ve seen it where all people have to do is learn my last name and they immediately start stereotyping. They can’t help it.

One of our main actors who plays the Pagan High Priest is a long time friend of mine; the Artist Vahe Berberian. During one of his lectures, he spoke of the way we’re pigeonholed into being ‘nationalistic’. He said our tribal instincts come out of a need to survive as we are indeed an endangered culture. We love encountering each other in far off places. Kind of like, ‘oh you survived too!? yay!’

Others don’t come at it like that. Popular media sees us as a non-visible minority and in fact easy bogeymen for lazy TV writers. I wrote a whole article about it.

To a bland, consumer-driven world, anything that says ‘ancient’ and demands attention to a particular culture may seem a bit heavy-handed. You’ve heard that before I am sure: “You are too close to the topic”.

You’ve got the West with it’s deteriorating sense of identity, noted by a loss of faith in many of its institutions, coupled with an extreme upswing of tribalism fuelling the Middle East (once the Eastern Roman and Persian empires, to be sure). People are trying to come up with a general sense of utopia but it’s not working. In fact, Tribes are being amplified. It’s a good thing when it gives a person a sense of belonging and family, enriching traditions and such. The extreme is not so good.

Long ago, on a production far, far away…

The fact is, People will always make Tribes. “One Tribe” slogan is Utopian Bullshit. Who’s version of Utopia are we buying into? Dancing on drugs in the desert? Whatever’s trending on Twitter? What some news network says is the status quo? People will react to that and form their own little tribes. Regardless. It’s human.

Everything we believe comes from that. That’s why the anti-religion crusade has it wrong. The only way to completely eradicate group violence is to do away with the ability to form groups, which is a human survival tactic. It’s ancient. It’s a tool. It gets out of hand. Never going away unless we go away.

It should be, and I believe this (which is why I choose to live where I live) ‘Of the Many, One.” A Happy Big Tribe is made up of many happy little tribes.

My projects seem to be about maintaining what is a core identity while making it work within a greater vision. E Pluribus Unum.

MARY: I admire your courage. You manage to stay true to your roots, true to your experience, all the while remaining clear and balanced in your approach. I don’t think a kind of “sane tribalism” is at odds with democratic nationhood – quite the reverse. People can be both loyal to their own close group, and working incessantly towards a greater good. I think that’s probably true of the planet in general – we can and should be able to serve our tribe and humanity at the same time. No utopias required. People who grumble and moan that it’s impossible are just playing the “divide and conquer” game.

The history geek in me loves a diverse Rome, by the way. The ancient Mediterranean world would have been a melting pot – especially those centres of culture and power, Rome and Byzantium. Endless exchanges between peoples and cultures… Phoenician, North African, Viking, Hebrew… hummus and falafel available at all ports. Everyone busily giving unto Caesar what was Caesar’s and getting on with life. (We moderns should take note.)

ROGER: Speaking of diverse roots, you have some very diverse roots and I would love it if you could expound on that a little bit. I am sure it’s added to who you are both as an artist and as a person.

MARY: Well, it’s certainly made me what I am! (Confused?)

Briefly, my family has roots in various parts of Iran, Baghdad, Azerbaijan and, rather less exotically, north London. They were Muslims, Christians and Jews. Many of them became Baha’is, which is why they ended up travelling so far from their homelands and marrying people outside their immediate communities. So a Baghdadi Jew married an Iranian girl from a Sh’ia background, for example, while an Azeri married into a family of exiles in Palestine. Later on, a contingent decamped from Iran to Uganda. Branches of the family lived in Germany, Canada, the US and Israel for many years. Basically, they all emigrated, resettled and globe-trotted from the nineteenth century onwards, and by the time it got to me the genes were a mess.

I do sometimes envy pebooksRogerople with strongly identifiable cultural background and experience. But I suppose we’re all mongrels of one sort or another. What it has given me: a desire to build bridges between people, and a great deal of sympathy for those who find themselves on the move, exiled, uprooted or obliged for one reason or another to leave their homelands.

ROGER: Before any more wars can be waged, war lobbies and campaigns can be mounted or political decisions could be made, I wish someone would do mandatory genetic testing for everyone and publish the results. Let’s see who came from where and how connected everyone is, and then maybe we’d find some solutions.

MARY: Ha, ha. Even if they did that, some would claim to be more human than others…

ROGER:Four legs good, two legs better.


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