Cinema as Airport: On Nora Martirosyan’s “Should the Wind Drop”

October 22, 2021

Nora Martirosyan’s Should the Wind Drop (Si le vent tombe, 2020), is set in Nagorno-Karabakh, a republic that does not exist on Google Earth nor in the eyes of the international community.

So why do some people insist on seeing it? Armenian-French director Nora Martirosyan renders her characters’ attachment to this invisible republic while drawing a seemingly detached outsider into the characters’ dream: to be recognized.

Should the Wind Drop is a Franco-Belgian-Armenian co-production filmed in 2018 in five languages: English, French, Russian, Eastern Armenian, and the Karabakh dialect. Martirosyan first visited Nagorno-Karabakh in 2009 and developed the film over a 10-year period. Her double-perspective — raised in Armenia, she has lived in France for two decades — enriches her film, which combines a deep sense of place with a worldly viewpoint.

The film shows a French auditor, Alain Delage (Grégoire Colin, Beau Travail) arriving in Nagorno-Karabakh to assess the airport with a view to approving its reopening. To the locals of this isolated territory, the airport represents an acutely desired material and symbolic connection to the world at large. As the airport director tells Alain, with the airport in operation, the international community will be forced to see them.

Alain quickly realizes that opening the airport will be complicated, as more than one neighbor is eager to clip the republic’s wings. Yet the staff dutifully report to work, as they have for years, going through the motions in an airport with no operating flights. A local boy, Edgar, wanders around the place, running a makeshift business selling water. Through these two characters — the insider Edgar and the outsider Alain — Should the Wind Drop poetically conveys the anxious reality of Nagorno-Karabakh and its residents’ thirst for a better future.

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In her words, Martirosyan aims to show “the eyes of a Westerner arriving” and to incorporate “the Western world as spectator.” As Alain audits the airport, Martirosyan audits the outsider’s gaze on Nagorno-Karabakh, subtly depicting its role in the republic’s existence (or non-existence) and survival (or demise).

The film begins with Alain’s arrival. Groggy after an eight-hour journey, he waits in the car while his driver presents papers to the border authorities.

“Hello.”

“Hello. Who is it?”

“A Frenchman.”

During a cigarette break further down the road, a local soldier asks Alain, “French?”

“Is it that obvious?”

“Yes.”

Instead of the Frenchman discovering the place upon arrival, the viewer discovers him through the eyes of the locals. Rather than the Frenchman probing the locals, they probe him. These brief exchanges set the tone for the rest of the film — and for Alain’s evolution.

While I cannot give away the ending, I can say that Martirosyan’s film — and Alain’s character — eschew common tropes of Western cultural production on Nagorno-Karabakh: the “referee syndrome” (treating any regional conflict like a soccer match between two always already equal teams), and the “exotic adventurer syndrome” (romanticizing, broad-stroke narratives with little regard for fact and nuance).

Martirosyan does not challenge these tropes by critiquing the West or anyone in particular; nor does she present Alain in a negative light. Brilliantly performed by Colin, Alain is sympathetic and even kind. He is, crucially, porous. We learn little about him; his function (beyond auditing the airport, which turns out to be just as Tati-esque a task as that of mopping its floor) is to see and, by seeing, show.

The film’s intended viewer identifies with this outsider arriving in a distant land. Alain’s evolution makes clear, albeit in a whisper, that he, like all “detached” outsiders, is part of the picture, implicated. He is not impervious to the fictions he encounters — or to the realities.

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On September 27, 2020, the day after the first in-person screening of Should the Wind Drop, Azerbaijan, backed by Turkey, launched a war on Nagorno-Karabakh, breaking a nearly 30-year ceasefire. By November, about 5,000 young Armenian soldiers had perished, 10,000 were wounded, and the invisible republic had shrunk by 70 percent.

Overnight, Should the Wind Drop became an archive of what once was: several locations in the film are now on the other side of the border. This is not to say we will no longer see images of the land. Other fictions will replace it — ones which, if lucrative deals depend on it, the international community will be inclined to see.

Following the premiere of Should the Wind Drop, the Ministry of Culture of the Republic of Azerbaijan issued letters opposing festival screenings. The film does not denigrate Azerbaijan (the name is mentioned once when an airport worker shows Alain a map of the region). The problem lies elsewhere: even in the imaginary world of cinema, the republic must not be seen.

Resisting the Ministry’s attempts to “Google Earth” Should the Wind Drop, Cannes Film Festival director Thierry Frémaux stood by the film, stating that it “forces us to see and understand. This is also the role of cinema.”

In the end, Should the Wind Drop serves as the airport its characters desperately want but cannot have. Connecting the invisible republic to the rest of the world, the film enables viewers a visit: a one-hour-and-40-minute layover in a bygone reality.

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Should the Wind Drop will represent Armenia in the Best International Feature Film category at the 2022 Academy Awards. The film will be shown at USC on November 5, 2021 in the presence of director Nora Martirosyan. It will also be shown at Saroyan Hall in San Francisco on October 24, 2021. Additional virtual screenings and discussions include an online panel at the University of Michigan on October 28, 2021, and a roundtable at the University of Georgia on November 5, 2021.

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Laure Astourian is assistant professor of French at Bentley University. She is a specialist in French cinema, occasional translator, and current Fulbright research scholar in France. She holds a PhD in French and Romance Philology from Columbia University. Her book manuscript, which argues that imperial ethnography played a defining, if invisible, role in shaping 1960s French cinema, is under review.