“Village of Women”, Tamara Stepanyan and Minou Norouzi in conversation

Village of Women (Armenia/France 2019) by Tamara Stepanyan is a feature length observational documentary set in the Armenian village called Lichk. Its residents are women, children, and male elders. Men of working age are absent. They lead their separate lives as migrant workers in Russia for nine months of the year and visit their families for summer vacations. We learn at the outset that women are the backbone of village society. In an opening remark, one of the village elders remarks: “(…) our girls are smart; they manage.”

That’s just the beginning of a feminist tale about the effects of migration set in the backwaters where no one considers themself feminist. Feminist lives, however, are lived. Even as we hear weary declarations about a husband’s absence, such as “he is the centre of my universe”, we witness scenes of coded liberalism. For example, a picnic gathering in the hills among three older women serves as a reminder of the empowerment these women, too, are capable of. In a campaign of laughter, they defend the actions of a sixty-year-old fellow villager losing her virginity in the mountains: “It’s a natural need. She has never experienced this in her life, the poor one (…) she wanted to know what it was.” But I want to leave aside the transnational feminist reading that the film inspires for now. Village of Women brings something more unique to the plethora of documentaries about migration. Namely, it turns the spectacle of migration on its head by avoiding the topic altogether. 

Tamara Stepanyan, Village of Women, 2019. Courtesy of Antidote Sales

Usually, viewers experience migration stories at some distance through news media or the dramatic potting and images of suffering in social-issues documentaries. Village of Women however puts at the centre of the film not the struggles of those who have migrated but the people left behind. They await the return of husbands, brothers and sons while getting on with everyday life and the necessary labour to keep themselves and the village going. We see them tending to fields, taking care of the children and animals, baking bread, singing, dancing alone to pop tunes broadcast on a worn-out television. The women live their communitarian lives filled with laughter and solidarity, as well as tears. Together they bridge the anxieties and worries about the absence of their men whose hardships as migrant workers the film only hints at by documenting the yearnings of the women for their company. The film echoes filmmaker and film theorist Trinh T. Minha, for whom women can be “guardians of tradition, keepers of home and bearers of Language”. 1 For some of the women in the film, staying put is a choice: “I want to keep what I have built, in order not to lose it. This is my way to help my children.” The film illustrates what Minh-ha refers to as “the radical refusal to indulge in exile as a redemptive motif, and to feel uncritically ‘at home in one’s home,’ whether this home is over there or over here “.2

Minou Norouzi (MN): Can you talk a little about how you came about this place and its people and the choice to focus the film entirely on the women’s lives?

Tamara Stepanyan (TS): I learned about this village in an article about whole villages in the Lake Sevan region of Armenia emptying of men. It caught my attention because Armenians have historically relocated as families, but this story was about men leaving and I wanted to understand why. As I went to the village and started meeting the women, I realised the reasons were purely economic, and I became more interested in staying with those left out of the process of making new lives in ‘new frontiers’. So my interest turned towards the women’s waiting, enduring, the children and elderly and how, from a sociological point of view, the position of women could change when the men are gone. In a society that is very patriarchal and where men decide everything, what happens when the women decide on and do everything? As a so-called liberated woman who lives in Europe I don’t have this problem. But for women in villages who have a tough life that is patriarchal and where men decide everything it was interesting for me to stay next to these empowered women and to understand how they go through this change even if it’s a change that is imposed on them. This was the seed of the project. 

“But for women in villages who have a tough life that is patriarchal and where men decide everything it was interesting for me to stay next to these empowered women and to understand how they go through this change even if it’s a change that is imposed on them. This was the seed of the project. “

Tamara Stepanyan, photo by Marie Donnadieu

MN: Migration documentaries oftentimes centre on migrant others being virtuosos of their own suffering. More often than not, these films seek to solicit empathy from viewers and omit everyday narratives and practices of joy and sorrow that are universal. Your film turns this approach around. You present an intimate portrait of absence, female solidarity and the need to gather among women whose husbands leave the family for work abroad.

Can you say a little about your choice to focus on everyday joys and sorrows rather than grand narratives of suffering? Do you feel there is an oversaturation of documentaries on the topic of migration?

TS: I wasn’t interested in making a dramatic film about migration and the struggles that come with that life. I wanted to take an indirect way to talk about migration and its effects. I have a problem with films that induce tears in viewers with every frame. It’s a delicate subject; people being uprooted from their homes. Few films treat it delicately. So I wanted to explore it from a different angle. The struggles are there in an indirect way. It is in the songs they sing, in their eyes.

MN: What role does your own Armenian heritage and migratory background play in how you approached the subject? You speak Armenian, and your adopted home is Paris. So there are already multiple points of view or possible approaches. Documentary scholar Alisa Lebow writes sympathetically about this sort of dual position in her essay “The Camera as Peripatetic Migration Machine” (2012), relating to the privileged migrant who has documents and who documents, but who also holds space for “those who are absent, recording in effect what they would have seen, lived, been a part of, had they been there”.3

TS: My uprootedness affects how I approach the topic a lot. We migrated as a family due to the economic situation in Armenia. I was twelve. Suddenly I had to leave friends, family. We left for Beirut, Lebanon, a country totally foreign to me, the language, culture. Cutting one’s roots is tough; to be in a place you are supposed to call home but where you don’t feel at home at all. I learned to protect myself by finding comfort in my own cocoon. Armenian poetry would give me comfort, Armenian music. 

Migration has formed me, taught me, troubled me, but it has also given me a lot of joy. So that’s what I try to capture with my films; these different aspects. A lot of my films are about being uprooted, about exile, waiting, longing, nostalgia. 

And my own troubled past makes me seek out other troubled people. I hear the sadness and the longing in their songs and voices, and I have the desire to reassure them that they’ll be ok. Documentary cinema is nothing without the relationships formed. For me, it’s always a dialogue from my past to their present, even when my past is not part of the narrative. 

The search for a new cinematographic language, too, is important to me, so I approach each film differently. 

MN: Relationships are affected by bodily presences, dynamics. So many of the scenes in Village of Women make it clear that you are alone with whoever is in front of the camera. The intimacy of your silent presence transcends distance, though your camera rarely moves. You also seldom talk. When you do, it’s very incisive. Like, the beginning, when you ask the older men if they have sons in Russia. “Of course”, they respond: “You prefer that I keep them here for them to die?” 

How does shooting on your own affect the film? I’m thinking about the aesthetics of slow cinema, the static camera.

Tamara Stepanyan, Village of Women, 2019. Courtesy of Antidote Sales

TS: This is the kind of documentary where you can’t just arrive. You have to nourish communication over time. I wanted to take the time to be there for them, to listen to them, to make them feel that they are heard. The relationships come before the image. 

As far as shooting goes, for me, it’s always about the subject and the space. The space, light, textures guide how I shoot. I’m also guided by my senses. With Village of Women, I knew from the start that I wanted to explore faces through close-ups. I knew I needed to understand their state of being through this kind of ‘intimate camera’. This intimacy I could only have if I had their trust, and through the relationships I formed with the women. 

I’m fond of using static camera techniques because, technically, it allows me to hold a shot, get visually close to their faces and to their skin without necessarily moving the camera equipment close. 

But the static camera choice is also about leaving them to exist on their own in contemplation, and in their complexity and beauty and to capture those feelings. The faces and the spaces they inhabit are beautiful, and a static camera that is well framed and felt can capture this.

MN: General viewers are an image literate bunch. We know framing, and camera angles translate into ‘points’ of view, attitudes, which can be political, philosophical or articulate the spirit of a thing. 

Your images articulate the ineffable. For example, the emotions surrounding absence, abandonment, stoicism and endurance are often borne on the body and in silence. They demand from viewers what feminist theorist Tina Campt calls a “quiet yet arduous affective labour (…) the labour of adjacency, which requires us to listen attentively” to the unspoken.4

I’m thinking of the scene with the close-up of a girl’s face quietly describing her anticipation of her father’s return. We don’t see the steps or actions but her minimal description is quietly arresting. For example, she mentions keeping her face glued to the window, waiting. 

Tamara Stepanyan, Village of Women, 2019. Courtesy of Antidote Sales

TS: The film focuses on the strength of women, their beauty and their intelligence. Their ability to wait doesn’t make them less strong. They choose to love and wait for these men with the same strength, beauty and intelligence they apply to other areas of their lives and labour. I wanted to emphasise that in a little village that is normally very patriarchal, these women step beyond the confines of waiting to keep this society going with their labour as well as their love.

MN: I want to close this conversation by circling back to the beginning. In her book Elsewhere, Within Here: Immigration, Refugeeism and the Boundary Event Trinh T. Minh-ha discursively talks about journeying and language and the mother as the one that patriarchy designates as the mainstay. The women in your film are that designated mainstay. But like you, Minha-ha also turns this condition of existence around to find strength in staying put. She literally and metaphorically relates the movement of migration to the presumed stasis of home as another kind of movement. I see a relationship between Village of Women and Minha-ha ‘s thinking relating to the “self and home that invites the outside in”. She says this “implies expansion through retreat and is no more a movement inwards than a movement outwards, towards others”.5 It seems to me Village of Women, and those in it, partake in this expansion through retreat that reaches towards others, towards the viewer in ways that make them accountable to rather than consumers of images.

Tamara Stepanyan is an Armenian-born filmmaker based in Paris. Her feature documentaries Those from the Shore (2017) and Village of Women (2019) have screened at film festivals Locarno, Busan, La Rochelle, Boston, Leipzig, Amiens. 

Village of Women (83 min) was presented at the Migrant Screen Cultures event series, forming part of Minou Norouzi’s research project titled “Revolutionary Patience: Migrant Perspectives on Doing Politics with the Documentary” supported by Koneen Säätiö (2021-2024). The project examines the ethics of representing migrant experiences from the perspective of women and non-binary artist-filmmakers originating in the MENA/SWANA region with personal experiences of displacement.

Minou Norouzi is a London-based film-maker, programmer, critic.

Norouzi’s photo by Markus Rapp

  1. Minh-ha, T. T. (2010). “Other Than Myself, My Other Self” in Elsewhere, Within Here: Immigration, Refugeeism and the Boundary Event. Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, pp. 27 – 42. 
  2. Ibid
  3. Lebow, A. (2012) “The Camera as Peripatetic Migration Machine” in The Cinema of Me: The Self and Subjectivity in First Person Documentary, ed. Lebow, A., Columbia University Press, pp. 219 – 232.
  4. Campt, T. (2021). “Verse Six: Adjacency and the Poethics of Care” in A Black Gaze. The MIT Press.
  5. Minh-ha, T. T. (2010). “Other Than Myself, My Other Self” in Elsewhere, Within Here: Immigration, Refugeeism and the Boundary Event. Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, pp. 27 – 42.

This article was commissioned by  Dokumenttikilta ry for the Moving People and Images Journal (MPI Journal)