How far are you willing to go to protect your beliefs? This is the question that Pouria Heidary Oureh’s controversial Apricot Groves poses to its viewers, inviting them to question if religion is a source of unity and love or one of division. Offering glimpses into the trials and tribulations of transgender people, the film avoids obsolete queer cinema tropes, has stunning cinematography and a heartening soundtrack that make it a worthwhile watch and a must-see for anyone struggling with gender identity.
Aram (Narbe Vartan) is a trans man who immigrated to the U.S. when he was young. An Iranian-Armenian at heart, the young adult falls in love with a girl from America and returns to his homeland in order to ask her Father (Samvel Sarkisyan) for permission to marry her. Aram meets with his brother, Vartan (Pedram Ansari), and goes on a one-day trip that will forever change his perception of his ethnic origin, religious oppression and the prevalence of prejudice. Unlike himself, who settled in the U.S. after his father died, Aram’s brother has never left Armenia. When the young man finally arrives, the girl’s father seems unmoved and downright hostile. At least at first glance.
The premise of Apricot Groves seems risky and histrionic to the casual eye – Aram is an Iranian-Armenian immigrant from the United States who falls in love with an Armenian girl and wants to marry her. Their religions predictably clash, parental feuds are expected to ensue and the film could easily turn into a slippery slope towards a sappy coming-of-age story filled with clichés. However, Oureh sensibly and brilliantly redirects the movie’s trajectory, transforming its seemingly trite plotline into a pretext for discussing real, imperative issues like gender identity, the power of tradition, religious indoctrination and its impact on society and relationships.
These key-aspects of the film open up a genuine conversation on Armenian culture, sexuality and how humans separate each other through their faith, judgments and convictions, turning an already “small world” into a space that is even more constricted and intolerant. The first one to draw attention to the devastating and unforeseeable effects of dogma is the Father, who confesses to Aram that he has lost his son after denying him marriage with the partner he loved. Although the man does not make the same mistake twice and grants Aram his blessing to marry his daughter, he does so out of fear, not necessarily love or understanding.
Oureh does not shy away from exploring the rituals, customs and moral codes of Armenian people. However, his representation is intended more as a critique of societal expectations than a candid curiosity and desire to depict the culture of Armenia. Tradition is also illustrated as a tainted, antiquated practice that is taken lightly by many of the characters – Vartan attempts to explain Armenian etiquette to his brother, as well as some of the more popular rites and protocols that he will have to engage in at the wedding ceremony or during its preparation. However, the man misconstrues most of them and discounts their meaning or particularities when being corrected. Moreover, Aram’s future uncle-in-law (Araik Sargysan) acknowledges Vartan’s divergence from tradition, but seems rather amused by it and not at all unyielding in his own beliefs.
Apricot Groves is not without its controversies: the Golden Apricot International Film Festival (where the motion picture and another LGBT-themed story were due to be featured) was unexpectedly censored and no longer screened. After backlash from activists and protesters, the festival withdrew its entire program of over 40 movies. This makes it clear that Apricot Groves is an essential project that covers relevant and critical social issues – and it needs to be talked about more.
Ultimately, Oureh’s film is excellently shot, immersive and an indispensable addition to Armenian cinema. The main performances are heartfelt and on-point and the soundtrack sets up a fine-spun, nostalgic tone that matches the movie’s contemplative nature. The film’s core message is simple, but humanizing and powerful – “It isn’t important which country, which nation you are from and what you believe in; People are all the same”.