In this episode of the Gallery Girl Podcast we are joined by Sona Tatoyan, a first generation Syrian-Armenian-American storyteller, actor, producer and founder of The Hakawati Project. The Hakawati Project is an initiative that works with communities on the front-lines of suffering and change, providing innovative human transformation through creative labs in film.
Hakawati is the Arabic word for storyteller. “My great-great grandfather was a hakawati”, explains Sona, “He was a puppeteer… he lived in Ourfa, which was then in the Ottoman Empire. During the Armenian Genocide he fled with his family and took his puppets as well, he went to Aleppo.” The project now in turn is taking place in Armenia as a host country in the Lori Valley region. “100 years ago when the Genocide happened it was Syria where Armenians were able to rebuild their lives…”, adds Sona, and it turn, Armenia is returning the favour to refugees who have sought refuge inside its borders.
The project – which is in the planning stages – will be a two-month comprehensive film making lab in various disciplines of cinema – directing, screenwriting, acting, editing and music composition – all working in collaboration to create a film. Participants will include Syrians, Armenians, Kurds, Lebanese, Iraqis and Jordanians. “We’ll be conducting educational labs for communities that have been impacted by the Syrian crisis”, explains Sona, “The idea is to be able to sharpen these tools in filmmaking so that they can tell their own story.”
And how will the team connect with its participants? “We’re figuring out the most thoughtful, mindful way to do this”, says Sona, “We’re dealing with an issue that’s painful, that’s traumatic. One of the exciting things for me is this idea of taking something that’s fracturing and bringing together communities that have been fractured into a creative process…Creation is the opposite of destruction.” In fact, when revisiting Aleppo recently, Sona broke her foot and got stuck in the city. “We have a saying in Armenian: may you break your foot so you sit in your place”, she says, “It gave me an insight into life in Syria now.”
Through storytelling and the Hakawati Project, Sona hopes to connect with people on a human level. “Storytelling is a way for us to catalyse compassion. When we get something on an intellectual level, it’s quite different than when we’re on an emotional level. That human level is where we’re all the same. Beyond, identity, politics, all these things…”, she says, “Who controls the story holds the power around an issue and then that perpetuates…it’s very important this agency of being able to have and claim your own story.”