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Grandma's Tattoos

Distributed by Cinema Guild, 115 West 30th Street, Suite 800, New York, NY 10001; 212-685-6242
Produced by PeA Holmquist
Directed by Suzanne Khardalian
DVD, color and b&w, 58 min.
College - General Adult
Armenian Genocide, Holocaust and Genocide Studies, Human Rights, Peace and Conflict Studies, Area Studies, Middle Eastern Studies, Biography, Women's Studies, Gender Studies

Reviewed by Gisele Tanasse, University of California Berkeley

Recommended with reservations   
Date Entered: 4/5/2012

Filmmaker Suzanne Khardalian had always found the tattoos on the hands and face of her grandmother, Khanoum, to be disturbing. It was not until she stumbled upon a large collection on images of kidnapped Armenian women and children in the League of Nations Near East Relief case notes from 1919-1926 that she began to understand what those tattoos might mean. The case notes reveal that most of these tattooed young women and girls were forced into prostitution or made to be concubines at horrifically young ages during the Armenian genocide. Khardalian takes the viewer from her childhood home in Beirut to Los Angeles to Deir ez-Zor and Makada and back to try to shed light on her deceased grandmother's story. Along the way, Khanoum's sister Lucia, also tattooed, tells of a skilled boatman who saved them and became their "master" to protect them. Lucia first claims that the tattoos were something innocent they did as children; however, it is clear she does not want to talk about them and is hiding something. Another tattooed woman Khardalian encounters in the desert in Syria is much younger and even more evasive than Lucia: she, however, also claims that they simply used to tattoo children, but will not explain why. It is not until Khardalian specifically asks her own mother if she remembers any stories about a boat or the boatman, that her mother reveals that Khanoum, 12 at the time, was raped on the boat by the boatman in front of her mother and sister.

Heartbreaking, mysterious and visually fascinating, this film gives a unique, faceted view of the experience of a subset of the survivors of the Armenian Genocide. It also highlights the legacy of suffering and shame that can be passed down through generations long after a genocide appears to have ended. It is recommended with reservations because smaller collections that do not already own an earlier documentary by Holmquist and Khardalian, Back to Ararat (1988), should first consider purchasing that film. Grandma's Tattoos serves as a wonderful supplement to Back to Ararat for students and scholars interested in further study into the Armenian Genocide. It could, however, stand on its own in both peace and conflict studies courses and gender and women’s studies courses.