The Armenian Mirror-Spectator. YEREVAN / SHANGHAI — Film director, actor, researcher and writer Ruben Giney (Gasparyan) started making movies when he was 5. His first 8mm film was screened at the Moscow Children’s Film Festival. Before graduating from high school, he started attending the Yerevan State Institute of Theater and Cinema.
In 2002 he entered the Moscow State Institute of Cinematography (VGIK). He was a junior assistant at such Russian directors as Nikita Mikhalkov and Igor Maslennikov.
In 2005 he moved to China, where he joined the international advertising company “Kuiyou Production House” as an artistic director. During this period, he has shot more than 15 commercials for several international companies such as Panasonic, Asahin, McDonald’s, Shiseidon, Honda and Toshiba.
Since 2010, he has participated in the production of a number of Chinese TV series and feature films. He is a freelance photographer for National Geographic and the author of a number of scholarly articles. His films include “Black Caviar” (1999), “Lower Depths” (2003), “Hernan Du Struberg” (2005), “Hamazkayin Cultural Forum” (2008), “Cities of the World. Shanghai” (2008), “Andin. Armenian Journey Chronicles” (2014). In 2016 he published a collection of articles in Yerevan (in Russian) on Armenian-Chinese historical contacts in the Middle Ages.
Dear Ruben, our friendship started due to our mutual interest in Armenian-Chinese historical relations, so let’s start our conversation from that point. How did you end up in China and what has China given to you?
Usually people said that there are two types of foreigners in China; those who came for a specific purpose and the others who accidentally ended up in Сhina. I suppose I belong to the second type. Many years ago I came to mainland China to make a short feature film as a part of my university work, and I met director of major commercial company in Shanghai. Mr. Yansan had a short conversation with me and invited me to work with him. I thought he might be joking, since I was only 18, but the director was quite serious. I returned to Moscow and a couple of months later eventually decided to move to China. At that time, I did not know anyone in China, I could not speak any Chinese, my English also was not good enough. But I was young and fearless. Now I speak Chinese, but I am afraid I am not as brave as before. China and Chinese culture have given me the opportunity to understand the spirit of the Orient. I grew up in Shanghai and absorbed Asian views on life itself. As an Armenian I used to express my emotions, show anger or dissatisfaction with someone, but in China all these expressions are considered a weakness. At the beginning, I did not understand well, but over the years I finally have managed to understand how to behave right in this society. And the discipline. The high value of discipline in China has made me extra organized and serious towards some things, especially in work and education. I am really grateful for these traits that China has taught me.
Many would like to know: why this name, Giney?
Names in Chinese culture are not constant. Some people change their names several times during their lives. In my case the rules of cinema came into force when Chinese characters were not able to transliterate my Armenian name “Gasparyan.” That would require four or five Chinese characters, though usually Chinese names use only 3. I had to change my name accordingly to be able to sign contracts after my arrival to fit in in the industry. People should not be surprised that some authorities, even the police, require foreigners to take Chinese names. That is completely legal. Hence Ruben Giney was born.
The association with Armenian gini (wine) was intentional?
I wanted to keep my initials as well, and tried not to lose the connection with my homeland even in the name.
So far your most significant film project has been “Andin: Armenian Journey Chronicles,” about the Armenian presence in the Far East from early ages until the early 1800s. It is an unprecedented documentary on Armenian history that you have made in 11 countries. Please tell us about that big adventure of yours.
Spending many years in China, I came across some astonishing evidence on Armenian presence in this corner of the world. One day I read a paper about the foreigners who dressed like Armenians to get access in Ming Dynasty China. Later I found out that in the central park of Shanghai there is the grave of a little 5-year-old Armenian boy. Nobody could explain the story behind this tombstone. Nobody knew who this little boy was, and why he had died at such a young age. Later I learned about the famous Nestorian Stele preserved in the Xi’an Museum, that has typical Armenian “kenac car” (tree of life) holy cross depicted at the top. The last bit of proof was the Western medieval coins collection at the Shanghai Museum presented by Linda and Roger Doo. I was standing there alone, and looking at these coins glimmering in the darkness, coins so familiar to me from my childhood. There was a coin of Parthian kings Vardanes, Shapur, Narseh and Tirdates. Those coins hypnotized me. Suddenly I clearly understood that I must find out all that is possible about the Armenians in China. Literally everything, every bit of information. I became obsessed with this idea and spent the next two years researching in numerous libraries, archives, private collections. I met hundreds of interesting people worldwide who somehow were connected with these subject. I met Prof. Armen Baibourtian, who is Council General in Los Angeles now. I met Prof. Ina McCabe and Edmund Herzig, both experts in the New Julfa trading network and special dialect of New Julfan Armenian language. I dined with legendary professor Alexander Wang Zhi Cheng, who spent his entire life studying Russian and Armenian immigrant life in Northern and Central China, I learn a lot from Prof. Paul Arthur Van Dyke from Macau University. Later I made the acquaintance of two marvelous ladies – Liz Chater, a distant relative of famous Paul Chater, and Nadia Wright the author of academic books on the Armenians in Singapore and Malaysia.
This was a very interesting period of collecting materials, books, maps, images. In the last nine years I have collected three million digital and physical data on the Armenian history in China, India and South-East Asia. But the main adventure began of course when I started filming in early 2012. For three years myself and my shooting crew from different countries visited 11 countries (including India, Tibet, China, Armenia, Mexico, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, France). It was another huge step of this project. I am very proud that we were able to finish the film with some academic publications and valuable findings, such as 19th century Russian explorer in Central Asia, Pantusov’s gravestone with the Armenian inscriptions on it dated 1323 AD. Eventually the cinema version of the “Andin” documentary was shown in various countries, but the TV series has never been released. And most of materials had never been shown to anyone.
The great research work you have done made you a specialist in this field. Don’t you wish to continue the subject?
I must confess that being a film director is not my only desire. From early childhood filmmaking and an interest in archeology and history were my passions. Sometimes people do not understand how I can be a feature film director, a showman and professional historian at the same time. But I kept my options open all my life and I really do not see any contradictions here. If I am not involved in film shooting I would rather continue doing my research. Cultural exchange, the history of the Silk Road, Early Christianity in China and the history of trade are in the main foci of my studies. The year 2020 was a pretty tough year for the film industry worldwide, so that is why I am about to publish my new book on Armeno-Chinese relations.
You acted in some Chinese films – I assume Chinese-speaking European actors are in demand in China.
Like many filmmakers around the world, Chinese cinema also requires foreigners for the screen. Especially when it comes to historical characters such as Richard Sorge, Stalin, sometimes foreigners get the role of American soldiers during the Second World War, or portraying The White Movement Russian soldiers in China at the first quarter of the 20th century. I got several roles, once it was Georgian communist Vissarion Lominadze in Chinese picture “Winds and Clouds in 1927.” That was fun and most of all I learned that being an actor is a stunning opportunity to create a character, a person on the screen right from your own life experience and painful memories. But above all, as a director, I learned how crucial is to give the actors more freedom on the shooting set. Before that I was tyrant director, now I am a more kind of listener.
Being from the writers’ family — grandson of well-known Armenian writer Ruben Hovsepyan and son of Lilit Hovsepyan, the chief editor of Nork literary magazine, no wonder you also write, although in Russian, that are translated into Armenian, Chinese and English. What concerns Ruben Giney the writer?
The Time. The Time itself. The evolution of a person, a human being, from his childhood to the oldness. I presume the time has monstrous influence on us every single second. And the same time, you never can catch the moment. One second could be devastating, five minutes can create a great Idea, that could change the world or that could make the world better or destroy entire city. I keep in mind the image of a man, who was literally erased within a second in Hiroshima when A-bomb fell on the city. The person vanished, only indistinct shadow left on the ground. That is the rare point when you can catch the time. See its devastating power. I am deeply concerned with time problem, maybe these feelings go along with my possession with filmmaking and history. Trying to catch the history with the help of camera at least for a bit longer. To me the camera and the writer pen both are for creating a story, nothing more. Different tools with one goal – try get the access to the audience or reader’s heart. Make him listen to you, trust you and follow you. And never let him down.
You are very active in organizing aid to the recent war in Armenia.
With the unexpected outbreak of the war, all Armenians living in China expressed a desire to help. As a member of the council of Armenian Community of China “Chinahay,” my colleagues and I started to act immediately. Within a day the community board organized fundraising for Himnadram in our homeland Armenia. While realizing that we live in one of the most productive countries in the world, we began to collect essential items for the front and the army. The first two shipments were sent at once. Now the community is preparing a large cargo with special items for civilian and non-civilian use. Every single Armenian in China and our Chinese relatives and friends, are deeply concerned about what is going in Artsakh right now. We all stand together. We all have no doubts in victory.
Your restless nature should guide you to other endeavors.
There are some things that have always piqued my curiosity, such as mycology, the study of fungi. Many years I turned one of my rooms into a home lab, and from time to time I continue research in this field cooperating with international organizations. Fungi are unique organism on our planet, especially the mold, which is barely studied even in the context of the 21st century. These organisms and their toxic compounds might provide a huge amount of new type of medicine for example.
My other desire is to cross the Northern branch of Takla-makan Desert in western China, which was used as one of the Silk Road routes. While making the documentary film eight years ago my crew and I have already crossed that route from Xi’an via Dunhuang, Aksu to the Urumqi. But we were in hurry, and I remember a thousand abandoned caves, and medieval city outlines under the sand. That mysterious land beckons me; one day I will definitely return there with a new expedition.