Dolma Diaries attempts to break down stereotypes and enmity, one episode at a time

Screenshot from the opening scene of the pilot series for Dolma Diaries.

Dolma Diaries is a short web series produced by a team from Germany, Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Georgia. But it is more than just a web series. The comedy series forces people to consider pre-existing narratives around history, conflict, culture, and people's perceptions of each other when it comes to deeply embedded cultural, historical, and societal norms. More importantly, it was made to subconsciously make the audience consider their biases around the Karabakh conflict. The pilot episode is packed with jokes and nuances that make the film more meaningful, especially for those familiar with the context around tensions between Azerbaijan and Armenia.

Global Voices sat down with Oliver, Sergey, Beka, and Anar from the crew of the Dolma Diaries to learn more about the project as well as their future plans.

Global Voices: How did the project come about?

Sergey: There was a lot of brainstorming. We gathered scriptwriters from the region. The idea was to use humor. Bring human face to all the stakeholders in the region. But it was a different situation when we started working on the script. 

Oliver: This was 2016, shortly after the four-day April war. The civil society was frustrated with not having impact on the conflict. The April clashes brought out online hate. And that is when we came up with the idea to write the script.

We started writing the script in 2017 in Berlin, but also met in Tbilisi and online. And there was a writer from each country. One from Armenia, Azerbaijan, Germany, and Georgia.

The four creators are an unlikely group who have reached impressive success on the project. Beka is a musician by profession, living in Munich. He wrote the soundtrack for the film. Hamlet (the Armenian actor) is a trained classical pianist living in Berlin, while Anar is a student at Humboldt University, where he studies social sciences.

GV: How long did it take to write the script? 

Oliver: We finished it in a year. We received funding from the German Foreign Office. We had a script ready for eight episodes by early 2018. And the current pilot episode is 2/3 of the first episode.

GV: When did you film the first episode?

Oliver: Summer of 2021. Once again, it was a different context. It was after the 2020 war. That is why we changed the script. Originally it begins in a totally trashed apartment, with three guys sitting in the corner looking like boxers, and then this landlord shows up and asks what is going on. But after the images of the war, this script did not feel appropriate so we changed it to loud music playing in the apartment. We also took out several other jokes that were very funny but did not feel appropriate.

The pilot episode starts with a landlord walking up the stairs to the apartment where Gio, Azer, and Armen (the names of actors in the film) live as part of a scholarship program they have been granted. Loud rap music from Armenia and Azerbaijan is heard coming out of the apartment.

GV: What kind of feedback have you received so far? I noticed there were no hateful comments posted under the video. Why do you think it's been so positive?

Oliver: I think one reason why we have received so much positive feedback and comments is because we were very careful. Even though this took away some of the entertainment. For example we don't mention Karabakh.

In the opening scene of the pilot episode, the German landlord sits all three behind a kitchen table and asks what is wrong with them. Shortly after, the landlord finds himself hearing three very distinctive interpretations of the historical narrative.

Oliver: Originally, the history scene was much more specific in terms of territorial claims but in the current version, we made it about which country is older, which in a way does not reflect the actual problem, but it is also avoiding some issues that might trigger heated discussion. And while we think that the history is at the core of this conflict, we tried to make it in a way, that was neutral. We decided that joking about territory while people fought and died for it was not appropriate while choosing to joke about which country is older was something we could have fun with without being hurtful.

Sergey: I think the reason there aren't negative comments is because it is very well balanced. It is very careful and maybe even too careful. We had a lot of edgy things in the beginning, funny, edgy jokes that were made slightly more neutral eventually. Also, I think this time, the film has reached more progressive audience. And it's  because it's on YouTube. If this film was aired on television, then there would have been more negativity there.

The timing also — making the whole thing uncomfortable as it creates dilemma, of course, peace is good but it's not happening, right as we talk, bad stuff is happening out there. So that is the only negative thing in the story.

Anar: I agree with Sergey, that the platform really matters. Also the randomness of the people in the film — neither of the actors are known people — made the audience like the film more than hate it.

GV: Did any of the actors face personal attacks? After the pilot episode was aired?

Beka: I was not attacked. I have friends from both sides and the feedback so far, was only positive.

Anar: The same. I received no threats. Maybe on some other platforms, but personally no.

Hamlet, the Armenian actor, also did not mention facing any threats.

Oliver:  We also understand that the timing is not good. So I understand why it feels a little uncomfortable to do something more lighthearted at a time of war. But I think people may confuse comments, which are more about peaceful co-existence, with the actual episode. Because in the episode we are not trivializing peace, and saying that it's all peaceful now. We give a glimpse of cooperation under the circumstances and this adventure in Berlin is just starting. And then, in the last scene of the pilot episode there is this brief moment in which the actors smile at each other signaling that maybe they can exist in this apartment, but who knows. I don't want to give out any spoilers but there will be setbacks in the coming episodes.

Oliver's comment about cooperation refers to zoom calls boys have with their parents. When Armen and Azer speak to their family, they introduce their roommates but lie about their nationality.

GV: What is the message you are trying to give through this film? 

Oliver: We are not making fun of the war, or the suffering. Our main message is not even “let's make peace,” but that there are humans on the other side. This idea that someone from Azerbaijan would watch this, and after a few episodes root for the Armenian character. And similarly when an Armenian watches it, after a few episodes starts rooting for the Azerbaijani character, who is quite funny and has a love interest in Berlin. I think this human perspective is much needed now. Especially in the context of the past 30 years, where massacres and atrocities have [led to] the inability to see the other human side.

Anar: I don't think the film has to have a big message. It is more about the feelings it gives and the results it brings. We don't have to describe it with words, subconsciously I think people feel this, and I think that is the main result. My general message is that all countries fought each other. I don't know any country that did not fight with its neighbor. But all conflicts end some day. We talk about peace as an empty value. I think people forgot the meaning and value of peace.

GV: So, what's next for the film? 

Oliver: With all the reactions and feedback we have received, we are optimistic that we will get funding to shoot the remaining episodes. How much and when is, of course, not clear. But my hope is that maybe we can shoot more episodes next spring. The next three to five episodes are pretty advanced. They could be done quickly, almost tomorrow. We will also have to change things and adapt to the context.

Sergey: The good thing about having this pilot out now is that we now know what to improve so it was a good experience. We are mainly focusing on the evolution of a relationship and discovering human traits in each other and being surprised, and finding themselves as different people in the end.

The pilot episode was supported by the German foundation, Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung.

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