I Will Not Be Sad in This World
review by KJ Doughton, 21 June 2002

28th Seattle International Film Festival

Armenian Immigrant Zaroohe Najarian hobbles a bit as she pushes a vacuum cleaner across her living room carpet, and she’s not a picture of ballerina-like grace as she plops into her recliner with the delicacy of a boulder. Zaroohe appears as just another low profile, little old lady in knit slippers and a red, flannel bathrobe as she sweeps a patio or waters backyard plum trees. "My mother is unusual," proclaims the admiring son who crouches behind an easel to paint her picture, "because she is so ordinary."

By the time Karina Epperlein’s wise, inventive documentary concludes, however, it’s made clear that this craggy-faced, ninety-something optimist with a knack for culinary wizardry is anything but ordinary.

Like a leisurely-paced home movie, I Will Not Be Sad in This World takes its sweet time lingering on Zaroohe’s wispy, gray hair as it flips about in the Fresno, California wind. Following her around a miniature backyard orchard, down the aisles of a supermarket, or in front of a kitchen sink as she whittles down vegetables for a masterful dinner dish, Epperlein’s camera treats her subject as an old friend. We get used to Mrs. Najarian’s looks, her mannerisms, and her dry humor, until the film’s narrator sweeps us into the woman’s dramatic past, revealing that "she carries with her stories of a distant place and time."

We learn that she survived the systematic extermination of 1.5 million Armenians in 1915, when the Ottoman Government forced thousands of families to march into the Syrian Dessert and eventually die of disease and starvation. "It was during World War I," she recalls of the relatively under-publicized genocide, "and the world did not pay much attention."

We are forced to comprehend the death march through a series of grisly stills showing Armenians driven barefoot through the sands, many stabbed, shot, or decapitated along the way as others succumbed to disease and starvation. In addition to the horrendous death toll that resulted, there were hundreds of thousands who were forced into exile. For Zaroohe, the loss of both parents and two brothers were among the degradations she endured.

We are told that a subsequent dictator with a penchant for mass human annihilation, Adolph Hitler, studied the overlooked events in Turkey with intense interest. In 1939, as he set the gears of the Holocaust into motion, Hitler silenced co-conspirators who felt that society would never allow him to fulfill his twisted mission, stating, "Nowadays, who talks of the extermination of the Armenians?" If the world could ignore such a travesty once, he reasoned, it was bound to cast a blind eye again.

As if Zaroohe’s firsthand experience with this tragic chapter in human history wasn’t enough, she reveals other tough times that came later. At age12, she escaped from a Turkish orphanage, where "they tried to turn us into Turks," then accepted an older man’s hand in marriage four years later, as a means of relocating to America. Showing her unconventional, independent spirit even as a young lady, Mrs. Najarian soon dumped this first husband for another man, and founded a sewing union for seamstresses. "I had a lot of nerve," she acknowledges with a smile.

The going became tough again, when her second husband suffered a stroke and she dutifully served as his caregiver for over seven years.

Despite all of these trials and tribulations, "I Will Not Be Sad in this World portrays 94-year old Zaroohe as a happy person who applies a carpe diem philosophy with every breath. We see her mix rice, parsley, and vegetables, and wrap meat with spinach leaves, while proclaiming, "Cooking is art." We observe as this spirited senior waves her hands to the rhythm of some spirited Armenian music, like an ecstatic orchestra conductor. Even during a hospital stay for an injured hip, Zaroohe is defying the expectations of her nursing staff. "Usually, we don’t see them up during the first day," exclaims a nurse to her son, Pete. "I take it she’s an active woman?"

There’s a strong spirituality that envelopes Epperlein’s subject, as well. Zaroohe marvels in the growth of some roses that she recently rescued from a trash dumpster and planted in her backyard garden. She doesn’t attend church, announcing, "God is with me all the time, in my house – every minute."

Perhaps the film’s narrator sums up Zaroohe’s ability to shine with optimism, when she proclaims, "Zaroohe allows pain and despair, then she lets it go. She practices faith in life, wonder in each moment, and peace with how it is." Like "Before Leaving," the thoughtful look inside of a French nursing facility, "I Will Not Be Sad in this World" is a testimony to the value and wisdom of our elderly.

Seattle International Film Festival Coverage:



Directed by:
Karina Epperlein

NR - Not Rated.
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