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June 29, 2017

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Oscars mixed up in Armenian feud

YERAVAN, Armenia--Armenia's entry for Best Foreign Film at the Academy Awards was conceived as a story of how humanity triumphs over prejudice. But since it also deals with Azerbaijan, it has become yet another element in the toxic feud between the two nations.

The film, "If Only Everyone," tells the story of an Armenian man who helps a half-Russian, half-Armenian woman go to her father's grave and plant a tree there. The father died in the early-1990s conflict over Nagorny Karabakh, which pitted Armenians against Azerbaijanis.

Since a cease-fire was signed in 1994, Karabakh has been controlled by an Armenian administration. No peace deal has been signed, and little progress has been made toward an agreement on a final status for Karabakh. The Armenians — who call the disputed territory Artsakh — are not prepared to cede control, while Azerbaijan demands the restoration of sovereignty over Karabakh.

The film's protagonists have to cross over the front line from Armenian-held to Azerbaijani-held territory. There they befriend a local shepherd, an Azerbaijani, who asks them to plant a tree on his son's grave when they return to the Armenian side.

"This story perhaps touches on the most sensitive issue for our nation today — Artsakh. Why did people die, what was the war about, what motivated the heroic deeds? Some have found the answers; others are still searching," a synopsis on the film's website says. "But these questions eclipse the real lives of real people, who we often think about the least, unfortunately."

It is the fourth work that Armenia's film academy has submitted for consideration for an Oscar, but the first to be officially nominated.

The Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences accepts a single submission from each country for the best foreign-language film prize, and its members vote for a shortlist and then the winner. This year, a record 71 films have been accepted as submissions, including entries from Azerbaijan.

In Azerbaijan, writer Elchin Huseynbayli, has stepped forward to insist that the idea for the film was stolen from his 2010 story "Dazzled by the Sun." He described his story in an interview on the website "The story I wrote goes like this: an ailing Azerbaijani doctor enters the occupied territories of Karabakh to fulfill his grandfather's wishes by planting a tree in the yard of his house. The hero wants to see his father's grave, but the territory is controlled by the Armenians and they take him prisoner. However, after long negotiations, they allow him to fulfill his wish.

"They used my story, but changed it to favor themselves. If you watch the film you'd think we are occupying Armenian land, when in fact it's our land that's occupied, and they are the occupiers. ... More than half of the film coincides fully with my story."

Huseynbayli has asked Azerbaijan's copyright agency to contact the academy and tell them the film is not an original work. It's not yet known if they will comply with his request.

Michael Poghosyan, who wrote the screenplay for "If Only Everyone," insists the movie was conceived before Huseynbayli's story was published.

"The story for the film was written in early 2010, and filming began in spring 2010. Before we wrote the story, we met people who had lived through the war. It was after our meetings and talks with these people that the idea of the film was born," he said. "We could similarly accuse the Azerbaijanis of stealing the story of our film 'Longing,' where the main hero crossed a border to die in his homeland," he said.

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