For the past seven years, as autumn colors Yerevan with a tinge of gold, the city’s cinemas and arts centers have been hosting a festival of animated films called “ReAnimania.” This year, the festival’s theme is renaissance. “ReAnimania” fulfilled the lifelong dream of cartoonist and animated film director Vrej Kassouny. His story begins in Cilicia, winds through the cities of historic Armenia, takes a short break in Syria and eventually finds its own renaissance in Armenia.
“Right from day one, I felt at home in Armenia, just like fish in the water. In order to adapt, you have to become a citizen. It’s not about taking formal citizenship, but really becoming a citizen, understanding and living as part of the community. Otherwise, you have to reject it forever,” says Vrej Kassouny, who was born in Aleppo but identifies himself as an Armenian from Cilicia, or from the Kingdom of Commagene.
Heir to 200 years of family history
The history of the Kassouny family traces back to the beginning of the 19th century. Toros Hodja, who lived until the late 1830s in the Kessun citadel of the Besni region, near the present-day city of Adiyaman, represents the roots of this family tree. This is where the family name comes from. “Toros Hodja was a warrior, and was also engaged in agriculture, on his large estates both in Kessun and Besni. In the early 1800s he was involved in the uprising among the Armenians of Cilicia and headed one of the squads,” Vrej recalls.
When the Ottoman authorities demolished the citadel in the mid-19th century, the son of Toros Hodja, Disho Yeghia, moved to Ayntap (present-day Gaziantep) together with his family. The grandson of the latter, Yeghia, led the local evangelical church and worked as a teacher. He was also the first to use the Kassouny family name as a literary pseudonym. By the end of the 19th century, Yeghia Kassouny moved to Marash with his family. The family lived here until 1919 and successfully escaped the Armenian Genocide. “Even when they were facing this great physical danger, they kept on hoping that in the end everything would eventually settle down and that things would get back to normal. They could not stay in the town, they always had to hide,” Vrej says.
Before the massacres, Yeghia Kassouny was an interpreter for German delegations visiting the Ottoman Empire, while his brother, Manuel Kassouni, who knew four or five languages, was an official interpreter for British troops and traveled to Palestine with the British Army.
|The Kassouny family. Front row, left to right: Hmayak Yeghiayi Kassouny (Vrej’s grandfather), Yervand Kassouny (his uncle), Yeghia Kassouny (the grandfather of Vrej’s father, who moved from Marash to Syria) and Varouzhan Kassouny (Vrej’s father).
In 1919, when it became clear that it was no longer possible to hold off the Turks, Yeghia Kassouny led his family and the entire surviving Armenian community to Syria. They first arrived in Damascus, and then settled in Aleppo. Here, Yehgia married for the second time and Hmayak, the grandfather of Vrej Kassouny, was born. “My grandfather was a mechanic; he repaired vehicle engines, but literature and art were always a priority in the Kassouny family. Those who remember Hmayak Kassouny say that he had a small library in his store and he was always reading and writing,” says Vrej.
Hmayak Kassouny had three sons: Varouzhan, Vrej’s father, who followed in his father’s footsteps and worked in crafts; Yervand Kassouny, a renowned historian and a specialist on Cilicia, and Levon Kassouny, who was one of the first military pilots in Syria and one of the founders of Kuwait’s aviation system.
|From left to right: Varouzhan Kassouny, Anna-Lucie Kassouny, Hmayak Kassouny, Levon Kassouny and Yervand Kassouny.
Vrej’s mother was also born in Aleppo. The family emigrated from the Urfa region, but little is now known of their history and their journey to Syria.
Vrej’s parents were married in 1967. “Up until the late 1970s, Aleppo had districts just like Kond in Yerevan, where six or seven families shared the same yard. A few families, that apparently had no kinship, would live together in the same space. My parents got acquainted in a district just like that,” says Vrej.
Vrej, the family’s youngest child, was born in 1971 in one of Aleppo’s Armenian districts. By the time he was 17 he had studied in seven schools in both Syria and Lebanon.
“This was not always a straightforward move from place to place; I was expelled from several schools because I was terribly disobedient. I ended up at the ‘Cilicia’ college in Aleppo, but couldn’t go further with my education because I had to help my family,” Kassouny recalls.
“From the earliest age I grew up surrounded by work. Every summer, my parents would engage us in various trades so that we took responsibility, respected hard work and got to know the world around us. Even when I was just six years old, I worked in the summers and earned money. In winter we spent that money to buy school books and pencils.”
Vrej was obsessed with drawing during his school years, even though he remembers that some of his relatives and neighbours thought he was destined to become a clergyman thanks to his strong ties to the church.
Final destination: Armenia
At the age of 17 Vrej finally decided that he had a vocation for the arts and entered the Sayran Academy, a fairly well-known institution in Aleppo and the Middle East. He studied there until 1996. “In 1992 I was determined to leave the academy, but Hrazdan Toqmajyan, my professor and later on my friend, had just moved from Gyumri to Aleppo and started teaching at the academy. So I said, well, let’s try for a month; maybe there is something more exciting for me to learn,” says Vrej. “That month turned into several years. First of all, I learned the Eastern Armenian language from him, learned to love Armenia, and my desire to move to Armenia grew stronger.”
During his time at the Saryan Academy, Vrej discovered his skill as a cartoonist. “Once I drew the lecturer of the class, and they said I had drawn a caricature. That was when I realized that my drawing was indeed a caricature. After that I found myself in caricature and developed that skill.”
When Vrej graduated from the academy he was eager to put his skills to work and left for Kuwait in 1996, for a post as chief political cartoonist of the Opinion newspaper. But adjusting to life in Kuwait proved difficult, and after five months he was back in Aleppo, with the desire to move to Armenia burning stronger than ever.
In 1999 Vrej Kassouny was in Yerevan at last. He completed the admissions process to study at Terlemezyan College and was planning to study for about 18 months to earn a certificate. “My goal was to spend a couple of years gaining experience in Yerevan and thus make my designation as an Armenian artist more valuable. Apart from that, I had dreamt of animation since childhood, and thought of doing some animation. Once I started on that I realized that I no longer had much interest in the academy, and directed my efforts solely toward animation,” he says.
After a year and a half in Armenia, Kassouny moved to Lebanon to work with the famous British One, Two, Three publishing house. Three months later, though, the lure of the motherland once again proved too strong to resist and he headed back, planning to stay for at least a year. That year has turned into 15, and now, following the escalation of the war in Syria, Vrej’s parents have come to join him in Yerevan.
“Moving to Armenia was a huge culture shock to us. In the diaspora, we have no motherland, so we treated the community as Armenia. We experienced the pain of belonging and the absence from our own land for 90 years – in my case for even longer, since the 1820s. In Aleppo, we never felt like that. We always felt like guests there and did not take responsibility for many things, but here it is different,” Vrej says.
In Yerevan, Robert Sahakyants opened up the world of animation to Vrej. Sahakyants had already given up teaching, but made an exception for this talented pupil. “He told me there was a balance in my images, a motion, so he’d teach me. He was convinced something would come out of me. The craziest thing was that he spoke Russian and I spoke Armenian, though very often his hand gestures were so eloquent that language became a secondary thing,” Vrej remembers.
Vrej worked and gained experience; he made animated films and commercials. But his mind was already fixed on establishing Armenia’s place in the world of animation. In 2006 he began to prepare a festival of animated film in Armenia, and in 2009 “ReAnimania” was born. By now it has become an annual celebration and has a permanent place in Yerevan’s cultural landscape.
Its influence has been significant: “I remember that in 2009, all the young specialists, who are now professional workers in animation, were frustrated. They didn’t know what to do next. The festival has given self-confidence to everyone and helped us to discover ourselves,” Vrej says.
According to Vrej, “ReAnimania” has opened up new horizons for young professionals. Now they have the opportunity to communicate, work and study with world-renowned experts. It also helps to raise Armenia’s profile in the world of animation. “ReAnimania” has gone far beyond the remit of an ordinary festival and become a major event.
Today, animation in Armenia is in good hands and has a bright future. Vrej believes there are many talented young artists working here, and he is already learning from them. “Now we are seeing such a talented new generation here that we are almost ashamed because we have to work even harder ourselves. These are the ‘big beasts’ now. I am neither jealous nor upset, quite the contrary, because I am happy that we have a source of greater achievement for the future.”
The story is verified by the 100 LIVES Research Team.