‘There Was, There Was Not’ (2024) Review: An Act of Resilience

Nuha Hassan
3 min readMar 8, 2024
Image courtesy of Silk Strategy.

Emily Mkrtichian’s There Was, There Was Not is set in Artsakh, now an unrecognised state between Azerbaijan and Armenia. During the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War in 2020, Armenians in Artsakh were denied food, medicine, and other important items. They were ethnically cleansed from the Nagorno-Karabakh region; now, it is internationally recognised as part of Azerbaijan. The documentary follows four women living in Artsakh, a place that no longer exists but only in their stories, the aftermath of war that changed their lives.

There Was, There Was Not begins with Mkrtichian showing the beautiful mountains of Artsakh. Then it switches the bustling lives of the four women. Siranush is a city council candidate and hands out pamphlets to the residents of Artsakh. She wants to win the ballot to represent women because there aren’t many women in the city council. Gayane organises a women’s centre to participate in various activities. Sose is a judo champion and teaches a new generation of children. Sveta is a single mother who spends time with her children and doesn’t discuss generational trauma.

Each of these women has a unique story to tell. Mkrtichian portrays their mundane life and desires for a better future for the next generation of residents living in Artsakh. But there are glimpses of the war and conflict that seeps through their stories and the documentary, which creates an emotional observation of survival and the struggle to keep it alive.

Mkrtichian observes Siranush, Gayane, Sose and Sveta’s roles before and after the conflict. Each of them has dreams of building Artsakh and finding community within each other. The directors show them spending time with their children, talking to their constituents, organising events, and teaching judo to children. They all have a role in Artsakh. The remnants of the previous conflict are visible wasn’t that long ago. Oral stories by their grandmothers remind them of the past, while others decide to leave it behind not to traumatise the new generation.

Siranush in ‘There Was, There Was Not.’ Image courtesy of Silk Strategy.

After the war, their lives changed dramatically. Their mundane lives no longer exist. It is about survival, which means sending family members to a safer location only to be forced out of their homes and country to live in a foreign land. Mkrtichian doesn’t necessarily focus on the empty streets and bombed buildings all the time. She focuses mainly on the organised efforts of the four women to help them in their community and on the front lines to protect their country. They slowly find themselves looking at the erasure of their homes. It’s an emotional story of resilience.

There Was, There Was Not observed the ethnic cleansing of indigenous Armenians of Artsakh and the nearby regions. It’s a powerful story that gradually captures how Artsakh is erased but now lives in the memories and stories of the people of Artsakh. While thousands of Armenians are forced to leave their homeland and find shelter in neighbouring countries, these stories will never fade away and disappear. Mkrtichian shows that through community efforts, the stories of people who were ethnically cleansed will be documented to preserve the pain and memories of the war.

While watching There Was, There Was Not, it was hard not to think about the current genocides in Palestine, Congo and Sudan. These stories told by the four women in the documentary show the undeniable evidence of the aftermath of ethnic cleansing, genocide, humanitarian crisis, and displacement. The devastating stories in There Was, There Was Not are similar. Stories are an act of resilience.