Impact in Profile: Toni Hagopian

(Originally published by USC Shoah Foundation)

Documentary filmmaker J. Michael Hagopian didn’t have to look too far for survivors of the Armenian Genocide. Somehow, says his wife Toni Hagopian, they always found him.

“The first time I experienced it, we were in New York on our honeymoon and there was a note left in the laundry asking if [Michael] was any relation to Mikael, which was Mike’s father,” Toni said. “The man said Dr. Mikael had saved his father’s life. We heard that a lot.”

The Hagopians and the Armenian Film Foundation, which Michael founded in 1979, partnered with the USC Shoah Foundation in April 2010 to preserve, catalog, and index his collection of nearly 400 testimonies of Armenian Genocide survivors and witnesses in its Visual History Archive. He died Dec. 10, 2010, at 97.

Though the Hagopian family was well-known in the Armenian community because Mikael was a respected doctor, Michael had made a name for himself too as a documentary filmmaker who focused on the Armenian Genocide. His production company, Atlantis Productions, made dozens of films including The Forgotten Genocide (1975). When funding for his educational films became scarce, Toni said, he turned his attention to his interviews: recording the testimonies of survivors of the Armenian Genocide. His idea was to have preserved, documented accounts of survivors that could be used one day in a court of law.

“Michael always was recognized among the Armenians. So he would talk to them and say ‘Let me get your story,’” Toni said. “He didn’t know exactly what he was going to do, but he’d put it in the archives.”

Michael, who received his PhD in international relations from Harvard, began taking teaching jobs all over the world as a way to travel to survivors and record their testimonies. Toni said he was soft-spoken and quiet – an “ordinary person” who made his interview subjects feel comfortable sharing their harrowing stories.

“He told them that their voices would never be forgotten. This was a way to get this piece of history forever,” Toni said. “They trusted him, and he took that very seriously.”

Toni assisted her husband on many of the interviews, and said they had a profound, personal effect on her.

“Being a mother and a wife and a daughter, when you hear, ‘There was a knock on the door, we were told to go to the square, bring what you can carry and you’ll be back in a week,’ and then you go to the middle of the square and you see your babies brutally murdered – it can’t help but touch you in a big way,” she said.

Last month, after Michael’s fully digitized collection was officially handed off to the USC Shoah Foundation to begin the process of indexing and cataloging, Toni returned to make another special delivery: Michael’s beloved camera, which he insisted on using for all his interviews. Though she and her children had thought carefully about what to do with the camera – keep it as a family heirloom, donate it to a museum – Toni said there was no question that the camera should stay with the collection.

“Mike and I had discussed it when he stopped filming, and he said the camera really belongs with the testimonies. There’s a lot of history there,” Toni said. “Everyone [in the family] agreed. It was just too important to the project.”

Though they were courted by many archives and organizations that wanted to preserve the collection, the Hagopians believed the USC Shoah Foundation was the perfect match. Not only did it have the technical capability of preserving and cataloging the entire collection, but it ensured the testimonies would be seen and used for educational purposes.

And, because the Shoah Foundation is dedicated to awareness and education of genocide, taking the collection was a major public acknowledgment of the Armenian Genocide, which still faces widespread denial.

Toni said her husband was “so pleased” with the partnership and felt very comfortable putting his testimonies in the hands of the USC Shoah Foundation. In the next decades, her only hope is that the public can watch the testimonies and make use of them, whether through education or filmmaking, since Michael loved meeting and mentoring young filmmakers. But she and Michael have long been certain that with the Shoah Foundation, this will be a reality.

“It’s everything that he had hoped for,” she said.

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