Who is Monte?
The documentary Who is Monte, by Edward Badounts, takes up the story of Monte Melkonian, a California-born American killed in the Nagorno Karabagh War after two years of commanding Armenian troops in the region that fought for its independence from neighboring Azerbaijan, and won it in 1994. (Only Armenia recognizes the new government there.) If Armenia were more of a draw at the box office, this story would have been made into a Hollywood feature years ago.
Monte (as everyone seems to have called the charismatic hero whom Armenia now honors) graduated from Berkeley, traveled the world, and by the late 1970s found his way into radical groups that practiced the kind of violent hostage-taking and assassinations which we associate with the more visible Red Army Faction, Irish Republican Army and Red Brigades of those years. The Beirut-based Armenian Secret Army for the Liberation of Armenia (or ASALA) tended toward shooting Turkish diplomats, although it was abandoned (some say sold out) by its former allies in the Palestine Liberation Organization and broke into violent factions in the early 1980s. Monte spent the years 1986 through 1989 in prison in France for traveling with false papers and carrying an illegal handgun. At the collapse of the Soviet Union, he was in Armenia, having taught himself the language. He soon became a participant in the war in Nagorno-Karabagh, which then sought independence from Azerbaijan. Before long he was commanding unpaid and untrained troops.
The film, narrated by Monte's widow, Seta Kbranian, takes you in and out of Monte's military and personal lives. The saga of a war fought by citizens who became soldiers overnight calls to mind the early days of Israel and the images of mountain fighting could have been lifted from the Bosnian archives. The tone of the film is romantic, patriotic and motivational, but the young widow's voice is poignant, and leaves you wanting to know more about her husband and his journey from suburbia to a war halfway around the world.
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