Having successfully organized the 10th edition of New York’s Socially Relevant Film Festival (SRFF) from March 16-31, founding artistic director and AGBU Scholarship recipient Nora Armani has had a fruitful start to 2023.
The buoyant actress and filmmaker has carved out a successful career in the world of film, television and theater—one that has taken her from her native Cairo, Egypt, to the bright lights and legendary stages of London, Paris, Sydney, Los Angeles, Yerevan and the Big Apple.
Armani was driven to found the SRFF in 2014 after being “appalled” not only by violent forms of moviemaking and storytelling but also by the widespread use of disturbing billboards and movie posters to promote films. “I felt as though we were being bombarded by brutal images and needed to offer an alternative, non-violent form of entertainment: to be reminded of real people, real social issues and human interest stories that are relevant,” she says.
Having guest curated a number of film festivals in the past, Armani was well aware of the hard work and long hours such an event would entail. However, when her uncle Jack and cousin Vanya Exerjian were the innocent victims of a fatal hate crime in the Middle East, she was determined to go ahead with the project to honor their lives in her own way.
Every year, the festival opens on March 16 to commemorate the fateful day the tragedy occurred. “I believe in the power of art and storytelling. Identifying the trauma and sharing it with others helps in the healing process. By talking about these human interest stories at the SRFF, we create an open space for meaningful discussions and hopefully promote positive social change.”
Over the course of 10 years, the SRFF, which counts AGBU Arts as one of its partners, has screened over 650 films from 40 countries, including Armenia. It has presented and debated a broad spectrum of topics, from women’s empowerment to environmental issues. The list of memorable films and documentaries is extensive. “We always try to make the festival experience an immersive one,” Armani says.
I felt as though we were being bombarded by brutal images and needed to offer an alternative, non-violent form of entertainment: to be reminded of real people.
Considered a valuable platform for dialogue, one that casts the spotlight on those whose voices would otherwise remain unheard, the program features interviews and Q&As with the filmmakers themselves, many of whom are, according to Armani, tackling sensitive subjects.
Raised in an Armenian family, Armani received her primary education at the Nubarian Armenian School in Cairo, Egypt—her birthplace. She developed a strong sense of identity from a young age.
Marie Ekserdjian, Armani’s paternal grandmother, was heavily involved in AGBU Cairo in the 1960s. “She [Marie] signed me up as an AGBU member the moment I was born. I even played basketball with AGBU in my teens,” she says.
Armani’s interest in the performing arts was evident from early childhood. Besides displaying talent at school, she’d stage spirited performances at home, assigning acting roles to her cousins while she directed and played the lead. She admits that it all felt so natural.
But as Armani approached adulthood, her family began to question the unorthodox path she was pursuing. Nevertheless, she remained resolute. Her father’s cousin was an actor in Cairo on the Armenian semi-professional stages—theater was very much alive in the Armenian community in Cairo. Armani subsequently took her first steps on the stage of the Armenian Cultural Club, performing in several plays directed by Gerald Papasian. It was a time that she was also greatly inspired by Egyptian cinema, namely the illustrious Faten Hamama and Soad Hosni.
After completing her studies at the American University in Cairo, Armani traveled to the UK to attend the London School of Economics. She obtained a master’s degree in Sociology with the help of an AGBU Scholarship and a Gulbenkian Foundation grant. While studying in London, Armani performed at the Young Vic Theatre in George Bernard Shaw’s Arms and The Man.
Following her graduation, Armani moved to Los Angeles, making her television debut in the NBC series St. Elsewhere and performed at the Los Angeles Theatre Center. She was also cast in plays directed by Papasian, namely Shakepeare’s Much Ado About Nothing and Dangerous Corner by J.B. Priestly.
While acting alongside Robert Beltran, Steven Bauer, Philip Baker Hall and other celebrated actors at Los Angeles Theatre Center, Armani worked on an assortment of personal projects, including the award-winning two-person play Sojourn at Ararat, which she created with her then-husband Papasian.
From Los Angeles, the couple relocated to Paris, where they both continued to work as professional actors. Fluent in French, Armani performed her highly acclaimed self-penned one-woman show Sur le Divan avec Nora Armani at Théâtre Firmin Gémier, Au Chat Noir and Salle Cortot. “This was the French version of the original On the Couch with Nora Armani that I wrote and premiered in London at the New End Theatre.”
Armani’s journey then led her to New York. There, she appeared in the popular television shows Golden Boy and Black List: Redemption, among others, and performed on stage in Six Characters in Search of an Author and Terrorism, as well as Sojourn at Ararat and her solo show Back on the Couch with Nora Armani.
In 2021, Armani directed iMigrant Woman, which was initially broadcast on Zoom and later made into a 36-minute film. It earned her the award of Best Female Director of a Short Film at the Toronto Independent Film Festival (TIFF). The multifaceted actress also directed Dreams on Fire by Jan Balakian for Kean University in 2022 and starred in the films, Lazy People, Good Funk, I am Gitmo and Absolute Dominion, to be released in 2023.
At the opening of the 38th Alexandria Film Festival of Mediterranean Countries in October 2022, Armani was honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award for her contributions to stage and screen. Receiving the prestigious accolade in Egypt was deeply symbolic for the actress. “It’s as if I came full circle—back to where it all started,” she says fondly.
With a multidisciplinary career that has crossed borders and spanned decades, Armani has plenty of exciting projects in the pipeline. “As an actress and producer, I am playing the female lead in a Finnish-Spanish co-production, filmed in Spain, and I am developing a short film that I am hoping to shoot in spring/summer. I am also writing a TV series set in the Middle East. It’s going to be an interesting year,” she adds.