"The Horrors of Genocide"
MATT ARNOLD talks to acclaimed Canadian director ATOM EGOYAN about his new film 'Ararat' which on many levels, examines the Armenian genocide of 1915
Atom Egoyan's latest film cleverly intertwines several different stories but by the end, you realise each is a variation on the theme of truth and denial. On one level, it's about two families and their search for reconciliation, on another it's about an Armenian film director trying to re-enact the 1915 Armenian genocide based on Clarence Ussher's book An American Physician in Turkey. It caused controversy in Cannes and then received overwhelming applause at the 2002 London Film Festival last November, where Atom spoke to me in a central London hotel, the morning after the screening.
Atom, your film has recently opened in the United States. How well has it gone down there?
We got a huge response, I can't really believe the figures. A review in the New York Times changed everything when they said 'hands down, this is the most thought-provoking movie of the year'. This is the first time this part of Armenian history has been shown so perhaps people expect it to be a big historical film which it is not, but a comment like that certainly changes people's perception of the film they're about to see.
Was this a project that had been knocking around in your head for sometime - had you been wondering how to present it ?
Yes exactly, how to do it. It seems to demand a straightforward approach but that would not address the most interesting aspect of it, which is the fact that it has been denied and to examine how that denial has filtered through four different generations. Plus, I wanted to give access to each of those generations from the survivor through to the great grandchild. Each is in the process of making an artefact that reflects their trauma, from Gorky's painting to Edward's film. I had the historic film in my drawer for several years but I never felt compelled to make that movie.
Was it a way to get across history to a more contemporary audience?
The opposite of denial is a need to speak. The young man stopped at Customs who is asked to tell his story, just spills out specific points of information - I thought it was really important for him to talk to the Customs officer who like a viewer wouldn't really know anything about Armenia - there's a lot of information to get across. The texture of information, the emotion of how this man tells his story, all that was important to me.
Is it a very personal story for you and your partner - did that create extra pressure or give you extra determination?
There was extraordinary pressure telling the story, I've never made anything where I've felt responsible to a community, yet I wanted to liberate myself of that and that's where Saroyan's film is important because I was able to channel a community's expectations through this film within the film. That has limitations. The tone of that film, the raw historical approach was all invested in that work and that led me to investigate the contemporary relationships and the framing of that film. I really felt there was something of me invested in all the characters. It's the first time I've created an original story since Exotica and it was interesting to go back to that. For Arsinee as well, it was nice to write the character of Ani. Knowing what issues she would bring to the role, was very empowering. It was great to relate to this period of history and create this discourse around it ; history is about presenting information, how its received and finding a way to make the history compelling through these artefacts - the most challenging aspect was to make the film within the film with sincerity but also to show the limitations of that approach.
It is limiting to just take a linear approach - the other way brings so many different strands together
I think there is an uneasiness at times of marrying the different aspects, but I think that's inevitable. There's something quite particular about it, I think you might gain the most from it, if you don't know anything about it prior to going in. You think you're watching a film about two families, then suddenly the enormity of what happens next, overwhelms that.
Have you been over yourself to see where they used to live?
I've been to Armenia before and I would love to go again. I don't know if it's possible right now, because of the reaction against the film there. From some quarters, it seems more encouraging, I've been invited to the Istanbul Film Festival for instance, but I'm not sure if that would work. I'm not sure also if I did go, what I might expect to see. In terms of my grandparents' lives, there's not much of that left, there's nothing there to prove that anything ever happened, but Armenians do go back to that area and I will go sometime.
So what are you left with, photographs, reports, accounts from an older generation?
Yes, we sent a videographer over to shoot the footage that appears in the film. The buildings are still there, wonderful isolated ancient churches, they give you a sense of another culture. None of the more everyday aspects remain. What I think was so moving about creating our street-scenes with Armenian extras dressed in period costume, was this sense that we were creating something close to going back in time. I think that it was a very profound experience for the extras, many were drawn from friends of mine. We were all quite touched that day putting together this street recreation that gave us some semblance of a past we couldn't go back to. It's not peculiar of course to Armenian culture. There are a lot of people who have lived through unspeakable experiences - we have seen genocide in Rwanda, Cambodia, the Balkans. It's a case of remembering these things in such a way that we try to get through to people that we don't want this to happen again.
Yes, it struck me as I was watching the film, you've got the Russians trying to do away with the Chechens, what the Israelis are doing with the members of the PLO, what Saddam did with the Kurdish people
Well, there just seems to be this trigger that we all have - I mean any act of tyranny or terror involves the dehumanisation of another group of people and that's something that's recurrent, it's not specific - we're surrounded by these stories, sometimes we react to them, sometimes we just let them pass by, and that abstraction is a danger, it's too easy to ignore the complexities of a situation taking place far away ; it's a dramatic conceit in the film that the customs officer spends so long trying to understand what the young man is telling him about the genocide. It's quite improbable he would spend that much time listening to him, but that's the point, sometimes we need to devote time to learn more about a situation that doesn't affect us but which demands our understanding. Walking away can be too easy.
What happened in Cannes then, did you have to withdraw the film there?
Given the nature of the story and the fact that this was the first time it was being told in this way, there was added pressure on the film at the time. Also had it been in competition, there would have been even more pressure of would it win or not and it seemed crass to expose a film like this to that unnecessary pressure.
And have you had opposition from the Turkish government?
Well there was a lot of opposition leading up to the presentation and a tremendous amount of reaction to the film internally, I mean there was a book published against the film in Turkey ; but now having seen the film, they understand that it's not propagandist. This film is anything but that, and I think that the character of Ali is representative of many Turks who have never heard of this before. The notion of whether someone can be held accountable for the sins of their fathers is very complex. That said, all my other films have been picked up for distribution in Turkey and this one hasn't and I'm not sure if it ever will. It might be presented at the Istanbul film festival, and we'll have to see what the reaction is after that perhaps.
Is it a case of denial on their part that this took place?
Oh absolutely. Systematic and complete denial that this ever took place.
So how do they explain the fact that all these people disappeared ?
Firstly, they dispute the numbers we're talking about, were they ever really there ? Denial can take a number of different forms, basically everything that you hear Ali say in this film is the official Turkish position - there was never a plan to commit genocide or inflict heavy casualties on both sides - it's not just a case though of Turkish denial, there was also the role of other Western countries who turned a blind eye. After the First World War, there was an internal Turkish tribunal, and since there were some incredibly rich oil fields in the former Ottoman Empire, in exchange for dropping the internal trial, they gave the West access to those. I think it seems unbelievable that a genocide on this scale could be effectively forgotten but I don't think it's unique. These situations can occur anytime. The way interests work, will determine the level of consciousness in any given situation, and that even applies to something so horrific and monumental as a genocide.
I remember reading a quote attributed to Hitler before he floated the idea of the Jewish Holocaust, where he said 'who after all speaks about the genocide of the Armenians?'
The Turkish government will dismiss any English, French or American eye-witness account and there are hundreds of these eye-witness accounts. Their position is that this was anti-Turkish propaganda during the First World War, but what's impossible to dismiss are the German or Austrian archives, since they were allies to the Turks during World War 1. The Germans had counsellor heads in all of these towns and were reporting back on what they saw to the Reich's Counsellor. This horrified them because they thought they'd be held accountable. I think that thirty years later, many of the architects of the Holocaust, when they began to conceive of the mass scale extermination of the Jewish population, were able to hark back to what happened thirty years earlier and understand that under the cover of war, you can get away with this. The German archives reveal detail of what they were observing, which is really quite staggering - what pressure does one need to hold something up for scrutiny? To hold people accountable, it has to be done shortly after the occurrence and to go back 85 years later and judge people not themselves directly responsible is difficult and yet you feel there is a moral imperative to do something.
These things are still happening, there are lessons to be learnt aren't there.
Exactly, and that's what I hope the film is able to communicate. When you watch and realise you have not heard of this before, that raises another issue. How many other genocides have happened that you've not heard of? That to me is the most unsettling aspect of the film. Ali feels there's a need to move on but there are so many different ways we are presented with history and as you have said, things like this are still happening. People still want to eliminate others, people are being dehumanised. How do we react? It's too easy to feel that any given situation is inevitable.
I wonder what the origins of all this is, is it born out of intolerance, a lack of basic respect for other people's cultures? What drives someone to this, is it like not getting on with the neighbours, they're smaller than us, so lets drive them out?
I don't think things are ever planned meticulously. With the Turks and the Armenians, the Germans and the Jews, once you begin a process to relocate people, to imagine a world where you can get rid of a problem, that seems to overtake one's sense of tolerance - if you have the image that you can get away with something, absolutely eliminate a problem at its root, and dehumanise another race so completely, as absurd and completely horrifying as it seems, that compulsion overtakes any sense of rational control - it's the same thing on an individual basis - if you think someone is going to continue to threaten and cause you unhappiness in your life, one can entertain a fantasy that the situation can be eradicated. What is fascinating to me is the level of abstraction that that involves; with an individual its easy to focus on issues, but when you apply that to an entire race it seems inconceivable, and yet history reveals so many examples of this. With Ararat, I wanted to show how this can also happen with a family, how an intolerant man can condemn his father by threatening to cut off links to his grandson - to equate that on any scale with genocide might seem ludicrous, but I do believe that similar trigger mechanisms are in play that you can demonise even someone as close as your own father merely because their attitude threatens your own beliefs. Similarly Ali, blocks his stepdaughter's right to understand a significant piece of history. To me that was the most exciting part of the film, to show that this happens all the time in differing ways - it's easy to deny something, to destroy someone else's enjoyment of reality merely through a refusal to address an issue in a rational way.
Do you consider this to be your most satisfying work?
I don't know, there are issues that it raises that are very open-ended and it may not have the clarity of something less ambitious, but it is the most ambitious work I've done- in one way I wish it was simpler and yet in another, even though it is structurally cumbersome, I would not have it any other way - there's nothing in it that I would take out, so I must be satisfied with it!
Do you know what you're going to do next?
I'm moving on to do a production of Wagner's Ring in 2004 with the Canadian Opera Company. It's been really satisfying to immerse myself in this messy, cumbersome and gigantic narrative because it's something so completely different. I'm not quite sure where my filmmaking will go next. I feel a sense of relief that Ararat has now been told confronting those issues of denial, but I still need to gauge the reaction to this film before I'm truly able to move on.