Article written by Dr. Harry Hagopian, LL.D, KSL-KOG
Strange! Just as Atom Egoyan had hesitated for long years before making the film ARARAT, I too hesitated for long days before attending its première showing at the 46th Regus Film Festival in London last night! And at the end of the viewing, I listened with absorbing interest to this affable and charismatic man - almost an Armenian version of Hugh Grant with his diffident mannerisms - as he explained how he had struggled for years with his own perceptions before he could connect sufficiently with this chapter of Armenian history in order to reproduce this film. Ararat was shown at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival last summer, and was released in the USA this week.
Armenian Canadian Atom Egoyan already enjoys an iconic status as a 'film-maker', having directed Exotica, The Sweet Hereafter and Felicia's Journey as three top-notch motion pictures. Ararat, his latest, represents a poignant labour of love whose title is a straightforward reference to Mount Ararat - an Armenian national symbol par excellence that is both unassailable in its significance and unattainable in its splendour.
The ambitious scope of the film strives to relate an historical event. It then places this historical event in context for those living today. It later reflects upon this event through the medium of several intertwined modern stories. So what is Ararat all about? The overriding theme of the film strives to unpack the genocide of the Armenian people by the Ottoman Turks in 1915. The historical archives are replete with tangible and irrefutable evidence that two-thirds of the Armenian population - more than one million children, women and men - was cleansed during the period 1915-1923 as a result of an ugly and bloody reign of terror. However, despite scholarly assertions and eyewitness reports, the Turkish government to date denies the occurrence of those atrocities and claims that they occurred as a result of an Armenian insurrection from within Ottoman Turkey during World War One.
This complex film - for it is quite complex, though the minutes slowly peel the stories open - was shot in Canada. It amplifies the experiences of the American medical missionary Clarence Ussher who witnessed the genocide from the vilayet of Van in eastern Turkey. Filmmaker Edouard Saroyan (Charles Aznavour) is shooting a motion picture about the Armenian genocide. Along with his producer (Eric Boghossian), he recruits an historian, Ani (Arsinée Khanjian), to advise him. Ani is an expert on the painter Arshile Gorky, who left Armenia for New York at the time of the genocide. Her son Raffi (David Alpay) decides that he must visit Armenia to understand the legacy of his people. On the way back to Canada, a customs inspector in the person of David (Christopher Plummer) stops Raffi in the belief that the film cans he is carrying are being used for drug transportation. Meanwhile, his stepsister Celia (Marie-Josée Croze), with whom he is having a sexual dalliance, has escalated a feud with his mother to a critical public level.
At times, Egoyan assumes the role of a patient schoolteacher and shows what happened to Armenians during the genocide by means of slow re-creations of history being done for the film-within-the-film. An interesting character in the film is Raffi who has unanswered questions about the death of his father shot fifteen years earlier while attempting to assassinate a Turkish diplomat. In fact, one intense aspect of Ararat is Raffi's relationship with Celia. She has a genuinely smouldering character, driven by great passion and even greater guilt. She believes that Ani was in some way responsible for her father's death, and she will not let go ofthe idea. Actress Marie-Josée Croze erupts this character to volcanic life with a fiery performance that trail-blazes the screen. But one gripping moment of self-denying power for me was the scene in which a half-Turkish actor (Elias Koteas) argues against the importance of putting too much reliance upon the past. This reverberates the loud echo of Armenian-Turkish non-realities today!
There is both substance and symbolism to Ararat, and its willingness to deal with the effects of genocide was powerful and educational enough to spark connections and references in my own mind. As I watched the various overlapping scenes of murder, decapitation, rape and plunder, I could almost remember how my own family had suffered some of those humiliating and horrifying atrocities during their own flight for survival from Anatolian Turkey in 1915. And that is where, not unlike Atom Egoyan's search for a connection, the film connected with me too.
Ararat analyses the way that a suppressed history plays on the psyche of those forced to carry it inside them. But it also raises the awareness of the moviegoer to the parallels between the Armenian genocide of 1915 and the subsequent genocides of our world - the Jewish Holocaust, Cambodia, Haiti, Rwanda, Sudan, the Balkans or many other episodes where the human cruelty of man manifested itself with sheer impunity. After all, and as the film reminds us hauntingly, Adolph Hitler defended his elimination of the Jews by stating, 'Who remembers the extermination of the Armenians?'
What truly matters now is the impact Ararat might have upon non-Armenians. I hope it is 'alive' enough to encourage British filmgoers to pause for a moment and mull over an unacknowledged tragedy that struck Armenians some eighty-seven years ago. In so doing, I would not wish them to hate Turks or seek revenge for that is both wrong and futile. But I would like them to help liberate this chapter of contemporary history by helping re-shape it too.
© harry-bvH @ 18 November 2002