Wednesday, December 18, 2002


Addressing his generals in 1939, Hitler reportedly assured them that the world would not object to the Final Solution. “Who remembers the extermination of the Armenians?” he supposedly asked.

That story may be apocryphal, but it’s certainly true that not many people remembered even then, less than a quarter of a century after the Turkish government implemented a systematic campaign against its Armenian citizens that resulted in the deaths of perhaps as many as 1.5 million people—more than two-thirds of Turkey’s Armenian population. And not many people know about that genocide still, thanks to the Turkish government’s steadfast denial that it ever happened. (Turkey’s official story is that the number of Armenian civilians killed numbered far less than a million, and that their deportations and deaths were reprisals the Turkish army was forced to take when its Armenian citizens collaborated with Russia, Turkey’s enemy in World War I. Turkish citizens who dispute this view of history risk being tried and imprisoned for “publicly denigrating Turkish identity.”)

Writers and filmmakers who tell stories about any genocide face an awesome challenge: How do you portray such an enormous, almost unimaginable evil without lapsing into kitschy sentimentality or self-righteous posturing? The Armenian genocide adds another challenge to that one: How do you describe a genocide that never officially happened?

Atom Egoyan, the writer and director of Ararat, has responded to that challenge by making his movie not just about the genocide but about Turkey’s denial as well. A Canadian-Armenian director whose best-known film in the U.S. is probably The Sweet Hereafter, Egoyan makes coolly thoughtful movies with multiple storylines that crisscross in unpredictable ways. Like Raffi, one of Ararat’s main characters, he seems to instinctively mistrust attempts to tug at the heartstrings. The emotions in his movies are nearly always underplayed, even when a catastrophic event—the death of a busload of children, the dissolution of a family, the Armenian genocide—lies at their core. Ararat is his most heartfelt work yet. At the same time, it’s vintage Egoyan, as much about the difficulty of determining the truth and the crippling effects of violence and denial as it is about the genocide itself.

Two main sets of characters intersect in Ararat. The first is Ani (Egoyan’s wife and frequent star ArsinĂ©e Khanjian), a nervously motor-mouthed professor of art history; her son Raffi (David Alpay); and Celia (Marie-Josee Croze), Ani’s stepdaughter and Raffi’s lover. The second is a group of filmmakers, led by director Edward Saroyan (Charles Aznavour) and his assistant Rouben (Eric Bogosian), who are making a movie about an April 1915 showdown between Turkish soldiers and an Armenian community under the protection of an American missionary in Van. The filmmakers enlist Ani to serve as a technical advisor because she’s an expert on the Armenian artist Arshile Gorky, a survivor of Van.

The main characters are all intent on surfacing some truth. Ani studies Armenian artist Arshile Gorky obsessively, convinced that his painting of himself and his mother is “a repository of our [Armenians’] sacred code,” explaining “who we are, and why, and how we got here.” Celia keeps showing up at Ani’s lectures to badger her, convinced that Ani is responsible for her father’s death. Raffi, whose own father was killed while attempting to assassinate a Turkish diplomat, travels to Turkey to try to understand the roots of his father’s rage against the Turks.

Meanwhile, the filmmakers do their best to convey the truth of the genocide, which often means creating characters are scenes that are factually inaccurate but “true in spirit,” as Rouben puts it. Egoyan gently mocks their conventional-looking, often sentimentalized feature, which shows the Armenian quarter as an idyllic haven, at the same time that he uses it to convey most of the facts we learn about the genocide.

Egoyan pieces together his movie in his usual nonlinear fashion, interrupting the flow of his contemporary story to address the protests of the genocide deniers or cutting from a fictional scene in the film-within-a-film to a “real” one showing its creators at work. His insistence on showing us the gears of his story-making machinery generally appeals to our heads, reminding us that everything we’re watching has been filtered through someone’s perspective and that we can never know the ultimate truth about history.

But every now and then, he bypasses the head and aims straight for the heart. In one pivotal scene, Ani ruins an emotional take in Saroyan’s movie by walking through the set as he’s shooting. An actor playing a missionary in charge of the group being filmed takes offense and berates her for her thoughtlessness. Speaking of his fellow actors as if they were the people they portray, he describes the horrors that have just befallen them and the near-hopeless situation they’re in now. A stark reminder of the very real horrors behind the fiction, his words leave even Ani speechless.

Written for TimeOFF