Facing the pain of a past long hidden

November 17, 2002
Source: The New York Times

By Murray Whyte

TORONTO - ATOM EGOYAN is not used to this. The threatening e-mail. The accusations of propaganda. It's all frighteningly new.

"It's been exhausting, and also at times very demoralizing, because it's so far away from what I normally do," Mr. Egoyan said recently in an interview in his office here. "And I've had to understand that this is part of this particular film experience. It's a responsibility, and I can't be naïve about it."

The cause of this unease is "Ararat," Mr. Egoyan's ninth feature film and arguably his most personal one. Mr. Egoyan has built an international reputation on his intricate, meditative studies of the fragility of the human psyche — his 1997 film about a town devastated by a school bus accident, "The Sweet Hereafter," won him Oscar nominations for best director and best adapted screenplay. But none of his films, however nuanced, matches the delicacy of "Ararat."

Named for the Turkish mountain that dominates the traditional Armenian homeland and the Armenian imagination as well, "Ararat" is a complex, multilayered examination of the ways in which personal and ethnic history intersect among a group of characters in contemporary Toronto. The thread that connects their fragmented stories is the making of another film, also called "Ararat" but vastly different from Mr. Egoyan's.

The film-within-a-film recounts the bloody events in the ancient Armenian capital, Van, in eastern Turkey, in 1915, when Ottoman troops went on a murderous rampage against the city's Armenian population and then expelled the survivors in a deadly forced march. It is this film-within-a-film that has put Mr. Egoyan, a Canadian of Armenian ancestry, at the center of the long-simmering historical dispute about whether the events in Van resulted from a decision to eradicate an ethnic and religious minority from Turkey or from justifiable military reprisals for insurrection.

A vast number of Western scholars call it genocide — a centrally planned extermination effort in which 1.5 million Armenians were tortured and killed by Turkish troops from 1915 to 1923. The Turkish government, however, denies to this day that there ever was a genocide, maintaining that there were 500,000 deaths and that whatever atrocities occurred were in the context of wars in which Armenian fighters sided with the enemies of Turkey.

To Mr. Egoyan, the genocide is irrefutable, and "Ararat" takes it as fact. The Turkish government, always concerned about damage to its image on this issue, convened a meeting about the film earlier this year. Mr. Egoyan said that he and the film's United States distributor, Miramax, had subsequently been threatened with legal action to prevent the film's release. (To no avail — the movie opened on Friday in New York and Los Angeles.) Menacing e-mail messages have flooded his Internet site's in-box. "Miramax, the director, and everyone involved in the film will pay, and pay huuuuuuge," said one.

For his part, Mr. Egoyan said he had never intended "Ararat" to be seen as definitive history or a political challenge. In fact, the film is very much at home in his restrained, contemplative oeuvre, in which disparate lives converge, overlap and diverge again while echoing the larger themes of the piece. In his view, the heart of "Ararat" is the pain of dealing with denial.

"The issue is, what happens to stories that don't get told?" he said. "What happens when people live with these things? It's not just a question of the Armenian genocide. Those stories don't go away. That's the central emotional thrust of this film: what happens when things are left unsaid?"

As a metaphor, the killing of 1.5 million Armenians is a heavy one, Mr. Egoyan allows, and fraught with complications, given his own Armenian heritage. "The other events I've touched on, like the killing of a young girl in 'Exotica,' or the bus crash in 'The Sweet Hereafter,' of course, those events are fictional and understandable as events that could affect any one of us," he said. "A genocide is a very specific historical event that a lot of people just can't relate to, because it's so cataclysmic. It involves the complete abstraction of an entire race."

"Ararat" tries to alternate the film-set re-enactments of the cataclysm in Van with the smaller, more personal tragedies that befall its contemporary characters and that exemplify some of the larger issues. The director of the film-within-a-film, Edward Saroyan (played by Charles Aznavour), is the child of an eyewitness and survivor of the 1915 massacre in Van. Burdened with generations of cultural baggage, Saroyan dives into a bloodbath of his own creation, producing a blunt, brutally violent hero-villain polemic. He hires an art scholar of Armenian descent, Ani, as a consultant. Played by Mr. Egoyan's wife, Arsinée Khanjian, Ani abstracts the horror of the Van massacre as research into the life and art of Arshile Gorky, the Armenian painter who was himself a survivor. Raffi (David Alpay), Ani's son, goes in search of his own past and returns to Toronto with mementos of Van that are deemed suspicious by the Canadian customs officer played by Christopher Plummer. The customs agent is himself, in an oblique way, connected to Saroyan's film, and to its themes of denial and responsibility. From the enormity of an ethnic cleansing to the microcosmic brutality of one person's private pain, Mr. Egoyan unfolds a commentary on the suppression of truth and the ownership of history. The breadth of the issue arises in Celia, Ani's French-Canadian stepdaughter, played by Marie Josée-Croze. Celia holds Ani responsible for her father's death, and presses her unrelentingly for the truth, going so far as to intrude loudly on Ani's lecture on Gorky. Celia wants answers. Her father died falling off a cliff; was it an accident or did he kill himself? Celia knows Ani was about to leave him, and has come to her own conclusion. But Ani was the only one there, and the story belongs to her alone. "I can't remember it the way you want me to," is all Ani will allow her — driving Celia, denied any way to resolve her own history, to lash out with a violent act aimed at both her stepmother and the legacy of the Armenian diaspora.

It's a moment that questions the self-righteousness of the Armenian characters and deepens the complexity of the film. "Of all people, Ani is someone who should understand what the effects of denial are," Mr. Egoyan said. "And yet, she's in a very privileged position where she refuses to acknowledge another woman's history. And that privilege takes a huge emotional toll on someone."

The same issue is embodied in Saroyan. Portrayed as a monster of virtue, bristling with his own sense of moral superiority, Saroyan takes ownership of the untold history as his to tell. His hatred of the Turks is so deep that it's beyond reproach; when Ali (Elias Koteas), the half-Turkish actor Saroyan casts as the sadistic Turkish officer Jevdet Bey, tries to engage him in a discussion of the Turkish view of the history, the director coolly dismisses him and walks away.

It's a telling moment in many ways, Mr. Egoyan said, and it crystallizes a central concern of the film: how does a suppressed history play on the psyche of those forced to carry it inside them? "That was one of the things I wanted to address," Mr. Egoyan said. "What is moral authority — the fact that you could silence someone else because you have experienced this? I find that very problematic."

That the film-within-a-film is one character's attempt to incarnate his own sense of history — and not a statement by Mr. Egoyan himself — contributes to what Mr. Egoyan calls a misreading of his "Ararat."

For Mr. Egoyan, allowing what he called "critical distance" between the historical events and his discussion of them was crucial to his taking on the project. "I felt the structure I had adopted would give us that critical distance," he said. But, he said, some people prefer to see the film-within-a-film without the complicating inferences to be drawn from the surrounding narrative.

His personal connection with the subject is clear: born in Cairo to Armenian parents, Mr. Egoyan grew up in Victoria, British Columbia, a sleepy city of the Canadian west coast. He was, he said, raised as Canadian as the next kid, without much bother about his Armenian roots. "If you're raised in the community," he said, "you're raised with a certain anger — that the rest of the world doesn't know about it. I wasn't raised with that."

But Mr. Egoyan experienced a cultural awakening after moving to Toronto in 1978 to attend the University of Toronto. There, he joined the Armenian Students Association and began uncovering his cultural history. Nearly a decade later, casting his first feature, "Next of Kin," he met Ms. Khanjian, who would go on to star in all his films. Ms. Khanjian, who had been raised speaking Armenian, infused Mr. Egoyan with a stronger sense of his origins; his cycle of cultural identification was complete.

Mr. Egoyan knew "Ararat" might be his most heavily scrutinized project. The film was born in public, before an expectant audience at the Armenian Community Center in Toronto, where Mr. Egoyan's longtime producer, Robert Lantos, challenged him to take on the subject. The audience erupted in cheers. To further identify the film with Armenian culture, Mr. Egoyan populated it with actors of Armenian descent, including Ms. Khanjian, Mr. Aznavour and Eric Bogosian, who plays the screenwriter for the "Ararat" within "Ararat."

Yet despite the attention he expected the film would draw, he said, he knew he would have to serve his interests as an artist first. "Because of my background, because people have known that the film has been lurking, they probably don't want to grant me the fact that I would be capable of being as critical of these issues as the film is, and I'm not quite sure why that is," Mr. Egoyan said. "People say, 'Were you afraid to make the film within a film?' Or 'Why did you need to complicate the issue?' It's because that is the issue. I had to show those images so I could deconstruct them." He paused. "I refuse to believe in the death of complexity. It goes against everything I believe in. After all is said and done, that's what all my films are about, and this is no different."