Review: Aurora’s Sunrise

Inna Sahakyan’s animated doc is a heartbreaking tale of survival on two continents and a vivid re-examination of the Armenian genocide

June 20, 2022
Source: Cineuropa

By David Katz

Aurora Mardiganian – the titular protagonist of Aurora’s Sunrise – had, on the basis of what we see here, one of the most remarkable lives of any survivor of the Armenian genocide. It’s one so harrowing that associating it with a “sunrise” is almost a cruel joke. In the film’s sombre closing titles, we learn that after the events depicted in the story, she “[lived] the rest of her life in obscurity”. If Inna Sahakyan’s film – the first animated documentary of its kind made in Armenia, and with sizeable European co-production involvement – will accomplish anything, it will be rescuing Aurora from this obscurity, and making her immortal and symbolic in the way cinema is uniquely able to do. The film world-premiered in competition at the just-concluded Annecy Festival.

Sahakyan and the film’s producers have acknowledged that Aurora’s story (she was known as Arshaluys before settling in the United States) is archetypal at least in how she managed to flee the Turkish ethnic cleansing of her people, as it was occurring in the Middle Eastern theatre of World War I. But what took place next in her life really makes this narrative involving, and sets the stage for Sahakyan to further refine her investigative filmmaking practice, honed in her prior documentaries.

When Aurora met journalist Henry Louis Gates after docking at Ellis Island in 1917 (animated in ravishing, golden light-strewn detail, evoking how James Gray shot the location in his under-appreciated 2013 film The Immigrant), he wrote a widely admired piece detailing her story, and her unlikely survival whilst the majority of her family perished. Then, Hollywood in its silent spectacle days came calling, with Aurora being cast re-enacting her own story in Oscar Apfel’s Auction of Souls, the surviving footage of which is interspersed here amongst the animated sequences serving as the film’s primary thrust. A national initiative to interview survivors, undertaken by the Zoryan Genocide Institute, provided archival interviews (mainly shot in the 1980s) of the spirited, elderly Aurora recounting her tale for real. The manner in which these three cinematographic strands merge serves the film’s message better than any one in isolation, true to the notion of how these vital stories survive, perish or are distorted in the telling.

Aurora’s life as a 14-year-old in Armenia, prior to her family’s troubles, is vividly rendered, although she can’t help but seem a mere cipher – an innocent figure for horror to be wreaked upon (the animation is not shy about depicting the instances of sexual abuse she suffers whilst trying to evade both Turkish and German forces, although it is arguably only the fact that they are animated that makes them palatable enough to be shown). But then she is in America, on a sponsored tour bankrolled by a Christian organisation (sympathetic to what Armenians faced as the Ottomans tried to secure their ethno-national state), travelling from coast to coast and speaking publicly to the masses after they’ve just gawked at the film she was in – almost a dark mirror image of a filmmaker’s publicity trail today. Sahakyan’s presiding point, in emphasising this part of Aurora’s story, is how the signal – the clear statement of acknowledgment needed for the Armenian genocide – was blurred just as much then as it is now, when Turkey as well as several other nations are yet to recognise it. And that this must be a collaborative effort, with one group of storytellers picking up where the others left off a century before.

Aurora’s Sunrise is a co-production between Armenia, Germany and Lithuania, staged by Bars Media, Gebrüder Beetz Filmproduktion and Artbox Laisvalaikio Klubas.