Ararat (2002)


(director/writer/producer: Atom Egoyan; cinematographer: Paul Sarossy; editor: Susan Shipton; music: Mychael Danna; cast: Elias Koteas (Ali, actor playing Jevdet Bey), David Alpay (Raffi), Charles Aznavour (Edward Saroyan), Eric Bogosian (Rouben), Brent Carver (Philip), Arsinee Khanjian (Ani), Christopher Plummer (David), Marie-Josée Croze (Celia), Bruce Greenwood (Martin Harcourt, actor playing Clarence Ussher), Simon Abkarian (Arshile Gorky); Runtime: 115; MPAA Rating: R; producer: Robert Lantos; Miramax; 2002/Canada)

“One of Egoyan’s great pics that in time will grow in stature.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

What Canadian-Armenian filmmaker Atom Egoyan (“The Sweet Hereafter“/”Felicia’s Journey“) wishes to do in this factually accurate personal film, that could easily have been a documentary if some fictionalized subplots weren’t worked into the story, is let an indifferent world know about the genocide of the Armenians in 1915 by the Turkish Ottoman army. There were over a million Armenians massacred in eastern Turkey at the time of WW1– an estimated two-thirds of the country’s Armenian population, even though the Armenians weren’t the enemy but Turkish citizens. The well-executed genocide plan was achieved through forced marches in the desert, starvation, naked women set on fire after being doused with kerosene, rape, brutality and a variety of wanton murders. The world seems to have conveniently forgotten that Holocaust. Egoyan wishes to revisit his past roots in order to find out less about the lost people and the homeland—but the unanswerable question is why his people were so hated that such a terrible atrocity was committed against them.

Hitler told his generals “Who remembers the extermination of the Armenians?” He used that to show how quickly the world forgot the Armenian genocide so that his ‘final plans’ against the Jews could be executed without opposition by those who feared reprisals if they lost the war. It’s Egoyan’s aim to remind the world of this Turkish crime against humanity and to ruffle the complacency of the Turkish government that still denies such a genocide took place and the American government that still doesn’t acknowledge the genocide as a means of placating Turkey politically. The quirky filmmaker who is always hunting for the odd angle to approach his film’s themes and always with complex multi-layered subplots, chooses to dish out the history of the incident through the use of a film-within-the-film. He intercuts the making of the genocide film with the stories of fictionalized characters who are all somehow connected with the making of that film. That these multiple subplots take too much energy away from the main story is debatable, as I found myself mesmerized by the depictions of the deep emotional pain felt by the concerned parties of both the true event and those highlighted multicultural citizens of Toronto who are suffering grave personal pain in their fictionalized lives. Ararat might be overloaded with puzzling plots that are never fully developed and Egoyan tries to cover way too much territory for any single narrative, but this film is both deeply thought-provoking and has a deep personal meaning for the filmmaker that resonates on the screen. This intelligent film is full of honest feelings and asks important questions of the survivors that cannot easily be answered, but the questions just by being raised are enough of an answer. The characters wrestle with reliving the past and going on with life while retaining that dark knowledge. If it is too ambitious and some of the dramatic devices don’t work perfectly, it is still a more potent and weighty film than most mainstream and arthouse movies ever achieve in their much safer films.

Egoyan uses as his alter ego an 18-year-old Canadian-Armenian, Raffi (David Alpay, first-time actor), who plays the violin and is interested in the arts and in film-making but doesn’t know his roots as well as he would now like to. His mother Ani (Arsinee Khanjian, the director’s wife) is an art historian lecturer. She had two significant men in her life one was Raffi’s father, who died in an assassination attempt 15 years ago on a Turkish diplomat, and the other is her second husband, who might have committed suicide or died accidentally slipping off a cliff. The latter is the father of Celia, Raffi’s stepsister and love interest. The hot-blooded Celia resents her stepmother and believes she might have driven her father to his death by telling of an affair she was having. Her aim is to get Ani to admit her guilt in her father’s death.

Ani has just finished a book about the great émigré Armenian artist Arshile Gorky (who was in New York in 1920 and committed suicide in 1948) and in a series of lectures she explains how his famous painting “The Artist and his Mother” was his favorite but also the work that pained him the most because it rekindled memories of the genocide and of his mother who was slaughtered. Attending the professor’s lecture is the veteran but out of favor for the last two decades, the Armenian filmmaker Edward Saroyan (Charles Aznavour), who hires Ani to be a consultant for his film as he is trying to introduce Gorky into his genocide film and wants to make it as accurate as possible. He and Rouben, his hack Armenian screenwriter who takes poetical license with the Gorky characterization of him as an 11-year-old on the battlefield, have hired Martin Harcourt to play the American missionary Clarence Ussher. The mission was in the heart of the city called Van where the massacre took place and his memoir as a survivor of the siege, written in 1917 and called ”An American Physician in Turkey,” serves as an eyewitness report. To play the villain is Ali (Koteas), a Canadian half Turk. Jevdet Beyis led the systematic massacre as the ruthless military commander. One of the most powerful scenes has Raffi interacting with Ali and probing him about what he thought of the role he played, as Ali pleads ignorance to such an interpretation of events and unsuccessfully offers forgetfulness and hospitality to the searching and passionate Raffi. It is also interesting that Egoyan makes Edward out to be a conventional filmmaker, who has the intense feeling for his people’s plight but can’t make a great film out of it.

In the side plot, customs agent David (Plummer) meets with his gay son Philip and his lover Ali, the same actor in the film. Father and son have problems over his homosexuality, as the divorced Philip is disturbed that when his son visits he’s upset by his granddad’s negativity.

The film skips to after Edward’s film was made and Raffi, who took off for a year returns from Turkey with film footage and research he did about the genocide. He’s stopped by the unyielding custom agent David, who is working the last day before his retirement and suspects that Raffi’s smuggling heroin in the film cans. A great deal of the story unfolds at the airport, as it becomes the place where Raffi fills in the blanks to what he didn’t understand about his roots and what drove the elder generation of Armenians to make it a pivotal part of their life. The airport also acts as a metaphor for the multicultural Canadians to find something honest and true to believe in again. The whole point of the agent’s intense grilling of Raffi was to make both questioner and suspect responsible for knowing the truth and their actions.

Egoyan has blurred the lines of the past and present in his attempt to explore cultural identity and its meaning to life, and offers no escape through entertainment or watering down the suffering. The film though grounded in the genocide is as much about the present and how to sanely live by learning from history and art so as not to repeat the mistakes from the past. It’s a serious and pensive work and though much maligned by the body of film critics, I believe this is one of Egoyan’s great pics that in time will grow in stature. The ensemble cast all gave interesting performances, though Aznavour and Bogosian weren’t asked to do as much as Khanjian and Alpay and Plummer. The interplay between Khanjian and Alpay was affecting, as it counterbalanced the ghostlike leitmotif of Gorky and his mother’s close relationship. Although the film moved at a meticulously slow pace and veered back and forth between subplots, I never got lost in its maze and never found it dull. Also, the background Armenian music nicely tuned into the mood of this ethnic story–a story that the entire world should realize happened.