"Who Remembers the Armenians Today?"

"Ararat", the latest film by the Canadian-Armenian director Atom Egoyan, deals with the massacre of the Armenians in Turkey - where the movie will not be shown. Amin Farzanefar on the film, the director and his oeuvre

Atom Egoyan on the set of "Ararat"

​​Turkey's refusal to screen Egoyan's "Ararat" provides further ammunition for those who would deny the country membership of the European Union. In Turkish nationalist circles, the film is regarded as a provocation. Some allege that the film has been deliberately promoted by European countries in order to depict the modern secular nation of Turkey as a barbaric and uncivilised land.

Various journalists have even trotted out the old cliché that movies are there to entertain us – and if the film could only be shown under police protection, they concluded, then it was better not to show it at all. Certainly, Turkey's Minister of Culture, Erkan Mumcu did not mince his words, describing "Ararat" as a "propaganda film", and "aesthetically revolting" to boot.

It's clear that some people have been watching "Ararat" with their eyes wide shut. This wilful blindness is the result of a historical taboo: in 1915-16, the world stood by and did nothing as the Armenian population in Eastern Turkey was subjected to an organised campaign of genocide. Between 600,000 and 1.5 million people were deported, starved to death, raped, mutilated or burned. And this was neither the first nor the last of the massacres…

Not history, but histories

The fate of the Armenians is a sensitive and difficult topic, and Atom Egoyan does justice to it. Rather than presenting a single version of history, he approaches the subject from various directions, telling a number of different stories. Edward Saroyan, a Canadian filmmaker of Armenian descent, is planning to make a movie about one particular episode: the battle for the city of Van.

Ani, an art historian, provides the scriptwriter Ruben with some facts about a minor character in this terrible tragedy: the painter Arshile Gorky, who survived the massacre as a small boy, only to take his own life many years later. Then there's Ali, an actor whose roots are Turkish: pleased to have found a job, he then realises he's been cast as a bloodthirsty Turkish officer.

"Ararat" is a virtuoso piece of work, an intricate web of characters, relationships and temporal levels – and it revisits the entire complex of themes that have constituted Egoyan's cinematic cosmos over the years. In order to see where this film stands, one really has to examine the fascinating narrative techniques employed by Egoyan in his previous films.

Incapable of communication

At first glance, the episodes and plot-fragments in Egoyan's movies refuse to add up to a coherent whole. Characters appear to be idling or stagnating while performing apparently senseless rituals. For nights on end, one lonely man keeps watching the same stripper in the same seedy bar ("Exotica"). Another figure arrives in a snow-covered provincial village, where the people are reduced to speechlessness after losing all their children in a bus accident ("The Sweet Hereafter"). Yet another pays various women, preferably foreigners, to call him up and announce that they're leaving him ("Calendar").

There seems to be a trauma behind each of these compulsive acts, a profound loss that makes it impossible for the protagonists to communicate with one another. They compensate by indulging in rigid rituals involving ceremonies, fetishes or third parties – either human beings or communications media.

Truth is relative

One frequently employed stylistic device is the film-within-a-film, signifying the questionable truth – the relativity - of the characters' memories.

Often, the audience first encounters these characters in the aftermath of a severe shock: the loss of a lover or the death of a child. Though wounded emotionally, these characters are no longer in pain, for they've "succeeded" in repressing the trauma, in sealing it off as a part of their past.

Perhaps one can trace a line of development in Egoyan's oeuvre, in which the healing power of memory breaks through the vicious circle of compulsive and compensatory activity. In "Exotica" (1994), probably Egoyan's most popular film, all of the characters share a memory of sexual abuse; or rather, they are all busy avoiding that memory – until a single moment of gentle contact demolishes the entire complex structure of defence strategies. Repressed memories rise to the surface, a process of mourning ensues, and the characters' contact to the world is restored. Egoyan's last film, "Felicias Journey"(1999), ends with the words: "The healing can begin."

Echoes of Armenia

Even in Egoyan's earlier films, the dysfunctional Canadian families he depicted often had discernibly Armenian roots. In "The Adjuster" (1991), the tale of a pyromaniac fire-insurance salesman, we hear the Armenian language spoken. In "Calendar" (1993), substantial parts of the story take place in Armenia itself: the sections filmed in video are fragments of memory within the main body of the movie. And finally, in "The Sweet Hereafter" (1997), a remote community is stunned into silence by the loss of an entire generation. This may well be seen as a parable for the situation of the Armenian people after the events of 1915 and 1916.

Egoyan's own grandparents had been survivors of the massacre. Now, in "Ararat", he has finally renounced smokescreens and metaphors and focussed his attention on the matter at hand. Here, the isolation that has always typified his characters is rooted in a highly specific cultural and personal alienation.

Everyone taking part in Saroyan's film is, either consciously or unconsciously, profoundly marked by the historical catastrophe of the Armenian people. The past is present, linking the murdered great-grandparents to the grandfather (Saroyan/ Charles Aznavour) and the parents (Ani/Arsinee Khanjian), right on down to the youngest generation (Raffi/ David Alpay).

The first-ever fictional film on the subject

Hitler once attempted to justify his own programmes of mass extermination by remarking, "Who remembers the Armenians today?" If popular culture is anything to go by, he was correct in his assessment. In Hollywood, there had been several plans to make a film version of Franz Werfel's tragic novel "The Forty Days of Musa Dagh" – and each time, the subject was deemed too hot to handle. Today, almost 90 years after the massacre of the Armenians by the Young Turks, all we have is some documentary film material. Egoyan's is the first fictional cinematic treatment of the subject.

Aware of how difficult it is to produce an "authentic" representation of past events, Egoyan chooses to distance us from the massacre by presenting it as a separate film-within-the-film. (These sequences are based on contemporaneous eyewitness reports.) The inevitable subjectivity of any approach to history is also nicely encapsulated in a decision made by the director Edward Saroyan: on his studio set, the city of Van is located at the foot of Mount Ararat. Though any atlas will show this to be untrue, Saroyan can't resist placing the doomed city under the holy mountain of the Armenians; it's simply too attractive as a symbol.

Cast as the ferocious Cevdet Bey, the actor Ali is also confronted with a version of Turkish history that's severely at odds with everything he's been taught. It goes without saying that Egoyan has no interest in making accusations, demanding revenge or formulating polemics. (Indeed, a separate subplot also deals with the activities of Armenian terrorist groups, who have carried out bloody attacks even in the very recent past.) It's not a question of Lies versus Truth: what matters most essentially here is accepting the reality of one's own and other people's feelings.

All of these particular personal destinies and the various different time-periods and plot elements of the film are linked by a long conversation at a Canadian customs post. Ani's son Raffi is carrying a parcel. He attempts to convince the customs official David that it contains documentary film material from Ararat, and not, for example, a consignment of drugs. The customs man, however, wants to make his own decision – a moral judgment – without having to open the Black Box…

No rash moral judgments

In view of the Turkish propaganda campaign against "Ararat", some moviegoers may feel like manning the barricades against Turkey's admission to the EU. Before doing so, they should take a closer look at the historical background. Not only did German officers and civil servants know about, and tolerate, the butchery of 1915-16: more importantly, there is a historical wound at the heart of Turkey's refusal to remember those events.

Before Ataturk founded the modern Turkish Republic in 1922, there was a real risk that the remains of the Ottoman Empire would be carved up and swallowed by the Western powers. Today's Turkey suffered a traumatic birth. With this in mind, Europeans would do well to be tactful when insisting that Turkey recognise the Armenian genocide as a historical fact. And as Egoyan himself shows, a "gentle" approach is often more effective than the noisiest of tirades.

Amin Farzanefar

© Qantara.de 2004

Translation from German: Patrick Lanagan