In search of Ararat

The slippery nature of representation is the focus of Atom Egoyan’s film about the Armenian genocide, a multi-layered work that is also a meditation on denial.  

Still from Ararat, directed by Atom Egoyan.
Still from Ararat, directed by Atom Egoyan. Credit: Photo 12 / Alamy Stock Photo

How do you make a film about events defined by denial? Released a little over 20 years ago, Ararat  (2002), by Canadian-Armenian filmmaker Atom Egoyan, was the first major motion picture to attempt to tell the story of the Armenian genocide. Since then there have been more mainstream accounts, but Egoyan was the pioneer, and approached these events, which the Turkish state still denies and diminishes to this day, in terms of a multifaceted meditation both on personal and ethnic-cultural memory and the relationship between truth and art.

Set in the present day, the film stars French-Armenian actor and singer Charles Aznavour in one of his last roles as the director of a film-within-a-film (also entitled Ararat) set during the battle of Van in April 1915, during which Armenians held out for weeks in the face of Ottoman troops.

At the beginning of the twentieth century there were about 2.5 million Armenians living in the Ottoman Empire; a beleaguered Christian people considered a foreign and potentially dangerous element in a society dominated by Muslims. In early 1915, the Young Turk government sought to blame a crushing defeat suffered at the hands of the Russians at the battle of Sarıkamış on Armenian treachery. There followed, for several years, systematic mass murders and forced death marches towards concentration camps. Although estimates of the Armenian death toll vary, the total figure is thought to be close to one million.

Like his compatriot David Cronenberg, Egoyan is a cineaste of the weird, the uncanny and the perverse. His films include the unnerving Exotica (1995), about a grieving father who becomes obsessed with a young stripper, and The Sweet Hereafter (1997), focused on the complex aftermath of a school bus accident that kills fourteen children in a small town, a film Egoyan characterised as ‘a grim fairy-tale’. Egoyan’s somewhat experimental, oblique and ambivalent film-making temperament is not, at first, a natural fit with such a stark subject.

When Ararat was released in 2002, the Armenian genocide had hardly been evoked on the screen. Perhaps because, as Egoyan suggested in an interview, of the difficulty of making a film about a historical event largely defined by denial. To this day the events of the mid-1900s are euphemistically referred to as ‘the Armenian question’ or ‘the Armenian allegation of genocide’ by the Turkish state. Egoyan’s response to this has been to frame Ararat as a film about how denial is passed on from generation to generation, detailing the shifting meaning of images and memories.

Egoyan was born in Egypt to Armenian-Egyptian parents before his family emigrated to Canada to start a new life. While he was living at home, Egoyan’s parents avoided bringing up the historical trauma associated with their Armenian heritage. Egoyan’s interest in his ancestry developed slowly and independently. Though some of his early films feature Armenian characters (without their nationality serving as an explicit theme) it was with Calendar  in 1993 that Armenia began to come into focus in his work. In the film, Egoyan plays a photographer tasked with taking twelve pictures of historic Armenia for a calendar, whose wife falls in love with their Armenian guide, ending their marriage. It is a film concerned with the making of images, and how images build up a personal and national identity.

Ararat  was made a decade later, deepening Egoyan’s portrayal of diasporic Armenian alienation and his sense of the slippery unreliability of representation. In keeping with Egoyan’s layered and fractured approach to storytelling — his films often can be pieced together backwards — Ararat isn’t a straightforward historical drama about the genocide, but a tapestry of interwoven characters and stories. While one strand details the making of the film-within-the-film directed by a veteran director who is the son of genocide survivors, another traces the story of Armenian-American painter Arshile Gorky (played by Simon Abkarian) and the genesis of his painting The Artist and his Mother. The work was inspired by a black-and-white studio photograph taken of Gorky and his mother in 1912 in Van, and he worked on it protractedly from 1926 until 1942, a few years before his suicide. A third storyline revolves around Raffi (David Alpay), a young Canadian man of Armenian parentage, his relationships with his art historian mother Ani (Arsinée Khanjian) and his girlfriend Celia (Marie-Josée Croze), and the three characters’ varying attitudes to memory, truth, and guilt.

Egoyan’s film was not well received upon its release. It premiered at the Cannes Film Festival — despite threats from the Turkish government to take legal action against what it deemed an Armenian propaganda effort. Turkey objected particularly to several scenes showing violence perpetrated by Ottomans in the film-within-the-film, including a shot of severed heads mounted on pikes and a moment when a group of young women are forced to dance while being doused with kerosene. Meanwhile, many Armenians across the world who had eagerly awaited Egoyan’s film felt let down. With its shifting layers of ambiguity, Ararat  fell short of expectations of a film that people wanted to tell the Armenian story ‘properly,’ that is to say, in more straightforward cinematic manner — a Dr Zhivago-style epic historical drama.

In fact, Egoyan had initially considered making just such a film: he had written the script for Ararat, the film-within-a-film we see being made. But judging historical drama as not a good fit for him, he decided to insert it within another story, thus creating what he called ‘a refracting machine’. As a film-maker Egoyan has been consistently fascinated with how film and video can distort the reality they purport to reveal. Throughout Ararat, we witness the decisions that go into making a historical drama. Although the characters in the film are dedicated to telling the true story of the genocide, hiring Ani as a historic consultant and using as core source material An American Physician in Turkey by Clarence Ussher, a 1917 memoir of the American doctor and missionary’s experiences in Van, the characters nevertheless take liberties with historical fact in order to make the film more efficient. After hearing a lecture about Arshile Gorky, they decide to work his character into the film as a child even though Gorky was not present at the time. When Ani, observing the set, points out its inaccuracy — it is impossible to see Mount Ararat from Van, for instance — she is told a little poetic licence helps to get closer to the truth ‘in spirit’. Egoyan’s camera also, on several occasions, dispels its own illusion by panning back from a historical scene shot by Saroyan, to include the director and his team of technicians at work in the frame and reminding us that this is a film in the process of being made.

In examining the tensions that exist between film-making and historical authenticity, Ararat anticipates the criticism levelled at more mainstream big-budget films about the Armenian genocide that came after it, such as The Cut (2014) by Fatih Akın, in which a mute Armenian survivor goes in quest of his twin daughters; The Promise (2016) directed and co-written by Terry George, starring Christian Bale and widely perceived as a saccharine wartime romance; and a greater misfire, 2017’s The Ottoman Lieutenant directed by Joseph Ruben, starring  Josh Hartnett and Ben Kingsley, a Turkish co-production in which the Armenian genocide is described as ‘the Ottomans [taking] measures to stamp out Armenian rebels’.

In Ararat, Egoyan attempts to embody different strands of Armenian memories of genocide through different stories and points of view. It is not a perfect film. Nor does it fully resolve the question of responsibility, of how such a human catastrophe should be represented in film. It is seemingly not possible for one work to encompass what every Armenian thinks a film about the Armenian genocide could be. In any case, there is often something almost unendurable about fictional representation in relation to trauma. The dangers are many, from dishonest revisionism to the processing of human suffering into manipulative entertainment. The purpose of a work of art, Egoyan suggests, is not to compete with a documentary. Rather, it is to allow us to re-imagine historical events and perhaps even dream about them, while showing us, as in Ararat, how denial of the Armenian genocide lives on in the apparently safe spaces of the diaspora.


Muriel Zagha