Dir: Atom Egoyan. Canada. 2002. 115mins. Screened in Competition
Ararat is the film Atom Egoyan has been waiting to make his entire career. All the familiar Egoyan tropes are present - the obsession with mediated images, the juxtaposition of 'truth' and 'fiction', of the 'normal' and the 'foreign', - but the canvas is much broader, in terms of both narrative scope and emotional range. Ararat refers to the mountain in eastern Turkey, a symbol for that region's oppressed Armenian minority. The historical context of the film is the genocide perpetrated by the Turkish government against this minority in 1915, resulting in the death of more than one million people, about two-thirds of the Armenian population. The present-day Turkish government denies that a genocide was committed and the film has already drawn fire from genocide-deniers. One Turkish website has called for a boycott of Walt Disney, the parent company of Miramax, which is distributing the film in the US. Indeed, Egoyan chose not to put the film into competition at Cannes (it screens as part of the Official Selection) out of concern that the political furore might be intensified by the jury process and uLtimately detract from the film's greater purpose. Sill, scant public knowledge of the historical events depicted may limit its appeal; this may be Egoyan's Schindler's List but unfortunately its holocaust doesn't carry the same freight. Which is precisely why the film needed to be made.
Egoyan, a Canadian of Armenian descent, confronts this ancestral trauma from several directions, the personal, the political, the historical, the sceptical, never relying on the authority of cinema to provide the imprimatur of factuality. He does this by setting the film's many subplots against the backdrop of an epic film production called Ararat.
The central subplot film follows the emotional and physical journey of Raffi (Alpay), a young Armenian-Canadian whose art historian mother (Khanjian) is hired by the production as a consultant because of her expertise on the life and work of the Armenian painter Arshile Gorky (Abkarian). As a result, Raffi gets a job on the production and confronts the gap between historical fact and personal history. Moving fluidly back and forth through time, Egoyan uses Raffi's journey as the thematic framework: he returns to Canada from Turkey carrying canisters of exposed film and the questions posed by the customs agent (Plummer) about Raffi's trip, about the production and about the contents of the canisters, serve as links to the other subplots. These include the custom agent's struggle to come to terms with his son's homosexuality and his imminent forced retirement.
Meanwhile, the film within called Ararat is a deeply personal undertaking of its Armenian-descended director (Aznavour) and screenwriter (Bogosian), who have allowed the production to become compromised for the sake of drama. The liberties with historical and even geographical fact - a painted backdrop of Mount Ararat looms on the set even though the mountain is not visible from the actual town where the film is set - drive Khanjian's historian to interrupt the production in protest.
Which is what makes Egoyan's Ararat a cinephile's delight. It is ceaselessly inventive, playing with the medium, using its tools - the editing, the score, the actors - to defy audience expectation. Indeed, the film is a significant addition to the sub-genre of films-within-films such Day For Night and The Stunt Man. Egoyan masterfully stretches to the breaking point the use of transitions of time and space.
For example, the lead actor of the film-within (Greenwood) plays the character of the American missionary doctor who first brought the genocide to the attention of the outside world. Egoyan writes Greenwood as a farcical character, at first blush a dream actor who has read every book on the subject of the Armenian Holocaust and is now studying the Bible to prepare to play a missionary. Except Greenwood's actor is a terrible ham, filling the screen as though the genocide were a personal attack on him. Thus when the historian walks onto the set and interrupts his (and the viewers') crucial scene he turns on her with fury, listing in grisly detail the horrors visited upon his 'patients' and demanding of the dumb-struck historian, "Who the fuck are you'" If Egoyan's achievement could be condensed into one moment, it would be this hugely affecting and pivotal scene.
Armenian or Turkish or otherwise, the audience can only leave this film appreciating Egoyan's thought-provoking exploration of the power of the past upon the present. He subverts the nostrum that history is written by the victors by suggesting that history is a mutable thing.
Prod cos: Serendipity Point Films, Ego Film Arts, ARP, Alliance Atlantis
Can dist/int'l sales: AllianceAtlantis
Prods: Robert Lantos, Atom Egoyan
Co-prod: Sandra Cunningham
Cinematography: Paul Sarossy
Prod des: Phillip Barker
Ed: Susan Shipton
Music: Michael Danna
Main cast: Charles Aznavour, Eric Bogosian, Brent Carver, Marie-Josee Croze, Bruce Greenwood, Arsinee Khanjian, Elias Koteas, Simon Abkarian, Christopher Plummer, David Alpay