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[whitespace] Imagining the Unimaginable

Atom Egoyan's Ararat

By Richard von Busack

It's a puzzle with hidden pieces, Atom Egoyan's new film, Ararat, but it's worth making the effort to solve. The film has hung on, largely, I think, through word of mouth by Armenians. Like Jews, Armenians are members of a diaspora culture that has settled in California (you've heard of a singer/actress named Cher, for example, who is an Armenian from El Centro; or a former California governor named Deukmejian).

Apparently, Armenian clubs are traveling to large cities to see Ararat; this is the main source of box office, which is, reportedly, still good. It's a worthwhile film of more than just ethnographic interest, despite its cerebral qualities. It is, as Anthony Lane of The New Yorker called it, "slippery." Which is exactly the point: what's more slippery than memory?

Ararat is a typically perplexing, profound and remote work by Egoyan, creator of the best film of the 1990s, The Sweet Hereafter. Like the upcoming Adaptation--and this is a more pensive, deeper work--Ararat is about the attempt to transform reality into a film. Or to put a finer point on it: the attempt to translate nonfiction--which isn't the same thing as reality--into something that can be watched on a screen.

Egoyan presents a series of studies for the making of an epic. Everything that's cautious and unshowy in Egoyan--he may be Armenian, but he's also Canadian--shies away from making an Armenian version of Schindler's List. Thus Ararat is the exact opposite of, say, The Grey Zone, a film too morbid even for its subject matter, Auschwitz.

But everyone knows what Auschwitz was; the Armenian holocaust is much less known. Shortly after 1900, a nationalistic government took power in Istanbul, a group popularly referred to as the "Young Turks," a phrase that even now means a group of murderous hotheads.

Under cover of World War I, during which Turkey was allied with Germany, the Turkish government carried out the 20th century's first recorded case of ethnic cleansing. The government turned on the Christian Armenians, committing numerous atrocities (a few of which Egoyan tells of, but mostly spares us from seeing).

These barbarities ended with a death march of the Armenians. The killings are estimated everywhere from 600,000 to 2 million; the U.N. guessed in 1985 that 1 million died. (Later, in the 1920s, the Turkish government reprised the process with the Christian population outside Macedonia; Ernest Hemingway reported on the catastrophe for the Toronto Star.)

Today, this massacre is about to fade out of living memory. It is now all but extinct except in the stories of exiles and in the nightmares of old men in Fresno. (Ararat is showing in two theaters in Fresno; possibly the first Egoyan film ever to play there.)

Echoes of Catastrophe

Egoyan, of Armenian descent, wrestles with the echoes of this catastrophe, which, insanely, is still officially denied by Turkey. Armenia's sometime enemies and sometime allies, the Kurds, may be players on the world stage soon. Similarly, the United States is courting the Turkish government in preparation for its likely upcoming war against Iraq. Thus the chances of official apology seem very dim.

Ararat is a star-shaped narrative, with the central point being the massacres at the city of Van in Armenia. The different flanges take place throughout the 20th century, mostly through the story of a fractured family.

The mother of the piece is an art historian named Ani (played by Egoyan's wife, the ageless beauty Arsinée Khanjian). She has just completed a work on the ill-fated Armenian immigrant Arshile Gorky (1904­48). One series of scenes lets us watch Gorky himself in his studio, completing a portrait of his mother, starved to death by the Turks. (The painting referred to here is in the National Gallery in Washington, D.C.)

Ani has one son and one stepdaughter: a diffident filmmaker, Raffi (David Alpay), and a troubled drug dealer, Cecilia (Marie-Josée Croze). Cecilia and Raffi are sleeping together, and the mother knows about it.

Despite misgivings, Ani is recruited as an adviser by a sharpie film producer, Rouben (Eric Bogosian). He is assembling a film about the Armenian massacre with the help of an elderly man who survived the killings, Edward Saroyan--the name a nod to the best known of Armenian authors, William Saroyan (played by the legendary French singer and actor Charles Aznavour, an Armenian holocaust survivor in real life).

We watch the making of this movie within the movie. It is called Ararat, named after the 17,000-foot mountain that dominates the land of Armenia. The mountain is popularly supposed to be the last resting place of Noah's Ark.

A cast is assembled. An actor, Ali (Elias Koteas), is hired to play the evil Turkish commandant Jevdet Bey. In Ali's scenes, we can see that this Ararat is contaminated with the hackneyed sincerity of most holocaust films. And--and this is tricky, but it's worth suggesting--Ali's ever-so-slight overacting seems a deliberate choice by Koteas. Human motivation is always deliberately cloaked in Egoyan's films, yet Koteas has the most underwritten part. His Ali is a likable, common kind of actor: a careerist, a hedonist, less interested in conveying historical reality than in the pleasures of getting to play a monster.

As Ali is half-Turkish, he's as close as Egoyan's Ararat gets to a spokesman for the Turkish point of view. When pressed by Raffi about what he feels about the Armenian holocaust, Ali gets enraged--it's ancient history, and it pisses him off to have it dug up. The rage seems out of nowhere; previously, he's been a pleasant joker, an affable lightweight.

Using deliberate omission and sideshows, Egoyan lays out this holocaust story as a series of problems. In showing the making of the film-within-the-film, Egoyan tells of his doubts concerning the wisdom and the ethics of trying to recreate genocide as popular entertainment.

Keen to Guess

While this is a movie with a few too many subplots, one is key. That's the episode where Raffi returns to Canada after a trip to the foothills of Turkey, with footage he claims (falsely) is meant for Ararat. At the airport, he's detained by a lonely and curious Canadian customs official named David, who, coincidentally is the father of Ali's live-in lover. David is played, with juicy slyness, by Christopher Plummer.

It's David's last day on the job. As John Cleese said at the Cheese Shop, he's "keen to guess." Even at the risk of neglecting his duties, David decides to play Jesting Pilate over some mysterious cans of film Raffi has in his possession. These sealed canisters of exposed film--like Schrödinger's cat in the physics conundrum--will die if exposed to the light. But all this may be a ruse: these cans may actually contain heroin muled into the country from Turkey.

This episode--an epilogue, really--is a baffler. These mystery cans of film can be interpreted as symbolizing the question of whether or not the Armenian massacre happened. But that's too easy an explanation, and I'd suggest what the incident really asks is this: Will the film-within-a-film Ararat be the truth about the Armenian holocaust? Or is it going to be just another opiate, a narcotic to lull an audience?

We can compare the episode of Raffi and the customs agent with the sequence of Gorky's torments as he tries to complete his mother's portrait. But here Egoyan is storytelling. From the way he lays it out, we get the impression that memories of the Armenians' fate drove Gorky to suicide. In fact, the artist died 14 years after the scenes we see here. He was sick with cancer and abandoned by his family. Only the truly vengeful would claim that it was the Turks who did in Arshile Gorky.

Egoyan's untrustworthy storytelling mirrors Ani's own pet theory that Gorky's painting directly refers to the Armenian holocaust--but that story turns out to be speculation as well. Another possible solution to the riddle of Gorky's painting lays in the monastery of Aghtamar, where there are 1,000-year-old stone carvings that were as much an influence on his art as the violence he faced.

Ararat is a seriously overplotted film, and I suspect that adding the siblings' love story was a way to warm this cerebral story, and a way to help balance the Turks' savagery. (A sex scene occurs almost at the same distance from the film's beginning as a Turkish rape occurs from the film's end; Egoyan may have deliberately intended this as symmetry.)

Ararat is Egoyan's second film about Armenia. The 1993 16 mm Calendar is a work in a lighter vein, about a North American making a confused journey to Armenia, estranging his wife in the process. It's like what would happen if Albert Brooks made a travelogue of Israel. Calendar satirizes the way a sacred homeland is turned into the kind of photos you see in calendar art. (Armenian calendars generally have views of Mt. Ararat on them, actually.) Egoyan's intentions in Ararat are more serious, but he expands on this theme of how filmmaking reduces memory to a series of untrustworthy images.

Here, Egoyan suggests that while it's his duty as an artist and an Armenian to address what befell his people, he doubts one can do justice to the unimaginable, and he dreads dishonoring the suffering of his people with an imperfect memorial. Once again, this master filmmaker has done something unique: he's avoided his duty and fulfilled it at the same time.

ARARAT (R; 115 min.), directed and written by Atom Egoyan, photographed by Paul Sarossy and starring David Alpay and Arsinée Khanjian, plays at the Embarcadero in San Francisco.

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Web extra to the December 12-18, 2002 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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