Last evening I finished watching Atom Egoyan's film, Ararat (2002), whose subject matter is, among other things, the Armenian genocide of 1915. First, the Armenian genocide.
The Armenians historically lived in the southern Caucasus region in the borderland between what are now Russia and Turkey. They claim to be the first christian nation, having converted to the faith in 301. They have stubbornly held to this faith, although, as nonchalcedonian believers, their Armenian Apostolic Church separated itself from the mainstream of the church in 506. The Armenian language is an Indo-European language with its own distinctive alphabet. Because of the location of historic Armenia, it has been subject to virtually every invading force sweeping through the region, most recently the Persians, Turks and Russians. At the end of the 19th century most Armenians lived within the boundaries of the Ottoman Empire, while a substantial minority lived across the border in Russia. The latter became the nucleus of Soviet Armenia and the post-Soviet Armenian republic.
In 1915 all this changed. To be sure, Armenians had been subject to persecution at the hands of the Turks before, most notably in 1895-6. But in the second year of the Great War, the reformist Ottoman government, run by the Committee for Union and Progress -- better known to history as the "Young Turks" -- undertook a more systematic extermination of the Armenians. As the last major Christian millet in the Empire, the Armenians were suspected of favouring the cause of Russia in the Great War. As a result they were deported en masse from their historic homeland and forced to march into the Syrian Desert, where more than a million perished in what has come to be called the Armenian Genocide.
Did all this really happen? Turkey continues to deny it. But hundreds of thousands of overseas Armenians have horrific tales to tell of their grandparents' and great-grandparents' suffering during this episode. So Armenians have a mission to tell the world, similar to that of the Jews and the Holocaust.
Enter Atom Egoyan, the Canadian film director, born in Cairo, Egypt, of ethnic Armenian parents. Two years ago he made Ararat, a film which obviously comes straight from the heart. Much as Stephen Spielberg made Schindler's List to tell the tale of the sufferings of Jews in the Holocaust, so has Egoyan attempted to bring the plight of Armenians before the world. My own judgement is that he has not succeeded.
Like The French Lieutenant's Woman, this is a film about the making of a film. But it's also about the Armenian-American artist, Arshile Gorky, whose painting of himself and his deceased mother (right) apparently took ten years to complete. Yet it's also about an encounter between a young man returning from Turkish Armenia and a customs official at Pearson Airport in Toronto, played by Christopher Plummer. And it's also about the tensions between an academic art historian (played by the hauntingly beautiful Arsinée Khanjian, Egoyan's wife) and her step-daughter, who just happens to be sexually involved with Khanjian's son by her first marriage and blames Khanjian for her own father's death. Got all that?
Where does the Genocide fit in? Well, the film within the film is about the Genocide, with the screen play based on the account of Clarence Ussher, an American physician who was witness to the tragedy. The making of the film is the thread holding the plot together, although the continuity is often sacrificed to the continual flashbacks, a currently fashionable cinematic convention which can leave the audience in confusion if not done right.
The end of the film leaves the viewer with a mixed message. The makers of the film-within-the-film are possessed of a mission to tell the world the truth about the Genocide. So apparently is Egoyan. However, the surprising conclusion of the encounter between the young man, Rafi, and Plummer's customs agent leads one to think that the subjectivity of all truth claims makes truth virtually unknowable. Is this really what Egoyan wanted to communicate? If so, it would seem to subvert the entire reason for making Ararat. Might this indicate the work of more than one hand in the screenplay?
Finally, the characters in the film are one-dimensional. Motives for their actions are not really explored. Only Christopher Plummer's character appears to have any genuine depth. Khanjian's character is aloof and severe, and does not elicit the sympathy of the audience, despite her undoubted beauty. In short, the film is about too many things. The definitive film about the Armenian Genocide has yet to be made.
Incidentally, my wife thinks I'm watching too many films these days about historic tragedies and people losing their homes and homelands. She's right. Two weeks ago we were watching An American Rhapsody, which I was profoundly affected by. I think it all has something to do with the 30th anniversary of the Cyprus tragedy, which saw my relatives lose their homes and at least part of their homeland.