Whos Afraid of Atom Egoyan
When I interviewed Atom Egoyan in 1999, he hesitated to tell me about Ararat, the new project he was poised to announce, which addresses the Turkish Empire’s genocide of Armenians in 1915. I was interviewing him for an Armenian diasporan publication and in retrospect I could tell he knew the timing was crucial for the film’s release.
Ararat premiered at Cannes amid the throngs that make their annual pilgrimage to the French Riviera in May. Egoyan’s film attracted more attention than usual when early rumors suggested the Turkish government was threatening the film with legal and diplomatic action. The New York Times reported that Yilmaz Karakoyunlu, a Turkish state minister, told the Ankara Daily News that “Turkey will do everything possible against this film. It is a shameful production.”
Even after Ararat premiered, the Turkish paper Cumhuriyet made the ridiculous claim that the Armenian lobby (a kind of bogeyman in the Turkish media) was responsible for having Egoyan’s original premise altered. Another Turkish daily, Hürriyet, tried another approach and quoted a Turkish journalist of Armenian origin, Hrant Dink, who saw the film as “harmful” to Turkish-Armenian relations.
Cannes was no cakewalk for Egoyan, as the Australian Times colonist observed, reporting that Egoyan was grilled about everything from Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians to the recent war between Azerbaijan and Armenia. The filmmaker was being treated like a TV political commentator.
The way Egoyan orchestrated the film’s launch is amazing for its delicacy. He withdrew Ararat from official competition to avoid the dirty politics of the festival. The fact that he chose France for the world premiere was seen by some as no coincidence as France enjoyed the distinction of being the first Western nation to officially recognize the Genocide only last year.
The critical response at Cannes was mixed, as it is with most of Egoyan’s oeuvre. The French viewers seemed respectful of his film and his intentions, and appreciated the un-L.A. sensibilities that persist at being difficult to finance. In America, Variety mentioned, “never is Ararat not directly ‘about’ Armenia and Armenians.” A New York Times reviewer saw something else: “This was a project of unusual and intense personal importance, and it has an emotional directness somewhat unusual in Mr. Egoyan’s work.”
At Cannes’s post-screening press conference, Egoyan tried to explain his motives, albeit a little awkwardly, as if justifying something: “So this was the great challenge for me and to show how powerful a force art can be in dealing with trauma and how it is the vindication.” Arsinée Khanjian, Egoyan’s artistic and life partner, chimed in and tried to universalize the dilemma, “this notion of the history of Armenians is perhaps an impetus and a premise to depart on something much larger than that, which is the question of who we are.”
But it was lead actor Charles Aznavour who initiated the beginnings of a dialogue between cultures many hoped Ararat would generate. He said at the press conference, “I never felt hatred because I was never raised in hatred. When my parents talked to me about Turkey—because my mother was Turkish after all … People talk about the Armenian genocide by the Young Turks because you shouldn’t talk about the Turks in general, you should talk about the Young Turks—you talk about Turks of Armenian origin. I have no hatred because I was never taught to hate.”
After Aznavour spoke at the press conference, a member of the Istanbul Film Festival addressed the crowd and said while there were things to criticize, he was going to work to have the film screened in Istanbul. The fact remains, however, that Ararat has not yet been seen in Turkey and may never be.
The film has indisputably resuscitated a new interest in an old question. Only recently has the Turkish intelligentsia begun to question the logic of some of its Kemalist ideological roots, which demands secularist thinking and the submission of minorities within a Turkish state. Many people, Armenian or otherwise, have long known that the only true recognition that counts is from the Turkish government.
A series of articles by Turkish Daily News reporter Gul Demir used Ararat to demonstrate the need for a discussion of the dark episodes of Turkey’s past that are rarely discussed. Demir cited one well-known Turkish folk song that only recently became known to be based on an Armenian original. Slowly, it seems, the shards of memory are being reconstructed in Turkey. Turks are finding ways to talk about the one-time taboo subject of the fate of the Armenians.
This moment may indeed mark a turning point for the discussion of the Armenian genocide in Turkey and hopefully will bring into question the expensive PR campaign to silence Armenian genocide claims the world over. Since Turkey is a NATO ally, America has been complicit with this campaign, and the effect has been more than resounding. Many have bought into the Turkish story of a supposedly civil war against a people that were only 50 years prior termed the “loyal” minority.
Egoyan’s Ararat will undoubtedly revive more awareness after its U.S. debut in November. As the first major English-language film to bring the 1915 genocide to the screen, Ararat is important. But in addition, and to the filmmaker’s credit, Egoyan’s film is also emerging in the critical arena as another type of movie in the way that it breaks down and reconsiders national and cultural boundaries, something akin to Olivier Assayas’s Irma Vep or even the popular Fifth Element by Luc Besson. It is a film that questions the whole concept of a “national” cinema.
A critic for the Toronto Star recognized the conundrum played out in the film: “a French-Armenian director (played by Aznavour) comes to Canada to make an English-language movie about the Armenian Genocide perpetrated by the Turks. The cast of Ararat includes several English Canadians, one French Canadian and an American. It is directed by a Canadian citizen of Armenian background born in Egypt.” National cinema indeed.
With this diversity of critical reaction, Egoyan must know that he has hit on something more profound. When he was asked to participate in 11’09’01, a film that solicited international filmmakers to make shorts about 9/11, he declined. “What I found disturbing about doing an 11-minute film about September 11 was the idea that if it was successful, people might feel that I ‘got it right.’ Something tells me that what happened on September 11 is the beginning of a narrative that we can’t begin to ‘get’ until we fully digest the nature of what really happened.” Perhaps in a few decades, Egoyan will be comfortable revisiting the harrowing images of 9/11.
When an interviewer for the Montreal Mirror asked about the role of collective memory and history in Ararat, a vexed Egoyan replied, “All I’ll say, is that I think all the issues surrounding that issue are built into the story itself. I think a lot of people have begun a level of discourse before they’ve seen the movie. Have you seen the movie yet?” The interviewer hadn’t. Egoyan replied, “I think the film has to be seen to even begin a discussion. It exists right now in people’s imagination in such a bizarre way. I was surprised, yes, that it created so much controversy, just because a film was being made about the subject. I find that kind of appalling. It sort of says something about how dysfunctional that situation is. I mean, the denial has been so absolute, that it can arouse this much anger. One has to wonder why it has whipped up this frenzy, if there wasn’t something that was being denied. It’s an obvious point, but one that’s raised by the fuss.”
Egoyan’s “naïveté” regarding the strong reactions to the film hardly seems real. Having studied International Relations at the University of Toronto and being an Armenian Canadian surrounded by a culture that denies his history, he clearly knew that he set himself up in a difficult place. But then again, as a new world order is being decided in the post-9/11 world, Egoyan ultimately realizes that now is the time to ask all the difficult questions and to only hope that someone listens.
Hrag Vartanian is a writer, critic, and designer. He lives in Brooklyn, NY.