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Wednesday, Oct. 15, 2003

The past that can't be buried


Rating: * * * * (out of 5)
Director: Atom Egoyan
Running time: 115 minutes
Language: English, Armeinan, French, German
Currently showing
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For many people, "Schindler's List" will be their most enduring image of the Holocaust. That's a good thing, since at least the history will be remembered, but it's also got a downside: The film's tale -- of a German who helped rescue Jews -- is an extreme exception, and insulates people from the fact that most people did nothing to stop the killings.

News photo
Simon Abkarian as Arshile Gorky (above) in "Ararat" and the photo of Gorky's mother, which served as an inspiration for one of his cubist paintings.
News photo

Canadian filmmaker Atom Egoyan, unlike Steven Spielberg, is far too self-reflective to ignore the quandary of fictionalizing history. As an Armenian, he's all too aware of the genocide his people suffered at the hands of the Ottoman Empire, Turks between 1915-1920, and the fact that this history is barely acknowledged. (Even Israel, in a cynical geopolitical move to maintain warm relations with Turkey, has refused to recognize the Armenian holocaust in which 600,000 to 1 1/2 million died.) As Canada's most acclaimed filmmaker, he's also in a position to bring this issue to the screen.

But Egoyan being Egoyan, a straight historical drama never really seemed to be on the cards. Egoyan uses the device of a film within a film to distance us and show us both the benefits and liabilities of filming history, especially controversial history. Using his usual style of deftly weaving several disparate stories into one cohesive whole, Egoyan takes us through four generations of Armenians, capturing both the horror of the death marches, and the weight of history on its survivors and their children.

Veteran French singer/actor Charles Aznavour (of Armenian ancestry as well) plays Edward Saroyan, a noted director who's decided to make an action-packed drama on the Turkish siege of the Armenian mountain city of Van near Mount Ararat, based on an actual eye-witness account by an American medical missionary. Saroyan, and his screenwriter Rueben (Eric Bogosian), have a real desire to put their people's history on the screen, but they're not above playing fast and loose with the details to make a film that conforms to Hollywood standards.

To juice up the script, they enlist Annie (Arsinee Khanjian), an art historian who's an expert on exiled Armenian painter Arshile Gorky, as a consultant. Their idea is to place the young Gorky as a character in the siege of Van, which, as Rueben puts it, is "poetic license." Annie isn't so sure.

Annie finds her truth in a Cubist painting Gorky did of his mother, based on a photo taken shortly before she was killed, and painted just before Gorky, burdened with grief, took his own life. For Annie, the painting encapsulates "who we are and how we got here," an abstract work of art that, more than Saroyan's formulaic storytelling, captures the essential truths.

The story of "Ararat" is more complex than this review -- or a single viewing -- can possibly do justice to. For instance, Annie's son Rafi (David Alpay) is stuck at customs on the way back from Turkey, having to explain to a suspicious official (Christopher Plummer) why he can't open the cans of film he's carrying. Further flashbacks reveal his relationship with his stepsister Celia (Marie-Josee Croze), and her anger at Annie for what she believes was Annie's role in her father's death. Suicide, she was told, but she regards Annie as a killer. Rafi is stuck between the two women, and wondering about his own dad, Annie's first husband, who was shot while trying to assassinate a Turkish diplomat. Terrorist or freedom fighter? Always a loaded question, never more so than now.

"Ararat" has a dense, multilayered plot that closely resembles Egoyan's best work, "Exotica" and "The Sweet Hereafter." At times, it will seem a bit overloaded, like the director has crammed three films into one, but careful examination reveals everything's there for a reason. The sub-plot concerning Celia seems superfluous at first, but it's clear that Egoyan is drawing a parallel: Even as Annie decries Turkish denial of the genocide, she engages in similar denial when it comes to her own responsibility in her husband's death.

As Wilhelm Reich, Erich Fromm and other scholars have observed, pathological political situations mirror personal psychological defects on a mass scale. For a film that seeks to identify and condemn the Turkish genocide of past, Egoyan is actually quite insightful in making us understand why and how the denial continues today.

The film's best scene comes when Rafi, working as an assistant to the director Saroyan, confronts Ali (Elias Koteas), a Turkish-Canadian actor playing a demonic Turkish general in Saroyan's film. Ali is rather depressed about having to play the "evil Turk"; he's not sure he buys the Armenian version of history. Rafi, meanwhile, finds himself angry at Ali for what he represents, not who he is. Proffering a bottle of champagne, Ali says, "Look, this is a new country, so let's just drop the history and forget about it!" To which Rafi pointedly replies: "Do you know what Hitler said to his aides while planning the Holocaust: 'Who remembers the Armenians?' " Deeply insulted, Ali storms off in a huff; Rafi remains alone with his rage. No progress has been made.

The film hammers away at its themes of denial and miscommunication, between Celia and Annie, Rafi and Ali, Rafi and the customs official, and even between Saroyan and his audience. His film seems rather cliched, like a second-rate David Lean film, until the final scenes of atrocity -- of mass rape and slaughter -- suddenly take on a terrible power. Egoyan builds this complex, Chinese box of resonating stories to the point of almost no return, when suddenly, the weight of history is released, and reconciliation gained, in a remarkably cathartic scene.

We live in a world where so many past crimes remain unconfronted, where people are urged to "move on," with or without justice. Whether it's slavery in the United States, apartheid in South Africa, political torture and "disappearances" in Chile or Guatemala, or even Japan's culpability in the Nanking Massacre, we're told that pragmatism demands we ignore the need to resolve the past. "Ararat" is a film brave enough to raise this sort of issue, and astute enough to not give us any easy, didactic answers.

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