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Wednesday, Oct. 15, 2003

Who remembers the Armenians? Egoyan replies

At age 43, Atom Egoyan has garnered enough acclaim to rank among cinema's most prominent directors: the Palme d'Or, Grand Prix and Critics' Prizes at Cannes; an Academy Award nomination; and a fistful of major festival awards. But only with "Ararat" do we begin to understand what really drives this director. All his best films so far -- "The Adjuster," "Exotica," "The Sweet Hereafter" -- have dealt with unresolved grief, continuing pain and loss from some past tragedy. With "Ararat," which Egoyan describes as "my most personal film," we see why. In an interview with The Japan Times, Egoyan discussed the origins of the film, and the difficulties in addressing the subject of genocide.

This film's loaded with ideas, but was there one that came to you first?

The one material thing I began with was this script I had written some years ago, a historic drama, which I felt compelled to write, but I just put it in a drawer because it seemed so impersonal on some level. Then, some years later, this producer I work with a lot, Robert Lantosh -- who had made a film about his people, the Hungarian Jews -- said, "OK, now it's your turn."

News photo
Filmmaker Atom Egoyan

I looked at the old script again, and I still cringed when I read it. But I realized the identifying feature of the Armenian genocide is not the nature of the atrocities, but the denial of it. That trauma has been transmitted from one generation to another, because you can't say that Turkey has said they're sorry. It sort of continues. And then I began to think, this historic movie seems to be of a different generation. And I began to imagine this director at the end of his career who was the child of a survivor, needing to make these images in a very specific way, that reflected the way those stories had been told to him. And then all the other characters started to fall into place. Four generations, all trying to make things which express some aspect of their experience: Gorky making his painting; Saroyan making this film; Annie, writing her book; and finally Rafi, making his video-journal. And all these objects are created out of the neurosis of not being heard.

I think it's a very personal film because there's something of me in each of these characters. On the one hand, it's the first and perhaps only film I'll make where there's this huge social responsibility, that I was aware of. But I also understood that the only way I could actually make it was if I felt it was personal.

But you're mirroring how these larger, society-wide ethical and psychological problems stem from the same ones we have on a personal level.

Yeah, and that's the most provocative aspect of the film, and some people have found that problematic. Like, are you trying to equate a woman's denial of her stepdaughter's claim with a genocide? They're both issues of tolerance -- even if you've experienced denial, that doesn't mean that you've learned from it. Look at what Celia does, an act of destruction, which is the result of this rage at not being heard, and it's generated by Annie. So, it just seems to me, this is a film that deals more with the issue of denial than the phenomenon of a holocaust. Living with denial, the psychology of denial, and how it's transmitted from generation to generation.

Like in the scene where we see Celia's father's suicide. It's never clear if that's supposed to be how it really happened, or Annie's memory of it . . .

Right. Which again, is the nature of the experience. As Armenians, we don't have those kind of iconographic images we can show to people and say, "This is what happened." So in light of this, we're all been waiting for the film that's going to provide that. Now, as an extremely self-conscious filmmaker, I also understand the limitations of that sort of representation. So I wanted to show those images, but also show that history's not made by a film premiere.

The film within a film starts off kind of hokey, but by the end -- and despite any reservations you may have -- those images of the atrocities become undeniably powerful and terrifying.

The biggest challenge for me was to present those images in the way I imagined them, when I heard those stories as a kid. But I'm also aware that presenting those images perpetuates a hatred, of the "evil Turk." Japdet Bey [the Turkish commander in Van] was, by all accounts, a psychopath -- even his fellow officers feared him. But it's also important to me to see that as a construction as well, how the actor playing him is not aware of this history, and can incarnate this character, and still not learn from that. And yet, what do we expect him to learn? Do we expect later generations to feel sorry for these incredibly violent crimes that occurred? Is that realistic? Is it morally correct? Governments, obviously, have to be held accountable, but when we get down to individuals, it's a much thornier issue.

As a Canadian, I have to negotiate my way in a multicultural society, which is full of stories. What [the character] Ali is expressing is very attractive: This is a new country. I was born here, you were born here, let's start afresh.

Well, that's the ideal of multiculturalism, isn't it?

It's very attractive, but it does omit the fact that we need history to learn from it. If we don't acknowledge these issues, they will re-emerge in another way. I think that scene is so important. What Rafi is doing is pulling out the quote, by Hitler, which every Armenian knows. But when you just present that, out of context, to someone who's never heard it . . . suddenly Ali thinks he's being called a Nazi! And you understand from that look he leaves the boy with, that he feels anger and hatred because of this accusation. God, these things are tortured! The biggest challenge we have, especially in these times, is to really be able to understand how other people experience the world.

You've worked with composer Mychael Danna for years now; what was it like this time?

At one point I was convinced that we could record the soundtrack in L.A. with Armenian musicians that were living there, but Mychael was very insistent that we record in these ancient churches in Armenia. And I just thought, "Mychael, why do you do this?" He really has this idea about how to get particular sounds, where the sources are, and he's almost superstitious about that. But the moment we were there, it seemed like such an amazing opportunity. Almost the whole film is made by diaspora Armenians, and this was an opportunity for Armenia, the independent country, to also feel part of the production. It was a huge symbolic gesture.

And personally, for me, one of the themes in the film is based on a folk song, a lullaby that my father remembers his mother -- an orphan of the genocide -- singing to him. And to actually be able to take that song and have a choir sing it in this ancient Armenian church, was really an incredible act of historical reclamation.

How much of Rafi's attempt to come to grips with the historical baggage he's received from his parents reflects your own upbringing and experience?

Well, I was raised by parents who were both painters; the only kind of spiritual education I've had is art. I was raised with this idea of how important it is to create. My parents were unusual, in that they moved to Western Canada where we were the only Armenians, so the traditional pillars of the Armenian identity -- community, the language, the church -- I wasn't raised with that. It wasn't until I was 18 and moved to Toronto that I understood more of the details. Unlike my wife [Arsinee Khanjian], who was raised in the middle of a very militant Armenian community in Beirut, and who rejected a lot of those issues later in her life. I kind of went toward them and wanted to understand them.

So you kind of met halfway?

Yeah, in a way, it's been a very interesting journey. So much of this film is inspired by 20 years of being together, this issue, and conversations we've had. But she was very nervous about my decision to make this film. You know, a lot of Armenians don't understand. What I've heard is, at this point in your career, with Academy Award nominations and all, why would you want to make a film about this now? But to me, it's like a no-brainer. It's exactly why I would make this film now.

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