Against Forgetting Filming the Genocide

By Jason Wood

ararat-atom-egoyan-1.jpgArarat, 2002

Armenia, Art and Ararat Atom Egoyan in conversation

Jason Wood
: When I interviewed you last, you expressed a concern about how you were going to approach the subject of the Armenian genocide. It was obviously something that has preoccupied you for some time. How satisfying is it now that the project is finished and how close does it come to what you initially conceived?

Atom Egoyan: I am very proud of a film which I feel is able to take this event, that happened over 85 years ago, and situate it in the present day, and that to me was the challenge. I needed somehow to make it urgent and it had to deal with what I think is the defining aspect of the Armenian genocide – which is denial – not what has happened but what continues to happen.

A denied history is by nature a difficult thing to dramatise, but I think that through the responses the various characters have to the artefacts, we understand the degree of the trauma and how it’s transmitted from one generation to the other. There is one song, which is the only one my father remembers his grandmother singing to him; she was an orphan of the genocide. To take that song, record it with a choir in Armenia and then to bring it back here was an incredible act of cultural reclamation. But the film is full of those gestures.

JW: Do you think it has had any effect on the Turkish government in coming to terms with the actions of previous administrations?

AE: I don’t think they’ve seen it. I think they have so completely dismissed the film, demonised it and vilified it, based solely on a screenplay which they had access to. But they really must see it. There have been very moving responses from Turkish individuals who have seen it and I think the film does offer a dialogue with someone in the present who perhaps has never even heard of this event and yet might deny something he doesn’t even know.

JW: The film seems to suggest that such analysis is never objective; that there can probably never be an impartial view of history.

AE: That’s one of the conclusions you have to draw from a denied history. If a history has been systematically denied, it is only as valid as the people you can convince that it happened. As Armenians we are always in the position of trying to convince, whether it’s our host governments or individuals. That puts us in a very vulnerable place. That’s why I think a lot of Armenians were hoping, here’s a film that finally shows it like it was, but I don’t actually think this reflects the nature of the experiences of 85 years ago.

ararat-atom-egoyan-2.jpgArarat, 2002 

I think the reason the Turkish government were incensed by the film was because it was the film they were expecting to see. The images that aggravate them are there but they are surrounded by discussion of what the images mean and that is why it cannot provoke anything ultimately but conversation. The most powerful moment in the film – which personifies the desecration – is where Gorky rubs off the hands in his painting, and in a way that portal into abstraction is where our own imagination can flow, as opposed to a literal representation which doesn’t ask us to participate at all.

JW: Each decision you made to shape the film into a fairer and more rounded view of events moves it away from what is perceived as the commercial goal to which every film is expected to aspire. You could for example have adopted Spielberg’s approach in Schindler’s List.

AE: Yes, but Schindler’s List is dealing with an atrocity that already exists in the public imagination. It’s still inconceivable to most people how a culture at the peak of western civilisation can be reduced to the level of barbarity that Germany was. That is endlessly fascinating and can be used dramatically over and over.

I do think there are stereotypes about Turks; something their government is incensed by, and for that reason I don’t think there is a film about the genocide, told in a straightforward way, that I could be moved by.

I wanted to move the film into a zone where they have to confront what denial means. I’m asked, did you make the film the way you did because you were afraid of it or were fearful of getting too close? But I think that is nonsense. I actually made the film and myself more vulnerable by adopting this structure.

JW: The film also continues to analyse many of the themes that occur throughout your work, such as the breakdown in structures and relations within families, as well as the preoccupation with capturing experiences in a digitally mediated world…

AE: What are the things we do to communicate our experiences to someone else and what does that act of recording something mean, if not a way of dealing with the fear of losing what that moment means. That is something at once beautiful and vulnerable and also horrifying, diabolical even, depending on how it’s used.

ararat-atom-egoyan-3.jpgArarat, 2002 

One of the strongest images in Ararat is of the physical installation of these cans of film and we understand that it is something so cumbersome, the process of going to Turkey to shoot something on film that will be used as a plate for digitised effect. That is what the film addresses: something that is real and inauthentic. It’s all so outlandish, and on top of it there’s this little digital camera that might give us more access to the spiritual devastation than the entire filmic enterprise.

JW: Looking back at the writing of the script after adapting two novels, how did it feel to delve back into your own communal experience?

AE: It’s interesting how a novelistic approach has actually influenced this film, with the digressions and alternate routes that are presented. In a good or bad way, I’m not sure. Something of you is invested in the characters in your own script, so in that sense you are more vulnerable. I’m a great admirer of John Sayles’ and Neil Jordan’s early films. With Sayles, I am impressed by the way he is able to differentiate his characters, make them real, complete unto themselves. When I look at Exotica or Calendar‚ I see the characters are all aspects of my personality.

But there’s a scene in this film where a woman is being stripped bare – the actor was an Armenian woman I knew who had wanted to play that part because that’s what had happened to her grandmother – so she is playing out something that is so intense it’s almost unbearable at times to acquiesce, even though you’ve created it to a great extent.

The scene is based on a very famous poem called The Dance. What is fascinating is that it’s written by a poet who was murdered in 1915. It’s based on what a German woman told him she had seen. And what interests me is that he doesn’t talk about it directly but substantiates it by having this subjective third party. Then, the poem is interpreted by a screenwriter, which is then interpreted by a director and we have this recreated scene observed by the young man, who then tells the story back to the customs agent… There are so many levels that what the young man is affected by is not the poem but being on that set and seeing that moment recreated and dealing with that. And then he goes back to the script, which has been altered as well, so we have all these levels of reinterpretation.

In dealing with genocide much has to be ascertained and categorically proven; there is no room for interpretation. Thus it is not very realistic in terms of offering an honest way of dealing with what this particular experience has been. The American ambassador to Turkey at the time wrote a very piercing account, but this is discounted as part of the propaganda effort. The notion of an independent witness is a fantasy, and yet in a way that is the role Christopher Plummer (as a retiring customs officer) plays. It’s the Armenian dream of the person who sits down, listens and makes an assessment, in a dark room with the young man; and there’s the sort of transfiguration that takes place there, a mutually accepted sense of creating history in order to allow a significant passage to reveal itself.

JW: The film at various points makes overtures to other genocides, which are also starting to be questioned, and seems to be making a connection between these events.

AE: Cambodia, The Balkans, Ukraine… It is not just about remembering these things but how we prevent them from happening again. Understanding that if we don’t remember – and I know this is a cliché – we are condemned to repeat the same mistakes. It is very tempting to say, “let’s just forget this and move on” but that does belie the moral imperative to understand, as inconvenient as it may be.

Every genocide and holocaust is unique in its own way, yet there are connections. In the case of the Armenians, that was a localised annihilation, so that once they had been eliminated there was nothing left to remember and the perpetrators could conceal the past that much better. As a result of this erasure there was created the huge diaspora and now it is starting to respond, it is returning to haunt the place from which it was purged.

Jason Wood is a film-maker, critic, programmer and the author of a number of books, most recently, a study of Hal Hartley’s movies. He is currently working on studies of American independent cinema and Mexican film. Ararat was released in the UK in April 2003 and is available shortly on DVD and VHS. For information on genocide research, visit