"What excited me was describing how people endured the horror of
living with something so cataclysmic that has been systematically denied."
By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
The Washington Post
Sunday, November 24, 2002; Page G01
Genocide is ugly to observe, difficult to comprehend but essential to
That is the message Atom Egoyan brings to the world. Not just in the
immediate sense of the horror of massacre; but in other, deeper senses, as
in a collective memory of violence, a legacy of self-doubt and a general
condition of nameless apprehension. Those are the subjects proper of
"Ararat," his account of the Armenian genocide in Turkey during the First
World War: not just the slaughter, but the ripples of slaughter. And if you
ever imagined a bringer of bad news, Atom Egoyan is pretty much what you'd
come up with.
Dour chap, all in black, a kind of avatar from the abattoir, stands out in
any crowd, but in this crowd particularly. He happens to be sitting at a
fashionable bistro during a time of festival. There is much flesh on view, a
sultry density to the air, palms weaving in a hot sea breeze, throngs,
thongs, hustle, a whole commercial world dead-set on selling the cheap
sensation, the bogus memory, the curve of flank, the twinkle of the eye.
And here is Atom Egoyan, the great Canadian director ("The Sweet Hereafter"
is his masterpiece), with his message from the grave. He's sober,
responsible, focused, his eyes shielded behind the hip glasses that you're
allowed to wear only if you're a director or an Italian architect. He's
every bit the paradigm of the modern media star -- erudite, comfortable in
interview, attractive except for his dead seriousness. He seems weighted
with woe, twisted with discomfort. Yet because he alone has the special
grace of those who have chosen to deliver the ugly truth, there's also a
weird radiance, almost a beauty, to him. He's not quite Elie Wiesel, but he
has Wiesel's moral splendor.
"You wonder," he says earnestly, picking each word with the care of a
jeweler searching for tiny gears through a loupe, "how is it possible to be
the object of hate. It invades you in a profound way. It permeates your
life. What is there that these other people could have projected onto you?
What do you represent?"
Everywhere around, it is the South of France, except for the tragedy-haunted
mind and visage of Egoyan. Life goes on; the past is gone to dust and ashes,
blown away on the breeze, and everybody's too busy with the here and the now
to engage old tragedies. Smaller problems are everywhere, such as the minor
one involving the reporter who can't order from the menu because he is
severely French-challenged, and Egoyan, the cosmopolitan, who enters the
transaction swiftly, dominates it, orders what will be the best meal that
No-Speaky-Frenchy Boy will have during the festival, and then returns to the
You know, the thing.
You can't call it a holocaust, because that word seems to have been
connected to another genocide. Whatever you call it, the story recounted by
Egoyan is melancholy: In 1915, a newly powerful group of modern thinkers
called the Young Turks, having taken over the government, decided it was
time for what we would now call ethnic cleansing. Beginning on April 24 of
that year, the cleansing commenced with the murder of 500 intellectuals in
Constantinople and continued for over a year. Soldiers of Armenian descent
were separated from their units and murdered. Then firearms were confiscated
from villagers and the next step, "re-settlement," began. The chosen method
of extermination was the forced march to a new area under brutal treatment,
without adequate food, during inclement weather. By the end of 1916, the
Armenian population of Turkey had declined to 1 million from 2.5 million.
Some people noticed. "The great massacres and persecutions of the past seem
almost insignificant when compared to the suffering of the Armenian race in
1915," wrote Henry Morgenthau Sr., the U.S. ambassador to the Ottoman
But hardly anybody else noticed, except a striving Austrian politician with
plans of his own.
"Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?" said
Adolf Hitler, as he told his minions how easy it would be to get away with
the murder of the Jews.
"The funny thing is," Egoyan says, finding a trickle of irony in a dark
reality, "the Turks had a very good history with the Jews. It was one of the
best places to live if you were Jewish. And yet still, they had this need to
annihilate. Do people need something to hate? And what the Turks projected
onto the Armenians, it was very similar to what the Nazis projected onto the
So the film "Ararat," which opens Friday in Washington, is a consecrated act
of remembering. It will not let the past fade. But at the same time, it's a
blast of anger at the Turks, today's Turks, not for their grandfathers'
crimes but for ignoring their grandfathers' crimes.
Perhaps its angers and its ambiguities explain its density. In typical
Egoyan fashion, the movie unspools at a leisurely pace, examining not only
genocide but the interpretations of genocide. In an odd sense, it's a study
not of the act itself but of the documents of the act: a memoir by an
American diplomat who witnessed the events, a movie seeking to re-create
both the memoir and by extension the event, and a famous painting by a
Each document has a story and a cast, each story is connected to the other
two and each plays ironically off the other two. So the movie slides
backward and forward elliptically in time, the characters intermingle,
interact, love, cheat, betray, hate, haunt, stare. It's very human, very
messy, very tough and pretty damned difficult. Sometimes we're in a movie
about a genocide and sometimes that movie turns real and we're in the
genocide. And sometimes we're in modern Toronto, amid Armenian survivors and
survivors' children, and the intensity of their squabbling seems to be,
unstated, a function of the weight of memory. And sometimes we're in an
interrogation room, where an old customs officer believes a young Armenian
filmmaker is smuggling drugs into Canada in the film tins he begs the older
man not to open.
And sometimes we're -- well, we're lost, because the movie is as knotted as
a tapestry, obeying its own interior logic, working out its own internal
dynamics as it goes along. It's not easy viewing for the masses, as the
severely intellectual Canadian is the first to admit.
"Essentially it came out of an earlier script which I wrote when I was 18 --
it was one of my first scripts -- and just discovering my Armenian heritage,
after denying it for most of my youth. But I couldn't get it together, and I
put it away for many years."
Moviegoers will probably thank him for those many years, during which he
learned his craft and developed his style. He moved smoothly from the
experimental films that caught his fancy at the University of Toronto to a
number of banal American shows filming in Canada, including a retread of
"Twilight Zone" and "Friday the 13th: The Series," for which he became a
sleek, efficient contract director.
His Armenian family, dislodged from the homeland by the ugly events of 1915,
had come to rest in Cairo, where he was born in 1960. The family, fearing
more cataclysm, moved to Canada shortly thereafter; he grew up in Vancouver,
with parents who were merchants and yet were also artists. He majored in
international relations, graduating with honors. Yet his artistic interests
Thus he began pushing hard at the limits while quite young, and like several
other Canadian directors (David Cronenberg comes to mind), he put aside the
easy prosperity of TV and its segue to Hollywood. He instead made "The
Adjuster" in 1991, a spooky, slow-moving but mesmerizing film about an
insurance adjuster who becomes absorbed in other people's lives. Other
art-house hits followed, in his characteristic "elliptical" style, in which
time folds in on itself, the camerawork is stately, beautiful but cold, the
characters highly intelligent but highly neurotic, the obsessions sometimes
quite erotic. "Exotica" -- very sexualized -- was a big art-house hit in
1994, but it wasn't until "The Sweet Hereafter" that he broke through to a
It was also his most audience-accessible film, almost a subconscious
precursor to "Ararat" in the sense that it was about a terrible occurrence
and the need to find out who was responsible. It haunts Egoyan, as well as
most other Armenians, that to this day there's been no real coming to
account with the Turks. Egoyan remarks, "Oh, all that was so long ago, they
say. Let's move on."
He came back to the genocide after a confluence of events: A journalist
wondered if, under the surface of "The Sweet Hereafter," there wasn't an
allusion to the events of 1915. Shortly after that, his son asked him a
question about 1915. He realized that in some sense all his films had been
about atrocity and denial, but that he'd never confronted the theme
He got out his old script.
"Suddenly I remembered when I was 18 and all that came flooding over me," he
recalls. "I needed to tell people."
Some part of "Ararat" is frankly polemical: It means to move those events
back to the center of world attention, not for revenge but for some sort of
"It's absurd to expect an apology from people who have not been told it
happened," he said, against the din of wealthy Frenchmen eating brilliantly
prepared gobbets of seafood.
Thus the picture isn't a chronological account of the campaign or a dramatic
re-creation of it, like, say, "Schindler's List."
"I show the machines of extermination, the marches, the resistance, the
torture. But that wasn't what excited me. What excited me was describing how
people endured the horror of living with something so cataclysmic that has
been systematically denied."
He knows how hard this is, not on him and on the Armenians but also on the
"These are hugely complicated issues," he allows, "and I certainly have
enormous expectations of my viewer."
Photos in the story:
A film within a film that shifts back and forth between atrocities during
World War I and the denial of them in some quarters to this day, "Ararat"
features Christopher Plummer, far left, and David Alpay, above right with
director Egoyan. (Left: Miramax Films; Above: Johnnie Eisen -- Miramax
Arsinee Khanjian, foreground, and Charles Aznavour, right, in "Ararat," like
Egoyan's "Sweet Hereafter," it deals with a terrible occurance and blame.
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