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Friday, January 03, 2003

Arts & Letters

Speak, Memory

Ararat directed and written by Atom Egoyan. Photography by Paul Sarossy; produced by Atom Egoyan and Robert Lantos; with (in alphabetical order) David Alpay, Charles Aznavour, Eric Bogosian, Mari-Josée Croze, Arsinée Khanjian, Elias Koteas, and Christopher Plummer; distributed by Miramax Films.

The past is never dead. It’s not even past.
– William Faulkner, Requiem for a Nun

Cinema is true. A story is a lie.
– Jean Epstein, Bonjour cinema

The first time I came across Atom Egoyan’s work was in Salonika, in the early Nineties, at the Thessaloniki Film Festival, where he was the subject of a “tribute.” Seeing that he had only made five features at that point and was in his early thirties, I thought that this was another (pretty egregious) example of the recherché quality of film festivals. In any case, I took advantage of the opportunity to see three of his films: Calendar, Family Viewing, and The Adjuster.

As it turned out, I would have found out about Atom Egoyan sooner rather than later. His next film after Calendar, Exotica, was his “breakthrough or “crossover” movie (depending on your point of view, since Egoyan is both a Canadian filmmaker and one who breaks with more conventional narrative modes). He went on to make The Sweet Hereafter and Felicia’s Journey (and a film version of Krapp’s Last Tape, which has not been released generally). Ararat is a return to his earlier narrative typologies, if not quite to subject matter, which has remained surprisingly consistent with its issues of identity (individual and communal) and memory, and the refractions thereof.

In a way, it was serendipitous to see Egoyan’s films in Salonika first. What more fitting venue for a filmmaker from the Armenian diaspora than Greece’s preeminent film festival? What more appropriate Greek city than Salonika – mother of holocaust and dispersion, of communal catastrophe and historical amnesia – in which to engage the work of a filmmaker born in Cairo, raised and educated in British Columbia, and rooted in the polyethnic purgatory of Asia Minor and the Anatolian plains? And, of course, a film festival is the most apposite context for Egoyan’s work, as his movies are self-reflexively cinematic in a manner that is the antithesis of classical decoupage.

That’s always been my problem with Egoyan; even his later films have struck me as the work of a festival-circuit filmmaker par excellence. Don’t get me wrong, many of my favorite directors – and, more important, filmmakers that I believe have changed (even if only infinitesimally) the nature of film – have been (are) “festival-circuit filmmakers.” Especially nowadays, when the film audience daily becomes more insensible and corrupt – and, paradoxically, has become a mass audience for the first time in the history of the cinema – I am not one to belittle any filmmaker who demands a viewer’s attention, intellectual engagement, and respect. The problem with festivals – or, rather the latter-day phenomenon of the festival circuit – is the hothouse atmosphere in which gigantic weeds and clinging vines can grow as quickly (and indeed dangerously, strangling all other life) as the rarest and loveliest flower. Gone are the days of Venice, Cannes, and Edinburgh – or even of Locarno, San Sebastian, and New York; there are hundreds of film festivals in the world today, probably thousands. In art as in the economy, consequently, hyperinflation inevitably leads to crisis and, ultimately, collapse and ruin.

It’s a difficult path to negotiate for any artist. Nonetheless, I think that Ararat is, by far, Egoyan’s finest – and easily his most complex and demanding, and therefore significant – film. It functions on, and seamlessly interweaves but also defends the complexity of, several narrative levels, both scriptural (in the Greek sense of graphe or, put more modernly, ecriture) and memorial (in the ancient Greek sense again of memory as the mother of history).

This is a minority opinion. Critics have tended to damn Ararat with faint praise, especially in comparison to Egoyan’s last three films. As someone who cared neither for Exotica nor Felicia’s Journey, and who thought that Russell Banks’s novel was resurrected into a disconcertingly sweet afterlife in The Sweet Hereafter (although I know that Banks himself disagrees), I’m also in a distinct minority as far as the arc of Egoyan’s career is concerned. I actually believe that in Ararat, Egoyan has not only finally channeled his film sense into a film form that is of his own molding, but that he has also taken a profoundly brave stand as an Armenian. What is most compelling about Ararat is that, as opposed to so many Armenian reflections on the genocide of 1915, it is not obsessed with Turkish guilt over the crimes of the time; rather, it is deeply concerned with (and, like so many of us, morally distressed by) the pathological Turkish denial of the guilt since that time – which the film understands is now the genuinely painful heart of the matter.

Ararat is therefore not Black Dog of Fate writ cinematic. Egoyan’s film cannot be more different from Peter Balakian’s book. As such, Egoyan has performed an inestimable service to the historical restitution of the Armenian genocide in the collective consciousness of the civilized world, which Turkey claims to be a part of but that, through grotesque disavowal of its history, it confirms daily that it is not – and will not be until it admits to the crimes perpetrated in its name.

Cinema is true…
Ararat is in fact a rare example of epic cinema in the sense of Brecht’s famous formulation of the epic as anti-epic. It is a film about history, and its private and social construction, in which what matters in the end (and always) is intelligence as opposed to sentiment, so that, to quote Brecht (from his notes on Mahagonny), spectators are not sucked into the plot but “placed opposite” it, their “feelings…propelled into perceptions.” Furthermore, “each scene exists for itself,” since the work develops “in curves.” This is actually an uncannily exact description both of Ararat’s script structure and of its mise-en-scene.

Indeed, the film is so moving precisely because it desperately attempts to locate (create? agree upon?) a common reason between various contesting pairs of protagonists – iconically and essentially the most important being Turks and Armenians. The film is therefore not about history so much as about history’s reconstruction, about its factual and moral restitution. And, being Armenian, Egoyan knows that the personal is always political – and vice versa. There is probably not an Armenian in the world today whose extended family is not reconstituted around absence, whose private network(s) of sentiment and affection are not in fact extended reflections (in every sense of that word) on absence, and – need it even be said? – displacement, regret, possibility, diminishment, and existential terror. As one of those many Greeks whose own family at the start of the twenty-first century is very different from what it was at the onset of the twentieth – before loss, dispossession, and an extinctionist morality took their toll – I know precisely where Egoyan is “coming from.”

It is a land – encompassing many countries and even more nations, stretching from the banks of the Ganges to those of the Danube, from what is still called Alexandria to what used to be called Alexandretta and is now called Iskenderun, from the shores of the Black Sea to the ports of the Mediterranean, and, finally and most infamously, from Budapest south to Salonika, north to Vilnius and Warsaw, west to Amsterdam, Brussels, and Paris, and south again to Rome – in which, once upon a time, men, women, and children lived in a regime so ancient, because the word “genocide” had yet to be invented (by Rafael Lemkin in 1943), that it is, in truth, unfathomable to us except as the palest imitation of our imaginings.

In this case, the past is in fact a foreign country, but Egoyan’s point is that we can learn its language and decode its ways – if we are honest enough, with ourselves most of all. One of the film’s small (but many) epiphanies is when the Turkish Canadian character, Ali, an actor who plays Cevdet – or, as it’s transliterated in the movie, “Jevdet” – Bey, the Ottoman governor of Van province in the film-within-a-film about the Armenian genocide that is Egoyan’s central narrative conceit (and who is actually played by the well-known Greek Canadian actor Elias Koteas), tells the film’s young Armenian Canadian protagonist, Raffi (David Alpay), basically to forget about it all, since they were both born in the “New World” (empire of forgetfulness and repudiation), and that was then and this is now.

Or, as another North American director, born in Ottoman Turkey himself, phrased it autobiographically: “America, America….” It is this Lethean denial in the guise of affirmation, this river of oblivion that runs through all of us in the New World and which we navigate all our lives in our sojourning here, that Egoyan contests in Ararat. (That title, of course, is as resonant for a North American ethnic as America, America, except that the latter asserts an immigrant’s amnesia – even if ironically – while the former defines an emigrant’s nostos, to use the proper Greek term for what is weakly described as nostalgia.)

Even more important than what Egoyan’s script says, however, is what his film constructs, in a way that only film can, merging fictive and real, private and communal, appearance and supposition. Four of the film’s seven main characters, who are ethnic Armenians, are in fact portrayed by actors of Armenian descent (20-year old newcomer Alpay, as well as Charles Aznavour, Eric Bogosian, and Arsinée Khanjian), while the Turkish Canadian character is played by a Greek Canadian (Koteas). If nothing else, this ethnic re(de)flection adds a level of existential and affective poignancy (as well as a peculiar kind of estrangement, again very Brechtian) to one’s perception of what is actually going on. Koteas’s portrayal of Ali, and his portrayal of Ali’s portrayal of Cevdet Bey, struck me in particular.

The second time I saw Ararat, I confess that in the scene in which Cevdet violently berates an Armenian photographer (in front of his son, who will later be tortured to death) about Greeks and Armenians selling out their loyalties and even their faith for wealth and position and power, and, in so doing, hardly concealing their contempt for the Turks living in seemingly eternal squalor around them, my mind went to the mirror-maze scene in The Lady from Shanghai. Cinema is true, but what is truth? Koteas playing Ali playing Cevdet was, for me at least, a masterstroke on Egoyan’s part because it not only raises the film’s psychological and emotional stakes, but, much more important, radically reorients the historical discussion that is an integral (and, as far as Egoyan is concerned, strategic) part of the film.

Most of the reviews I’ve read of Ararat comment on the failure of its film-within-a-film structure. Clearly, there are no Armenians among the reviewers. If one wasn’t born into a world in which history is a maze – and, quite literally, an endless series of denials, rebuttals, and revisionism against an equally endless series of accusations, refutations, and appeals to conscience – one cannot begin to fathom how intellectually astute the conceit of a film within a film is for this moral universe. Again, as a Greek whose parents’ families were dispersed from their original homelands (my father’s from Eastern Rumelia, my mother’s from Eastern Thrace and Asia Minor), Egoyan’s film is almost a family album. As I was born in Salonika, I also know that history is not only written by the victors but sacralized by the survivors and mystified by everyone.

Which is precisely why I think this is a courageous film. And, I must add, an unusually coherent one; if Egoyan’s critics think otherwise, it only confirms how intellectually thin film criticism has become in this country. It would take a small book to do justice to Ararat’s esthetic, historical, and moral complexity. Suffice it to say that it operates on so many levels, which I have not even begun to touch upon (the subplot based on Arshile Gorky’s life, to name just one example), with such uncommon intellectual command that it exemplifies how cinematic fiction can reflect upon history more accurately than any number of historical studies. I must also confess that it has made me reconsider Egoyan’s work as a whole and want to see all his films again.

Two more, very brief, points. First, Christopher Plummer’s barking dog is worth the price of admission. Second, “terrorism” rears its ugly head once again – except this time in salutary admonition. One of the (many) other subplots concerns Raffi’s father, killed trying to assassinate a Turkish diplomat and so perpetually condemned in democratic Canada – and throughout the Western world – as a “terrorist,” although Raffi’s mother, Ani (played by Egoyan’s wife, Arsinée Khanjian) insists he was a “freedom fighter.” The eternal question: terrorist or freedom fighter? The fact that Egoyan asks it at all tells you that Toronto, where he lives, is closer to the isle of Aghtamar (in Lake Van) than it is to Hollywood.

(By the way, my references to various subplots might make the reader think Ararat is unusually convoluted; it is not. It is unusually complex. That means that if you’re looking for pseudo-epic, paint-by-the-numbers, kneejerk, tearjerker Armenian Turk-bashing, you will be sorely aggrieved. Although it is a “fiction,” Ararat is closer to the work of Marcel Ophuls – or even of Errol Morris – than it is to that of Cecil B. DeMille.)

One last comment: Ararat was depressing in a multitude of ways, but, for me, as a Greek American, there was a particularly sobering thought. The Armenians of North America now have this extraordinary work by an Armenian Canadian filmmaker to add to their continually developing (and already impressive) artistic achievement and legacy as individuals and communities, while, at the same time, the Greek communities of North America are tripping over themselves to promote a Greek Canadian’s movie entitled My Big Fat Greek Wedding. Clearly, an entire universe separates these two films, and the respective roads that led to them. To say any more would be to belabor the obvious.

Peter Pappas is co-founder of
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