14 July 2007
Limited distribution. I saw this during its week's residence at an arthouse cinema in Manchester, which is all it was likely to get, considering its obscure (to the general public) subject matter. I admit I mostly went out of a sense of duty. You may have noticed my Armenian timeline, inspired by our small family connection. It was an afternoon showing. There were about twenty others there, mainly - I think - couples of an older generation. Manchester was one of the cities where many of the refugees of the 1890s and early 20th Century first came. My great grandfather was one of them. I also wanted to see this film because its director, Atom Egoyan, is an interesting and highly individual film maker. I've seen another of his films on television with an Armenian theme, Calendar, which tells of the personal vanities and disillusionment of a photographer engaged in taking pictures of the great churches of Armenia for, yes, a calendar.
Ararat has similar themes at its heart, but more than with Calendar the personal drama is entwined with its political issues. Knowing in advance that the film dealt with the 1915 Genocide of Armenians by the Ottoman Turks, I wondered if the polemics of what is still an extremely controversial subject would overwhelm the art of the film. It does seem that considerable pressure was put on the US government and the producers Miramax to soften or even ditch the film. Allegedly. That pressure may be reflected in the limited marketing Miramax gave the film; but on the other hand they did take the project on, and perhaps would never have given such a niche film much publicity anyway.
I needn't have worried. The film is not a documentary, despite, ironically, dealing with a number of characters whose main concern is to document. It doesn't make things easy; it's a veritable Russian doll of a story, with truths within truths, realities within realities, and a film within a film. The narrative, not straightaway revealed, is of the making of a film in the present day about the siege of Van, a largely Armenian city in Eastern Anatolia which in 1915 was invested by the Turkish Army. The principal characters are Ani, played by Arsinee Khanjian, the author of a book about the artist Arshile Gorky, whose story the film's director (played by Charles Aznavour) has decided to use as the main narrative thread of his film; and her idealistic young son Raffi who has found employment as a runner on the production. Ani is involved as a consultant.
It's Gorky we see first, in the first of a series of brief wordless scenes scattered through the film. As with much of the film, it only falls into place later; that we are seeing him in exile in New York, while at work on a portrait of his mother, based on a photograph taken with him as a boy in Van, before the siege. Other historical scenes show Van, as the siege progresses to its terrible end; while modern scenes show us Ani's family as well as that of the customs officer played by Christopher Plummer. Yes, this film does demand that we bring a few extra brain cells into use, while we try to figure out why each of these settings is relevant. In due course, we are introduced to the production itself. We skirt round the edges, as the various characters are involved with it. What we don't realise, until the end of the film, is that we have been seeing far more of the production than we knew. It seems that all of the historical scenes were in fact part of the production. One of the last shots is of the actor playing Gorky, still silent but now in a suit, framed tightly and ironically against an Anatolian landscape before the view pulls back to show the scene at the premiere.
The really important time shifting is between the production and domestic scenes, and the scenes at the airport, in the claustrophobic customs interrogation rooms, between Raffi and Plummer's soon-to-retire customs officer. It seems that, late on, Raffi has flown back from some personal travelling in Anatolia. He has some film canisters with him, which he says contain extra background footage which had to be shot in a clandestine way - obviously the production itself could not have been undertaken in Turkey. Plummer clearly has doubts; sealed film canisters might be an ideal vehicle for transporting drugs. This situation would appear to be an effective device to enable some exposition of the history of the Genocide, which Raffi duly gives to his interrogator.
In one of the later scenes here, Raffi shows him some jerky vague film on his camcorder, taken while climbing up a mountain. If that is what this is, it is the only view of Ararat we actually see in the film. Earlier in one of the historical scenes, set at the American Mission in Van, Ararat was in the background, and as we realise that it is only a painted backdrop, we hear one character comment that the mountain is not anyway visible from Van. In much of the film, like with so much of cinema anyway, a compromise has been taken with reality for the sake of art and symbolism. Mount Ararat is at the heart of the Armenians' spiritual sense of their land. It's a matter of enduring hurt that this mountain with its distinctive profile was left within Turkish borders at the end of conflict in the early 1920s.
At the height of the interrogations Raffi states earnestly that 'Everything I've told you is the truth'. The whole film is a discourse on truth, and memory, and history, the ones that are and the ones we need. Raffi is involved with his own step-sister, who blames Ani for the death of her father in a fall, and who harasses her at her public lectures on Gorky's painting. The American consul, Clarence Ussher, who later wrote an important eyewitness account of the siege, is played by an actor who weirdly becomes the part. One especially surreal scene starts with the fighting on the streets at Van, into which walks Ani, preoccupied, needing to speak to the director; as she realises she has interrupted shooting (picture, top), the actor calls out, but not as an actor, but as Ussher, poised over a dying victim. And then there is the Turkish actor (played chillingly by Elias Koteas, a long-time Egoyan collaborator), who collars the director at one point, thanking him for the part, telling him he has been researching and thinking some of these events may in fact be true; we feel smug, the events of the Genocide are not an issue for most of us in the cinema. The director is strangely non-plussed by this. Instead of scorn, he sends a bottle of champagne along as appreciation. Raffi, who delivers it, is agitated; he's grown up with the awareness of his father's death as a terrorist/freedom fighter, and the Turk's complacency is not enough. He's open with him, but the conversation ends in argument. The Turk, who like Raffi has grown up in North America, tells him to let it go.
Raffi was given those film canisters to take back to the West, clandestinely for the production. He persuades the officer to open them in the dark, so that the light will not spoil them. And what's in them? What does the truth matter? Whether founded on truth or lies or delusion, beliefs can imprison you. It's strange to be saying this when one expected to be talking about the damning revelations of the film, about the Genocide. We see very little of that, of the most terrible things. What we are shown is enough... actually, now I think about it, those things were in my mind's eye weren't they? Out of shot but heard and clearly implied or described. And their power remains even when I knew that they were scenes from the film-within-the-film. My point is that we might have wanted a document, a lecture even, a political statement. But instead of making points, Egoyan has crafted a work of art which portrays the way lives get trapped and conditioned by denial. Political statements can be refuted or ignored. This is a subtler thing, which challenges that denial.
7 May 2003
Egoyan's site, or rather, the site of his company egofilms.
It introduces all his films and various projects.
There's some interesting background information on how he connected with this story and development of the book on Gorky.