Ararat

November, 2002, Drama

Directed by:Atom Egoyan

Starring:Charles Aznavour, Christopher Plummer, David Alpay, Arsinée Khanjian, Eric Bogosian, Brent Carver, Marie-Josée Croze, and Lousnak Abdalian

Ararat, a snow capped mountain located in Eastern Turkey, was the ancestral home of more than one and a half million ethnic Armenians in the early decades of the 20th century. During the First World War, the government deported and/or slaughtered over two thirds of them under the presumption that the Armenians were somehow enemies of the Turkish state. The death toll has never been officially determined because the Turkish government has never admitted this genocidal atrocity. That irrational, cruel refusal and its impact on the survivors, (and the descendents of those murdered) forms the subject of this extraordinarily complex film, written and directed by the brilliant Canadian director Atom Egoyan. In it, he presents the violence and its historic suppression as a sort of viral infection that afflicts an extended group of contemporary Armenians living in Canada. 

This is a movie about the making of a movie, specifically one about the destruction in 1915, of the town of Van in Eastern Turkey as seen through the eyes of Dr. Clarence Ussher, an American doctor serving the Armenian community there. (The facts surrounding this event are taken from Ussher's book on the subject, published after the war.)  As the cast and crew of this movie-within-a-movie are assembled in Canada, the actors in the historical film also become characters in Egoyan's contemporary story. The director, whose earlier works, (especially The Adjuster, Exotica & The Sweet Hereafter) evidence an appetite for challenging an audience's perceptions about seemingly straightforward events that become, on closer inspection, increasingly complicated under Egoyan's probing inspection. Here, the focus revolves around the question of memory; how much do we need to cling to what has gone before and what price is to be paid if we cannot get past the pain of remembering? An art historian, her son and stepdaughter, the Armenian painter Arshile Gorky, members of the film's cast--even a Canadian customs inspector intent on discovering the real contents of three cans of  exposed film being brought into the country--all play a part in the unfolding of intersecting storylines which examine how the past torments those who do not have full access to it and what happens when they then cannot or will not assimilate what that void means to them..

 Egoyan has said of his own work, "The difference between a Hollywood film and what I do is this: in mainstream films, you're encouraged to forget that you're watching a movie, whereas in my films, you're always encouraged to remember that you're watching a collection of designed images". In this case, that commitment to a kind of deliberate theatricality works against his obvious passion about the subject matter. You're never allowed to examine the historical events directly because he keeps reminding us that we're only seeing his fictional recreation of them. "These events may be real", he seems to be saying, "but my characters are just that-products of my creation." Well and good, but it's hard to identify with characters in analyzing this very real, horrible event if we're not invited to identify with them as real people, even if we know they're not. While Egoyan's insistence on a purposively detached approach may satisfy his aesthetic sense, it distances the audience from the very emotions he wants to arouse about an appalling example of monstrous violence. The audience faces a constant choice between accepting Egoyan's approach to his material or distancing itself from the impact of the events depicted in the film. Perhaps he feels that if he asks us to do the latter, he'll be accused of preaching to his audience; alternatively, he may be quietly warning us we're only getting his personal view of the facts and that we must judge for ourselves.

 In any event, he's set a gigantic task for himself in this overly ambitious effort, and if his reach exceeds his grasp, it's a failure noble in intent. This certainly isn't fare for the casual moviegoer, but if you like intellectual challenges and have a high tolerance for complex plots, you'll find yourself examining the director's multifaceted thesis over and over again. 

The verdict? A moral, psychological and cerebral jawbreaker of a movie.    

 

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