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Review by Christopher Perrin
The word “genocide” was first used to describe what happened to the Armenians at the hands of the Turks in 1915. Ararat, a 2003 independent Franco-Canadian film, displays the historical difficulties of dealing with the competing identities and mutual loss.
The film weaves together a love story, a bildungsroman, and a play within a play. The meta-story is that director Edward Saroyan (Charles Aznavour) is making a film of the Siege of Van from the perspective of the artist Arshile Gorky (the elder played by Simon Abkarian and the younger by Garen Boyanian). The movie opens with Gorsky painting in a New York flat from a photo of him and his mother. His past is plagued with resentment toward his father, who left Turkey without his wife and child, as art critic Ani (Arsinee Khanjian) infers. We learn that he has smudged out his mother’s hands on purpose, struggling with his identity as her son and as an Armenian.
The art critic’s son Raffi (David Alpay) is involved in an affair with his step-sister Celia (Marie-Josee Croze), who believes his mother indirectly killed her father. She expresses this suspicion through jokes at a cocktail party and bursting out with objections and questions at a public lecture Ani is giving. Her father died as a loyal of the Turkish government, the side scorned by the persecuted Armenians. Raffi’s father died as an attempted assassin of a Turkish politician. The step-siblings are arrested at a climax in bed fighting over their ethnic identities. They cannot make both of their fathers heroes.
In the shadow of a false Mt. Ararat, Saroyan shoots this film as a tribute to the Armenian people. When Ani objects that the mountain would not really have visible, she is countered by their claim to poetic license. She quips, “Oh really? Where do you get those?” Saroyan is shooting an epic, one-sided tale of Turkish brutality, which allows Egoyan to show the absurdity of it. The Turkish official Ali (Elias Kotias) twirls his mustache while the trembling Armenians huddle in the camp and the doctor who could have been from the Bible-belt South prays and recites creeds over them. The arrogance of the red-coated official reaches a height when a photographer comes to take a picture of him and asks for payment, and Ali responds that the artist should be paying him.
The goal of Saroyan’s film is the unqualified exaltation of the persecuted Armenians. When the man who is playing the general gets the call that he got the part, a child in the room asks him, “Are you a good guy or a bad guy?” This simplified mythology of the genocide pervades Saroyan’s film. The imbroglio of politics, religion, mass murder of able-bodied men, and the exile of women and children remains a hairy problem. We are not spared the brutality of a rape scene, guards kicking women on the ground, and Turkish officials pouring gasoline on naked girls and making them dance only to light them on fire.
And so the film evokes pity and horror, but also understanding. A good portion of the narrative centers on a conversation between Raffi and David (Chritopher Plummer), a Canadian customs official. He is only supposed to check the film canisters for cocaine, but instead of using dogs he draws Raffi’s whole story out of him. He says he loves the job because he gets to hear people’s stories and watch them squirm on the toilet and wait to pass the package of drugs being smuggled. After Ali finishes his story and calls him mom, we hear Egoyan’s verdict through David’s voice to Raffi, “You thought things would be clarified. They weren’t.”
- Release DateMay 20, 2002