Atom Egoyan: Ararat (2002) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies
28Jun/110

Atom Egoyan: Ararat (2002)

I could not get a copy of Felicia's Journey in time for today's Egoyan discussion so I am jumping one film ahead to 2002's Ararat.  Considering how horribly wrong I was about this movie on first viewing, I think it appropriate that I now have to get to it first.

"His pregnant sister was raped in front of his eyes before her stomach was slashed open to stab her unborn child.  His fathers eyes were gouged out of his head and stuffed into his mouth.  His mothers breasts were ripped out and she was left to bleed to death.  Who the fuck are you?"

I'm just another member of the audience.  I have to believe whatever truth is presented on the screen otherwise the whole effect of cinema comes tumbling down.  The truth presented above is but one version of how someone feels about the Armenian genocide.  It's spoken by an American actor, with no previous connection to any Armenian culture, who suddenly feels more passionately and directly than the historian with family losses who was hired to consult for the movie being made about the genocide.

The historian's version of the truth clashes with the actors'.  The actors' and historian's both clash with a co-star, who wants to believe that it didn't happen so he doesn't lose his pride as a Turk.  He's not wrong in wanting to lose that pride, and his truth is no less valid.  Those truths clash with the historian's son, who desperately needs to believe he's smuggling film back into Canada, his step-sister, whose father committed suicide after getting involved with the historian, or the aging security guard, who wants so desperately to believe his son may still be straight that he's willing to entertain the young smuggler in thinking what he has is really "film".  Then there's the old director, who wants to tell the story of the genocide in such a way that it blindsides everyone, including the historian.

Each one of these people has a version of the truth.  All of them have facts and data to back up their individual viewpoints.  Ararat deals largely with how everyone learns to overcome their reliance on what is "true" based on "hard evidence" and instead finds what is true based on shared experience.  This is done, like so many other things, through art - which has lied to us for thousands of years about how things "really are" to get to how things really are.

What is the most honest part about this image - the man, the paintings, or the portrait?

Egoyan's Ararat returns, in a sense, to the way people use technology and art to present their own sense of the truth.  But instead of his early films, where that preservation could be viewed as a psychotic dependence hinged on sadness, here it is all people using their version of the truth as a way of desperately clinging to their own identities.  Some use film to record what happened and how that reflects what they feel, others still photographs of paintings and landscapes, others the paintings themselves.  We all find our way to the truth in our own fashions, with our own means of communication through art.  It's how we reconcile those viewpoints that cement who we are as people and if we can really confront the sins of the past.

Ararat is a film that Egoyan wanted to make for quite some time.  He is of Armenian descent, and his frequent delvings into the nature of truth in technology and desire make him the perfect choice to tackle a project like this.  What's astonishing is how hard he tries to play fair with all sides of the debate, from the disbelieving Turks to the profoundly affected Armenians, without sacrificing any narrative momentum.  Of course, his sympathies lie with the Armenians, but given the preponderance of evidence, testimony and (most importantly) art that came from that atrocious time it's hard to imagine people that would deny it occurred.

Still, those denials took place and Egoyan is here to showcase just how we might reconcile all viewpoints together.

This is a film I did not like much my first time around.  "Too reliant on time distortion" a younger, stupider me thought (never mind it was only a little over a year ago).  I felt that there was no connecting thread that gave Egoyan's trademark twisting narratives its power.  Well, there's a reason I called myself stupid, and that's because I did not entirely understand that what Egoyan was trying to do was get us to empathize with the way everyone deals with a loss of incalculable grief.  It was the scale that threw me.  The personal tragedy of The Sweet Hereafter was easy for me to connect to, the large-scale massacre of Armenians as presented in Ararat becomes almost like a concept.

How is it possible to connect with the deaths of that many people?

It's something that Ali and Raffi struggle with quite a bit.

The plot of Ararat is layered with his usual multi-time, multi-plot line fragments coalescing into a whole - even if we don't realize it's happening.  A young photographer named Raffi (David Alpay), bickers with his mother Ani (Arsinee Khanjian) and sleeps with his step-sister Celia (Marie-Josee Croze).  The mother and son both become involved, in very different ways, with the production of a movie based on the Armenian genocide written by Rouben (Eric Bogosian), directed by the elderly Edward (Charles Aznavour), and starring the conflicted half-Turk Ali (Elias Koteas).  Ali's lover is the museum curator Philip (Brent Carver), who tries to uphold the truth through preservation of it's works.  This is a bit different than Ani, who preserves her truth through commentary.

Therein lies the central tension between all of the characters.  Whose version of the truth is really correct?  Celia's is based on emotional reactions, Raffi's take on a form of faith, Ani needs to make notes and Rouben wants everyone to trust in his vision as a prophet of sorts (the evocative, sad score suggests as much in addition to his actions).  Then what of David (Christopher Plummer), a man near retirement who disapproves of his son Philip's sexual choices and is in a position to stop Raffi from delivering the film canisters in the belief that they contain drugs?  Or what about Martin (Bruce Greenwood), the American actor hired to play a Colonel Sanders lookalike who utters the lines preceding this article when Ani interrupts a day of shooting with her version of the truth?

All of these characters get their say.  For those of you who have derided a film as "tonally inconsistent", this may throw that perception into a loop.  The scenes with the film-within-a-film are delivered at the level of a John Wayne-era war pic a la The Green Berets.  Then there's the intense personal drama of David and Ani with their sons, or the dreamy flashbacks that portray how an artist (Arshile Gorky, survivor, as played by Simon Abkarian) decided to remember the events for himself.  But even with those flashbacks, we're not seeing the truth as Gorky remembers it, we're seeing it as how Ani does.  So, again, whose truth is right?

Egoyan's use of sensuality is restrained here, since even these lovers can't live in each other's level of truth for very long.

Egoyan, in his ultimate fairness to all the characters, presents each version as the absolute truth.  This may seem like a tonal disaster, but there's a method to all of this.  The entire time he is presenting each level of melodrama as a way that people deal with the pain of something that is beyond our comprehension.  That's why the emotions seem so intense, and the reactions so out of line with the supposed reality they are presented in.  It's not inconsistent, it's completely in line with how everyone is feeling and a director as empathetic as Egoyan understands that no two people, even if they are in sympathy with one another, are going to react the same way.

He reminds us as much with the final words in the movie printed against a black screen.  Egoyan reminds us that all of the historical details of the film are based on eyewitness accounts, testimony, physical evidence and are true.  "Historical details".  Not "character details" or "emotional details".  He understands that the historical truth should not be indebate, how we each decide to take up the evidence of the past, or what we'll perceive as evidence, is entirely different from person to person.

All it takes is one piece of art to unite all these seemingly disparaging viewpoints.  The final moments, when the completed film is being viewed by everyone and it is not the uplifting war drama anyone expected, say as much.  Sometimes we can reach across the gulf of emotional incomprehension and meet in a place that we all consider to be The Truth.

Next week I will have hopefully settled my issues and we will be going back a bit to look at Felicia's Journey.  I can only hope that I was as wrong about that film as I was about Ararat, and I already loved Journey.

Ararat (2002)
Written and directed by Atom Egoyan.
Starring  David Alpay, Arsinee Khanjian, and Christopher Plummer.

Egoyan with text

Posted by Andrew

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