There’s a poem, says Oscar-nominated director Atom Egoyan, that every Armenian kid knows.
It’s called The Bride, and was written by the poet Siamanto (his real name was Atom Yarjanian) who was born in 1878 and died in 1915, one of the first of the 1.5-million people murdered by the Young Turks during the Armenian genocide.
The poem is raw. It holds a mirror up to ugly men, who did an unspeakably ugly thing: tortured 20 young brides, who were made to dance naked, hand in hand, before a crazed mob. They twisted and twirled. And when they fell to the ground, exhausted, their captors shrieked for them to stand. They doused them in kerosene and torched the bodies. “And the charcoal corpses rolled from dance to death,” Siamanto wrote.
To read the poem in its entirety is to feel sucker-punched in the gut. Drained and kind of dazed. This day, Egoyan and his crew — who are currently camped along the east-end of Toronto’s waterfront to film his upcoming movie Ararat — seem enveloped in that same kind of mental fog.
They move like automatons, and say very little. There’s good reason. The night before, Egoyan filmed his re-enactment of Siamanto’s incensed account of that insane event. And the 40-year-old director — whose films are cerebral and dispassionate, and whose characters are choked, often psychological misfits — is still shaken. More than a little creeped out.
“It’s one level of horror,” says Egoyan of the surreal slaughter of the night before. “It was exhausting, just because it’s so real. Most of the time what I’m doing is out of focus. When you’re the director, you’re like a surgeon, stitching things up, always one step removed.
“But, at other times, it overwhelms you,” says Egoyan. “And you can’t stop and think about what you’re doing because, if you do, you’ll become paralyzed.”
Previous Egoyan films such as Calendar, Next of Kin and Family Viewing have had autobiographical touches that flick at Egoyan’s Armenian roots. But Ararat is the closest thing the Toronto director has come to a personal missive. And it’s clear, Egoyan is excited — and nervous — about making a movie that generations of Armenians have waited 90 years to see.
“It’s not just a story, it’s a huge responsibility,” says Egoyan, who is perhaps closest in screenwriting style to the English actor/playwright Harold Pinter. “I think as an Armenian filmmaker you’re always wondering about this film . . . which hasn’t been made, as such. I could have done a straightforward historical piece, but I wasn’t confident. It’s not the type of film I make . . . it’s not the way my mind works. There are certain questions which I can’t help but ask myself. I’m a very self-conscious filmmaker.”
The CN Tower looms as the backdrop. The village is rural, poor, squalid but clean. The streets are full of dark-eyed, dark-haired, dark-skinned people — recruits from the Armenian community who came in droves to be on Egoyan’s set. There are no major “stars” on set this day, mostly extras. Egoyan is trying to get some “walk-through” shots of daily life in this town.
An uncompromising director, he doesn’t normally invite the media onto his sets. He does not particularly like giving interviews. But his mouth motors when it comes to the subject of this film, which he says “is fascinating because it’s an event I know happened, but that the rest of the world doesn’t know about.”
Egoyan, whose grandparents were both orphans of the genocide, says it has heightened his consciousness — and you gather he means as a man, a father, a husband, a son, as well as a filmmaker. “At the heart of it, this wasn’t about a war between Turkey and Armenia,” says Egoyan. “The issue was nothing except a tide of racial hatred that swept through the region, and has been completely obscured by time.”
Described by its handlers as a film within a film, Ararat is a contemporary story about the making of an historical epic about the Armenian holocaust. It’s also the first original feature-length screenplay Egoyan has done since Exotica (1994).
A large part of the plot focuses on a film director, played by the legendary French-Armenian actor and singer Charles Aznavour, who returns to Armenia to make a historical film about the near-annihilation of the Armenian people in the lands controlled by the Ottoman Empire.
Like most Egoyan films, time is fractured and the storyline schizophrenic. Running parallel to the Aznavour-as-Egoyan-alter-ego storyline is a tale of a an 18-year-old Armenian-Canadian, played by Canadian newcomer David Alpay, who is hired as a driver on the production. The genocide is viewed from his perspective in Toronto in 2001.
This movie — like other Egoyan films such as The Sweet Hereafter, Exotica and Felicia’s Journey — is about the threat against innocence, lost community, denial and alienation. A voyeurist, Egoyan will undoubtedly train his eye on a sordid, scandalous past, but compose a film for the present, with all its contained madness.
It won’t be an easy project. Indeed, some believe it will be Egoyan’s most difficult film to construct to date. But he is counting on the experience to be fulfilling, if not somewhat cathartic.
Born in Cairo to Armenian parents, Egoyan emigrated to Canada with them as a young child, fell in love with film, graduated from the University of Toronto in 1982. In 1985, at age 24, Egoyan became the youngest director to be nominated for a Genie Award.
The $15.5-million movie is financed by Alliance Atlantis Communications and executive produced by Egoyan’s longtime collaborator Robert Lantos. It also stars Egoyan’s wife, Arsinée Khanjian, Brent Carver, Marie-Josée Croze, Bruce Greenwood and Christopher Plummer.The producers hope to premiere the film at Cannes next spring, with its North American debut to follow at the Toronto International Film Festival.
Egoyan hopes Ararat will make audiences accept the Armenian genocide as fact, not fiction; to embrace the words and works of men like Siamanto, who was among the first round of clergymen, intellectuals and community leaders systematically slaughtered; and to protect the memory of those who disappeared.
As a cinematic canvas, Ararat is Egoyan’s biggest and broadest yet. It’s a subject he and his wife debated doing for years. The director says he put it off because he did not feel ready. A few years ago, Lantos basically dared Egoyan to tackle Ararat in front of a few hundred people who were honouring the esoteric director at the Armenian Community Centre in Toronto. “It’s not just a movie. It’s not just a story. It is something that really truly matters and it had to be told by Atom,” says Lantos.
Lantos may be right that a contentious subject like Ararat is best left in the hands of a filmmaker who is deliberative and rarely sentimental. Given the personal nature of the subject matter, for Egoyan, it will also be fascinating to see if more of him shows up in this work; if he will continue to hold himself back; or if, this time, he will invest as much passion as he has invested intellect in previous films.
Egoyan says he hopes Ararat forces some eyes open. In 1948, the UN Genocide Convention was adopted, and the Armenian Genocide was condemned by the international community as a crime against humanity. The Turkish government today denies there was an Armenian genocide and claims that Armenians were only removed from the eastern war zone.
Egoyan is convinced it will eventually make it onto screens in Turkey. “I’ve been invited to the film festival in Istanbul many times,” says Egoyan. “They know about this film. I’m hugely optimistic that a recognition from Turkey [to the Armenian holocaust] is imminent.”
Back on set, the crew’s milling about the town. The scene speaks of a time, long ago, when the Armenian people were, more or less, autonomous. But there are tell-tale signs in the make-believe village that this tale does not have a happy ending.
Shoved to the side are burnt-out hovels, piles of rubble, and charred remains. The film’s publicist says the death scenes have been gruelling for many of the Armenians to watch. “There are bodies burned. Heads on sticks. It was a very barbaric extermination. Visibly pregnant women had their stomachs sliced open.”
It goes on. And you think perhaps the cinematic chronicling of the carnage is best left in the hands of someone with Egoyan’s deft, cerebral touch.
Ararat will not be for the faint of heart. Egoyan is going to mess you up. But the film likely will appeal to those who like Egoyan’s discerning eye, appreciate his honesty as a filmmaker, and hanker to learn more about the man, himself.