By Rebecca Thomas
BBC News Online entertainment staff
Director Atom Egoyan is not known for shying away from difficult subject matters but his latest project Ararat, which has just been shown at the London Film Festival, caused him an unprecedented amount of angst.
Egoyan has unflinchingly dramatised fictional stories about gritty topics such as serial killers, in Felicia’s Journey, and sexual fantasy in The Adjuster and Exotica.
Ararat, however, confronts the real-life massacre of ethnic Armenians by the Ottoman Empire, over four years from 1915.
As the son of Armenian refugees, Egoyan found his personal emotional involvement kept him away from making this movie for many years.
“It is ridiculous that a film dealing with the Armenian genocide has never been made and certainly not commercially distributed,” says Egoyan, who grew up – and still lives – in Canada.
“I had always had in mind that one day I would have to deal with this issue and try to come to terms with it.
“But I took a long time to find the courage to make the film as personal as possible without worrying about what other people, especially the Armenians, expected it to be.”
Armenians say 1.5 million of their people were killed as the Ottoman Empire became present-day Turkey. They condemn the deaths as organised genocide.
But the issue remains controversial because the Turkish Government has always denied that what happened qualifies as genocide.
They say the deaths were precipitated by the outbreak of war and were justifiable as a military reaction to Armenian insurrection.
Once Ararat was completed, the Turkish government tried to prevent it being seen, says Egoyan.
“Turkey has completely demonised the film and I don’t think it will ever be shown there,” explains the director.
“It’s unfortunate because I think it proposes a dialogue but from the moment they knew it was being made they tried to block its distribution.”
Ararat is made as a film within a film, confronting both the historical events of the Armenian deaths and the contemporary consequences for the descendants of survivors.
Several modern-day families are seen involved in an epic movie being made by an Armenian director, played by the French-Armenian star Charles Aznavour, about the slaughter.
At the same time, all are trying to come to terms with difficult events in their own past. Some of these are directly related to the Armenian issue. Others, such as a father attempting to come to terms with his son’s homosexuality, are not.
However, all hinge upon the same issue – the act and effects of denial.
In retrospect, Egoyan says that nearly his entire back catalogue – including The Sweet Hereafter for which he was Oscar-nominated – has led to the making of Ararat.
“Ideas of denial and how communities react to trauma have been explored even if I was not aware of it,” he says. ”
“The Armenian issue was always dealt with symbolically in my films but this is the first time I have dealt with it literally.”
Egoyan says that, as a successful film-maker, he is privileged in being able to find an audience to listen to his views.
He was also spurred into making Ararat by his young son, who is at an age to start asking questions about his heritage.
Egoyan also had support from his Ararat crew and cast, particularly Aznavour, who – best known as a singer – was persuaded out of near acting retirement.
“He is a very generous individual. He is not like his character Edward who is precious and impatient and he is not full of his own mythology,” Egoyan says of Aznavour.
“He told me he was very nervous about going back to acting and was worried about acting in English, believing he would not be able to remember his lines.”
Egoyan acknowledges that the release of Ararat is timely – though not deliberate – given the current global debate over terrorism and the vilification of people as a race.
However, Ararat does not mark the director’s permanent move into confrontational political films.
Instead, emotionally drained, Egoyan is recharging his creative batteries by indulging in his other love, music.
“I could make Ararat because it was my own story but it is very exhausting to be both an artist and political spokesperson,” he says.
“So now, I am working on a massive musical project in Canada. It’s an opera of Wagner’s Ring. It is wonderful to lose myself in another mythology.”