TORONTO — It was a miracle in the first place that authorities in Turkey were prepared to allow theatrical screenings of Ararat, says the controversial film’s Canadian writer-director Atom Egoyan.
So he says reports a scheduled Jan. 16 premiere in Istanbul and Ankara has been postponed indefinitely are disappointing but not surprising. “What was amazing was that the film would be shown,” Egoyan says. “It’s very upsetting to now see that possibility may be snatched away.”
In December, a spokesman for the Turkish cultural ministry said Ararat could be screened but a scene depicting Ottomans raping Armenian women had to be deleted. The decision came after a ministry commission reviewed the film and declared it suitable for viewing, with the exception of that one scene.
Turks “can easily tolerate such things,” the spokesman said at the time, on behalf of a new government which assumed power last year and pledged to expand freedom of expression as part of its bid to join the European Economic Community.
But on Saturday, the Montreal-based Armenian National Committee of Canada quoted a major Turkish newspaper, Radical, reporting “right-wing elements” had mounted a campaign of defiance which intimidated the Turkish distributor into yanking the film from release.
Ararat initially gained notoriety when it was assumed it dealt directly with the infamous 1915 mass killing of Armenians by Ottoman Turks, an event that elements in Turkey to this day deny ever happened.
But expected opposition melted away, apparently because Egoyan’s screenplay proved too elusive to pin down. It’s basically a movie within a movie, dealing more with modern times and the issue of the fragility of a people’s collective memory.
“Look, I don’t think this is a film about the Armenian genocide,” Egoyan says. “This is a film about the denial of it and the consequences of that generations after the event.”
Filmed in Canada, Ararat premiered at the 2002 Cannes film festival and later at the Toronto International Film Festival with nary a protest.
But the Montreal-based committee says a far-right nationalist party used threats and blackmail against the government, the distributors and theatre owners.
In addition, a poster campaign in the streets of Istanbul depicted the film’s creators and the governing party as enemies of Turkey. The posters showed an X through the title of the film and a slogan that read “It will never happen.”
“Everyone should know that whoever wants to destroy the unity of this nation and the will of our existence should be ready to pay the price,” wrote a columnist on the website of the Ulki Ocaklari group. “There is a price for enmity towards the Turks.”
Egoyan is anxious to hear what the Turkish government has to say about the issue but, he adds, someone has taken the threats very seriously.
“That’s unfortunate but I guess there’s a history with that particular organization of being serious about that. All through the making of this film I received threats but I didn’t bother taking any of them seriously and I suppose I have the convenience of being here.”
Egoyan says it’s unfortunate, too, that the Turkish distributor, who was so anxious to have the film shown in his country – and even went to court over the issue – has now backed down.
The Oscar-nominated director adds that he had no say in the decision to cut the rape scene and, while he opposes any censorship, he understands Turkish law forbids showing soldiers in uniform engaging in war crimes.
He had hoped the film would help create a dialogue.
“The real enemy of the Turkish people in this situation has been a government which has suppressed this from its own population,” the director says.
“This is a movie that is about people negotiating history and what it means to carry this history and what it means to resolve and try and find some way of coming to terms with it.”
Egoyan adds that many Turks have probably already seen the film anyway, either by ordering the video through amazon.com or through pirated copies.