Belated History: Revisiting Atom Egoyan's "Ararat"
By Hovig Tchalian

Critics' Forum Article, 04.01.06

Critics' Forum
Film and Music

It may seem unusual to review a film released almost four
years ago. But as we enter the first year of the tenth decade of
commemorating the Armenian Genocide, Atom Egoyan's "Ararat" (2002)
presents an ideal opportunity to do so in the context of the film's
central theme, the uncanny act of remembering~Wagain.

"Ararat" is a powerful, reverent and unquestionably personal look
at the ravages of the Genocide, both immediate and more distant. But
the film as a whole is also deeply flawed, precisely because of its
personal nature.

Like Egoyan's other films, the premise of "Ararat" is complex and
multi-layered. It revolves ostensibly around the making of a film
about the Genocide by Edward Saroyan (played by Charles Aznavour),
a well-known director now well past his prime. In typical Egoyan
fashion, the stories of the other characters weave themselves into
the central story of the making of Saroyan's film: Raffi, the main
character (played credibly by David Alpay), is in love with his
step- sister, Celia; she is locked in struggle with her mother, Ani
(played by Egoyan's wife, Arsinée Khanjian); Ani is an art historian
interested in Arshile Gorky (played movingly by Simon Abkarian) and
his representation of himself and his mother, which Celia accuses her
of using as a way of coming to terms with the death (or, according to
Celia, her murder) of her second husband, Celia's father; the film's
producer, Rouben (played by Eric Bogosian), hires Ani as a consultant,
in order to help add elements of Gorky's biography as a plotline in
the film.

The stories converge on Raffi's attempt to bring (or perhaps sneak)
several rolls of film into the United States that he claims to have
shot in Anatolia (present-day Eastern Turkey, historically Western
Armenia) for use in the production. An aging customs officer, David
(played ably by Christopher Plummer), is the only person who stands
in his way. David is himself close to retirement and having trouble
adjusting to his divorced son's relationship with his half-Turkish
gay lover (played by Elias Koteas), an actor who winds up playing
the part of the main Turkish antagonist in Saroyan's film, Jevdet Bey.

As is clear from the extended synopsis above, the various elements
of the film make for a complex storyline. Though it can be argued
that some of the details are "wasted" here (other, better films, of
Egoyan's are far more "efficient" and less heavy-handed), there is
still a clear purpose to them. For instance, the twin details of the
director's waning talents~Wa fact mentioned off-handedly by Raffi~W
and the customs officer's impending retirement~Wrevealed slowly
throughout~Ware subtle but significant. Together, they represent
the film's central concern, what we might call the "latency" or
"belatedness" of history~Win other words, the difficulty of proving
after the fact an event that took place in the past. We understand
that the Genocide narrative in the imaginary film is told too late
to change the facts but, equally, struggling even to transmit them
meaningfully to posterity. Like its director, the film is tragically
past its prime. The same may be said of any attempt to capture the
full weight of history, a fact that Egoyan (as a director of the film
that tells its own, similar story) recognizes all too well.

The two aging characters and the structure of the film-within-a-film
repeat themselves across a host of other dualities: we find out
that Ani has been married twice, first to Raffi's father, who was
killed in an attempt to assassinate a Turkish diplomat, and second
to Celia's father, who apparently (and like Gorky) committed suicide;
we discover that Raffi is actually sneaking two sets of films across
the border, one set of rolls (that may in fact contain Heroin) given
to him by the Turkish soldier who helped him get into view of Ararat
and a roll of film that he took on his own camcorder that includes
a shot of the Madonna and child in Aghtamar that mirrors Gorky's
painting; we are also told that Gorky painted that image in 1934,
as a way of coming to terms with the killing of his mother in 1915
(an act that Ani is trying to uncover and understand in the present).

Such parallels, sometimes subtle and sometimes less so, all build on
the idea of belatedness. They do not represent dualities so much as
an almost endless string of repetitions and revisions, of strange but
hopeful attempts, as I suggested earlier, to remember~Wagain. By the
end of the film, the sheer number and dizzying array of motifs in
the film come perilously close to overwhelming its subject as well
as its viewer.

A surprisingly effective repetition in the film is the one that
involves Ali, who plays the part of the Turkish official, Jevdet
Bey, in Saroyan's film. He is a half-Turkish American citizen who
reveals during the course of filming that he has trouble believing
that the Genocide was ever more than a civil disturbance and those
killed much more than casualties of war. Raffi's futile attempt to
convince him otherwise is more than an act of will. His all-too-
human response of confronting a Genocide denier~Win the person of
Ali~W becomes at the same time a heroic attempt to reach back into
and reverse history itself~Win the person of Jevdet Bey. History and
art collide in Raffi's personal encounter with collective memory and
the reconstruction of historical experience.

The personal nature of Raffi's encounter ensures the emotional and
artistic integrity of the film, its heart and soul. But surprisingly,
it also represents the film's undoing. The delicate balance between
art and tragedy represented in Raffi's experience begins to unravel
as we extend it to include Egoyan's own experience of making a quite
personal film about the Genocide. From this broader perspective, the
film is unable to navigate the fine line between art and historical
commentary. In that sense, the complex associations among the film's
various elements must be seen as a heroic but doomed attempt to capture
the fullness of the Genocide and its implications, both personal and
collective. To put it differently, the film puts forward the idea that
a historical event is infinitely complex, all the while attempting
to shed light on what actually happened. Not surprisingly, reviews
of the film have described it either as "slanted" or "committed,"
a distinction that even a filmmaker of Egoyan's talents would be
hard-pressed to overcome.

As mentioned earlier, the film's complex plot converges on Raffi's
attempt to sneak the rolls of film out of Turkey and into the States,
and in the film's rationale, into the light of day. The customs
officer, David, suspects that the roll given to Raffi by the soldier
contains drugs. David explains that many of those who ingest those
drugs to sneak them past the officers, when confronted with the crime,
get so nervous that the packets explode in their system, causing an
immediate overdose. The conversation parallels the very first scene
in the film, in which Aznavour's character, Saroyan, tries to get a
pomegranate ("nour") past customs. (It also parallels the imagined
story in Saroyan's film, in which Gorky fails in his attempt to get
a letter about the Turkish siege on Van to the American authorities
and is caught by Jevdet Bey.) When David refuses to allow Saroyan to
bring the fruit across the border, Saroyan ingests the seeds instead,
explaining that he expects them to bring him luck. (We find out later
that his mother, a deportee, had a single pomegranate with her on
her journey and survived by ingesting a seed a day and considering
it a full meal.) The most obvious parallel in all these cases is to
the truth at the heart of the Genocide, which starts as a letter of
distress in Saroyan's film and becomes, in Egoyan's, both pomegranate
seed and packet of heroin, sustaining to those who would give it life
and a potentially explosive issue to those intent on suppressing it.

The film's resolution, if there is one, comes in the form of Raffi's
liberation. David releases him from customs, accepting the various
lies he has told as a way of getting at the truth, of imagining its
possibility. This act in turn leads to David's acceptance of his
son and sets everything that has come before it awash in the light
of hope. It is reminiscent of perhaps the single most affecting
moment in the film, in which Gorky, struggling to paint his mother's
portrait, gives himself over to the music playing on his phonograph
and dances to it, palette and paintbrush in hand. Egoyan has earlier
shown us captive Armenian women made to dance by Turkish soldiers,
a scene that transforms Gorky's, by contrast, into the ultimate act
of imagination and hope, a dance on the grave of history itself.

The film's final scene is of Gorky's mother sewing a button back onto
her son's jacket. The button is missing in Gorky's famous portrait
but hidden from view, covered over by a flower his mother gives him
to hold over it just before the photograph is taken. The humble act
of sewing it back on stands in for the far more difficult goal of
setting history right, after the fact. It presents the film's hopeful
answer to the problems posed by history's belatedness.

"Ararat" is not Atom Egoyan's finest film. That distinction belongs
to "The Sweet Hereafter" (1997), a simple, graceful and ultimately
more powerful meditation on the effects of a school bus crash on the
residents of a Midwestern town. The earlier film does not try as hard
to confront the full impact of its tragedy, though one admittedly
smaller in scope. Paradoxically, Egoyan's personal feelings about the
events depicted in "Ararat" render it a painfully personal attempt to
address an unresolved historical tragedy in all its complexity. But
it is worth revisiting, if only to confront the immensity and hope
of the enterprise.

All Rights Reserved: Critics Forum, 2006

Hovig Tchalian holds a PhD in English literature from UCLA. He has
edited several journals and also published articles of his own.

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