Film

A MAZE OF DENIAL

With Ararat, Atom Egoyan bravely attempts to untangle his Armenian roots

Brian D. Johnson November 18 2002
Film

A MAZE OF DENIAL

With Ararat, Atom Egoyan bravely attempts to untangle his Armenian roots

Brian D. Johnson November 18 2002

A MAZE OF DENIAL

With Ararat, Atom Egoyan bravely attempts to untangle his Armenian roots

Film

BRIAN D. JOHNSON

I HOPE you’re wide awake, because we’re going to talk about something very, very important. And complicated. You’re going to need all your wits about you just to get through this. Our subject is Atom Egoyan’s new movie, Ararat. I know some of you feel as if you’ve already seen Ararat, or don’t need to. You heard so much about it when it premiered in Cannes last May, and when it opened the Toronto International Film Festival in September, and when Ken Finkleman made it a running gag in Escape from the Newsroom. But now Ararat is finally being released commercially, and the prospect of reviewing it is enough to send a chill through the veins of the most hardened critic. It’s difficult enough just to describe this brilliant failure—never mind explain why it doesn’t work, and why you should still see it.

Ararat is about roots. So let’s begin with those of its 42-year-old creator—who was born in Egypt to Armenian parents, emigrated at three, and grew up to become the most celebrated Canadian filmmaker of his generation. The opening shot of Egoyan’s first feature, 1984’s Next of Kin, was filmed from a camera riding on an airport luggage carousel at Toronto’s airport. A decade later, in Exotica, he showed a Canada Customs official watching the airport’s baggage claim area through one-way glass. Now, with Ararat, his ninth movie, Egoyan takes us back to that airport—the story centres on a young man trapped in customs purgatory after returning from Armenia with film cans that may or may not contain drugs.

Egoyan is obsessed by baggage in the broadest sense. He’s the ultimate customs inspector, examining the psychology of denial on the border between secrets and lies, memory and fiction. In all his films, there’s a sense that truth comes in the form of a contraband substance, a cache buried deep. But until now, Egoyan has worked on a relatively intimate scale. His previous three films—Exotica, The Sweet Hereafter and Felicia’s Journey—are all claustrophobic dra-

mas of violation and loss, each involving a creepy, ritualized relationship between a father figure and a teen girl. With Ararat Egoyan ventures onto much grander terrain. All his favourite obsessions are still there—bereavement, incest, the constructed nature of memory. But in struggling to come to terms with his Armenian heritage, Egoyan has created a work of staggering ambition.

Ararat is the first movie to grapple with the Turkish genocide of more than one million Armenians from 1915 to 1923, a cataclysm that remains largely obscure in the public imagination. While trying to convey the unequivocal horror of the event, Egoyan is also intent on showing how it has been refracted through generations, and across cultures, until it’s intangible. Ararat speaks to the impossibility of representing the unspeakable. As if that weren’t enough of a challenge, Egoyan had the nerve to cast an unknown with virtually no acting experience in the lead role—a 21-year-old CanadianArmenian pre-med student at the University of Toronto named David Alpay.

The result is a movie that’s as frustrating as it is fascinating. Alpay is wonderful. He

draws us in with emotional honesty, quiet charisma and the instincts of a natural actor. And he holds his own with Christopher Plummer, Bruce Greenwood and Elias Koteas—along with Armenian talents including Charles Aznavour and Eric Bogosian. But the drama is paralyzed by the sheer density of Egoyan’s Byzantine script. He sets in motion a myriad of characters, and his drive to link them in a daisy chain of moral consequence creates a forced symmetry.

Each character is connected to a film within the film, and it, too, is titled Ararat. It’s a conventional epic about the Armenian massacre being shot in Toronto by a famous director named Edward (Aznavour), whose mother was a genocide survivor. Rafia (Alpay), a production assistant on the set, is the son of an art historian named Ani (Arsinée Khanjian) who’s an impassioned expert on Armenian painter Arshile Gorky (Simon Abkarian). Ani becomes a consultant on the film when its screenwriter (Bogosian) decides to work the young Gorky into his script, which chronicles the siege of Van, Gorky’s boyhood home. The painter, forever haunted by the memory of seeing his mother starve to death, ended up in America, where he hanged himself in 1948, at the peak of his career. One of his famous works, The Artist and his Mother, serves as Ararat’s Rosetta stone. “That painting is a repository of our history,” says Ani. “It’s a secret code. It explains who we are and how we got here.”

Egoyan filters that legacy through portraits of two severely fractured families. First

there’s Raffi’s clan, which is more tangled than a bag of snakes. He’s sleeping with his stepsister, Celia (Marie-Josée Croze), a drug dealer who blames her stepmother, Ani, for her father’s apparent suicide. Raffi’s own father died attempting to assassinate a Turkish diplomat. The other family is headed by the customs inspector (Plummer) grilling Raffi at the airport. He’s estranged from his son (Brent Carver), who’s involved in a gay relationship with Ali (Koteas), an actor cast

as a Turkish villain in the film within the film. Adding yet another knot to this macramé of cozy coincidence, Carver’s character is a security guard at a museum that’s mounting a show of Gorky’s work.

The beauty, and failure, of Ararat is that it’s trying to do and say so much. Egoyan needs to tell the story of the Armenian genocide, but can’t bring himself to do so in a literal fashion. So that job falls to Edward, the fictional director whose epic melodrama is

the kind of movie Atom would never make. Besides, Egoyan’s film is about the lingering fallout of the genocide on contemporary characters. But Egoyan wants it both ways. He still relies on Edward’s spectacle to show Turkish atrocities of rape and butchery.

Edward’s film is based on a real book, An American Physician in Turkey, Clarence Ussher’s eyewitness account of the 1915 massacre. In one of Ararat’s most mindblowing scenes, Ani rushes onto the set, disrupting a panorama of carnage. Martin (Greenwood), the actor playing Ussher, looks up from the girl he’s pretending to treat, explains how her father’s eyes were gouged out and her mother’s unborn child was ripped from her belly, then asks Ani, “Who the f— are you?” It’s as if Ussher, the actor playing him and the actor playing the actor are all exasperated with the layers of framing that threaten to suffocate the real story. And so’s the viewer.

You sense that even Egoyan is stymied by his dual agenda. On the one hand, he’s the first filmmaker to dramatize the genocide. And, despite the Turkish government’s persistent denials, he wants to clearly establish that it took place—that Turkey organized the systematic slaughter of its own Armenian citizens. But that hard fact floats in a sea of equivocation, the uncertain waters of collective memory.“I was born here,” says Ali. “this is a new country so let’s just drop the f—in’ history and get on with it.”

Egoyan is not about to do that. But he’s a noncommittal propagandist. And in straining to conjure the past, he saddles his characters with exposition, which numbs the drama. Raffi turns his customs interrogation into an Armenian history lesson. And his own story—about that mysterious baggage—is so convoluted that when the inspector says, “there’s no way to confirm that a single word you told me is true,” there’s an unfortunate resonance. What’s really hard to swallow is the reality of the scene— that the customs man would even sit still for Raffi’s story. He acts more like a therapist, a surrogate perhaps for Egoyan himself.

So we end up believing in the genocide, fascinated by the history, but unconvinced by the movie. Part of what makes Egoyan such an original filmmaker is his refusal to let us suspend disbelief—like Brecht, he encourages a certain detachment. And Ararat, a film about denial (and disbelief), becomes living proof of its own premise. lí1]