If there’s any subject that might compel Atom Egoyan to forsake his usual distanced style, it’s the genocide of as many as 1.5 million Armenians in what is now Turkey during World War I. After all, the Egyptian-born Canadian filmmaker is a child of the Armenian diaspora, just three generations away from the crime. And, he admits, “I’ve been thinking about making a movie about this for my entire film career.”
Yet Egoyan, in town for a Congressional screening of his new Ararat, went once again for the layered look. The movie depicts a film-within-a-film, the making of which comes to involve its director (Franco-Armenian singer-actor Charles Aznavour); an Armenian-Canadian art scholar (Egoyan’s wife, Arsinee Khanjian); the scholar’s son (David Alpay), who is ultimately inspired to go to Turkey to make another film-within-a-film, a video documentary; an actor of Turkish descent (Egoyan regular Elias Koteas), who’s troubled by acting the part of Turkish villain; painter Arshile Gorky (Simon Abkarian), whose mother was killed in a massacre; a customs agent (Christopher Plummer); and more characters that lead to even more subplots. The result is a film that, the director cautions, “needs to be read really carefully.”
“Some people have been angry,” he admits. “They say, ‘How can you take a deconstructionist view of a genocide?’”
The diminutive director, dressed in his customary black and white, can understand this reaction. His own original script was a straightforward historic epic, derived in large part from the memoirs of an American witness, Clarence Usher. But, Egoyan says, “I had to be honest with myself. I was completely uninterested in making the film. Somehow it wasn’t really touching on what I found most interesting about the subject, which is how it persists to the present, how the issue lives today.”
The idea of making a film about the genocide, which Turkey still officially denies ever happened, returned to Egoyan several years ago, when his young son began asking about his background. “I told him the story of the genocide,” the director recalls. “He was very innocent, asking this simple question, ‘Did Turkey ever say it was sorry?’ And I realized at that point if I said, ‘Well, no,’ I would then be passing all these issues on to him as well. It seemed really sad that that was still the current state of affairs. I looked at the script, thinking ‘OK, if I make this film, it will explain it.’ But I realized it wouldn’t explain anything in terms of why and how this could still be an unresolved issue.”
Egoyan decided to transfer his own sense of obligation to the fictional director played by Aznavour, who’s puckishly called Edward Saroyan after Aznavour’s character in Truffaut’s Shoot the Piano Player. “It became clear that Saroyan, because his mother was a genocide survivor, felt the need to make this film to honor her memory,” Egoyan says. “And that was liberating to me, because I could then make that film, or give glimpses of that film, show what the limitations of that film are, and really bring it into the present day. Suddenly I got very excited about the idea, and it began to develop from there.”
The director says he tried to make Saroyan’s film represent the consciousness of a child of a genocide survivor. “He’s heard those stories in a particular way. So it’s very raw and blunt,” he explains. “There’s something exaggerated about the quality of it. But it’s important to represent that point of view, because that’s how a lot of Armenians remember, or think they remember, these events. When you’re told it by someone who survived it, there’s a heightened sense.
“There’s no question that what happened was absolutely horrific, but you can understand how this sort of storytelling does perpetuate certain stereotypes. The tricky point with the film-within-the-film was to be able to present those images in an exaggerated way without it becoming ironic. Or without making fun of that film. Because I think that would have been totally wrong. I wanted to show how this director, making this film to honor his mother, might be making choices that we can perceive as being wrongheaded, but which were also sincere.”
A different sort of autobiography entered the scenario when Egoyan incorporated an incident that happened when he returned to Canada from Armenia, where he shot his low-budget 1993 film, Calendar. “When I was bringing the 16mm footage back into the country, I was stopped by a customs officer who asked me the value of what was in the cans,” he recalls. “I said, ‘Well, film stock is worth so much money.’ And he said, ‘No, what’s the value of the finished film?’ And I said it might be worthless or it might be millions of dollars, I don’t know at this point. And he asked me, ‘Well, what’s this film about?’ He was trying to determine how commercial it was, based on the story I told him. I thought it was totally surreal that I was describing my film to a customs officer so he could assess whether or not it was going to be a hit.” He laughs. “At a certain point we both gave up. But that experience lingered with me.”
Customs officers are just one of the many types of authority figures that recur in Egoyan’s films, along with insurance adjusters and tax auditors. “I am fascinated by all these jobs that allow people access to other people’s lives,” the director notes. “They can just ask people questions, and they have a hold over you. They can take on a messianic role. There’s something humorous to me about how such a person might endow himself with an inflated sense of what his responsibilities might be.
“It’s a bit different in this film,” he adds, “because it’s not as absurd. I did a lot of research this time. The other times the customs officer is sort of used figuratively. But this time, because it was such an important part, I interviewed a number of people. It’s interesting what they do. Whether you’re accepted or not depends on any number of perceived transgressions.”
Of course, filmmakers also investigate people’s lives and take dictatorial control over actors and crews—and sometimes viewers. “That is the most perverse job of all,” Egoyan allows. “You organize people to do things they wouldn’t be doing otherwise. You walk around the set and there’s a whole army of people just waiting for you to point the camera here or point it there. There’s a sort of arrogance about the Edward Saroyan character, an impatience which is probably the result of having this sort of myth about yourself—which I’ve never taken very seriously. Filmmaking since the time I began has become such a cult. You see people living the life of ‘what a director should be’ who are in some sort of state of delusion.”
Before a director can seduce an audience, of course, he must first entice financial backers and performers. “Very often it’s a con,” Egoyan says. “You know that the work is not going to represent the actor the way they want to be represented. Those are the things about the job that I’m most impatient with. There are people who enjoy that process. But it sickens me a little bit.”
Egoyan has shown no desire to be a directorial star. He’s avoided Hollywood productions in favor of art-schoolish side projects such as Out of Use, an installation currently on display in Montreal. The piece comprises some 50 outmoded reel-to-reel tape recorders, each mounted with a video monitor that shows the owner’s hands threading the machine as well as a motion-activated audio snippet of something that was once recorded on the device. “It has a weird intersection with Ararat,” Egoyan says, because it’s about “what we remember privately and how that forms a collective memory of what something meant.”
So far, the Armenian collective memory has not been altogether happy with Ararat. “I have found that the people who’ve been able to read [my] other films are perplexed by some of the things this film raises. I think that’s very much a product of the time we’re in now, when people want to see things in black-and-white terms. As an artist, that’s not the zone I work in. It’s not enough to show what happened. You have to look at what continues to happen. Why it continues to happen. I really feel that it’s not enough to remember.”
Some people have reacted to the film with too much emotion, Egoyan suggests, whereas others have been overly analytical. “There are also people—and this has been the biggest surprise—people who conflate [Saroyan’s movie] with the film I was making,” he says. “I thought those demarcations were clear. But it’s just the power of cinema. No matter how much you frame something, people will always want to believe that what they’re seeing is real. And that doesn’t cease to surprise me.”—Mark Jenkins