27th Toronto International Film Festival
Egoyan's black suit is rumpled. But as always, he's alert and probing, hungry
for conversation. And he's had a lot of that recently, traveling with his new
film, Ararat. Alternately cheered and damned for its representation of
the Turkish army's massacre of a million Armenians during World War I, the film
has become "controversial." He's received emails calling him a
"hatemonger." All this is new for the forty-two-year-old Egoyan, whose
work is characteristically deliberate, elegant, and above all, exploring
relationships between art and interpretation.
ideas are also at the center of Ararat, which represents the massacre at
Van in a film within a film, and focuses its interrogation of art and history
through the vexed story of Arshile Gorky, a survivor of the 1915 massacre at
Van. Around this figure (who was the subject of Egoyan's short film, A
Portrait of Arshile ) swirl several others, each attempting to know
his or her own position in relation to this (repressed) history and a diasporic
Armenian identity. The film is of a piece with his previous features, for
examples, Next of Kin (1984), Family Viewing (1987), Speaking
Parts (1989), The Adjuster (1991), Exotica (1994), The
Sweet Hereafter (1997), and Felicia's Journey (1999), as well as his
TV film (featured at the Toronto Film Festival), Krapp's Last Tape
(2000), in its exploration of the medium of film as a means to remember and
revise. Ararat also explores limits and promises, the ways that art
allows communication and also complicates it, the ways that "history"
might recover and situate identity, as well as reshape it.
confess, I walked into the film knowing very little about the massacre, other
than hearing that it was contested "history."
think it's better if you know nothing about it, because the effect of
understanding that something of that scale could have happened without you
knowing about it, is then almost cumulative as you watch. It makes you better
understand the Plummer character's transformation.
was struck by the opening on Arshile Gorky in his studio, painting his mother's
Ultimately, histories are transmitted by artifacts, by cultural objects that we
can appreciate. But we don't usually understand how they were made. And the
decisions behind the gesture to make something and the details that define that
object require investigation. That idea threaded into the larger idea of the
film, which is that history is not just about telling a story. Someone has to
receive it, someone has to listen, someone has to be curious and investigate.
And there are a number of people who are making things in the film: Ani [Arsinée
Khanjian] is writing a book, Raffi [David Alpay] is making his digital diary,
Edward [Charles Aznavour] is making a film, Rouben [Eric Bogosian] is writing
his screenplay, and Gorky [Simon Abkarian] is making his painting. Of all of
these objects that are transmitting the story of the genocide or transmitting
some notion of trauma, the one that emerges as an acknowledged masterpiece is
Gorky's painting. Yet, for many years, it hung in the Whitney, and another
version in the National Gallery of Art in DC, and no one even knew he was
Armenian. And people could respond to the power of the piece without
understanding the story it told.
this ties in with the story of Gorky: he transformed himself, remade himself,
when he came here. Arshile Gorky is not his real name. There was more in the
original script about that, but it just became too much. He produced this body
of work, but the indicators as to who he was were shrouded in mystery. He said
he was the cousin of Maxim Gorky, and created this whole myth about himself.
That fascinated me, that he was the most famous survivor of the massacre at Van,
the only person who created a masterpiece from the ashes of this experience. But
he felt he had to became a Zelig character, redefine himself to accommodate this
new reality. And then, he created his most original work when he went back into
his subconscious. And the study of him could be the conduit through which this
woman, Ani, could begin to deal with her own trauma. It interests me that we
have these objects, but we're unsure how far we want to go in investigating
them. The hands -- why he didn't finish them -- that's conjecture, but it's a
image of his erasing the hands is powerful.
for all the violence in the film, that is probably the most visceral moment.
painting of his mother also speaks to the relationship between Raffi and his
fascinating thing about the painting is that it's based on the only surviving
portrait we have of Gorky, from his ancestral homeland. Even when his studio
burned, that was the one object he salvaged. And the pose, which is so touching,
the way the boy holds the flower. And there might be a story behind that. There
are a lot of decisions that give us access to the emotional life of an object,
that we can either attend to or discard. And the decision to discard is so
frighteningly easy, because we can't absorb everything, we can't look at
everything. That's just our condition. And the only reason perhaps that the
customs officer [Plummer] takes the time that night [to listen to Raffi's story]
is because of what's happened in his own personal life. He's worried that his
contact with his grandson might be cut off because he's perceived as intolerant.
But is he being intolerant? He's trying to accommodate his son's situation, but
the son can't see that because he has his own traumas.
never know why the customs officer did this. And Raffi, he's just this kid who's
made a foolish choice, and caught up in this extraordinary confabulation of the
film he worked on and his own diary. He gets carried away with telling the
story. And the mother is, in Armenian culture, as she is in many cultures, the
one who transmits language and culture. So there's an important scene with
Gorky's mother and the child, telling him that he'll never forget what's
happened here, what will happen here. It's a crucial link between mother and
son, and it's been broken between Ani and Raffi. When she says, "Your
father died for something he believed in," Raffi can only say, "I wish
I knew what that was." So, when he's on the movie set, there's something
very fake about what he sees being made [the recreation of the massacre], and
yet, in those stereotypes, there is something primal for him. While mothers and
sons embody this transmission of culture, the film is about the transmission of
trauma, as it's transmitted from one generation to another.
story Raffi tells at the beginning of the film, about the son with his mother's
heart in his hands: what is the background for that?
are two well-known Armenian poems. The first is about a mother's heart, which is
the key to what is happening with [Raffi's stepsister] Celia [Marie-Josée Croze].
The whole story is that the girlfriend says, if you love me, you must prove it
by bringing me your mother's heart, and the boyfriend kills a deer. But the
girlfriend says no, I want your mother's heart. And the other poem, recited
later in the film, is about the dancing women and the German missionary. That's
a third person story: the poet tells what he's heard from someone else. And that
has to do with the film's layering of telling: we have this poem that was taken
from a third person, a screenwriter takes that poem, a director takes the
screenplay, directs actors, Raffi watches the performance, then tells the story
to the customs officer. So there are layers of people interpreting the story,
and passing it on.
isn't that where some of the controversy about the film is located, that
somehow, seeing an image on screen makes it fact, and so the representation of
the massacre, no matter how layered and in process of interpretation as history,
find that baffling. People have conflated the film within the film with my
movie. I think people who should be smarter about the type of work I'm doing
just can't get beyond it. The artifact of Edward's film is not
"truth." I think of him as someone who is a child of survivors, who
has heard the stories as a child, and is making this film at the end of his
career. I didn't want to be ironic about his film, to make fun of it, because
that would have been tonally wrong. But there are a lot of clues that there is a
separation between his film and my film.
again, that's a point in the film, that you can't predict how people will react.
and I should have understood this. You can frame a premiere of the film, have
shots of people watching it in a theater, but there's this atavistic effect that
the film image has -- we break down the frames, we are in that space. I have to
keep reminding myself about how that works, especially when you're dealing with
such violent imagery. People have odd journeys through movies. And that's what
makes it fascinating, that we're in this weird dream state as we watch. There
are differences in the ways people react: some are completely drawn into the
melodrama of these families, and others find it too "thick."
complexity of effect is repeated in all your films, and responses to them take
many forms: emotional, formal, political, spiritual, intellectual, combinations
of all of the above.
and I think with this film, there's an expectation that the film is going to
finally tell the truth of what happened. And actually, that's not what it's
about. It's about what the cumulative effect of what happened is, today. So, I
think there is a viewer who during the first half hour, without even seeing any
historical footage, will feel a little lost.
you need to make more explicit transitions, dissolves to indicate
that would be so painful, right? I think very often, people think they want
things clearer and more streamlined, but they don't, really. When people say
they want to see more of the film within the film, they probably don't really.
If you saw more of that movie, you'd find it sort of unwatchable.
that's a function of anxiety over taking responsibility for your own reading.
it goes back to having this object that you can be attracted to but you don't
take the time to investigate it.
also the longstanding vexed relationship that governments, and people who want
to trust their governments, have with history. We're seeing this happen daily in
the U.S. right now, in particular.
that's why I'm so excited about the film coming out right now. In dealing with
any sort of tyranny or terror -- it's about denying someone else's humanity,
being able to abstract. To commit any sort of violence, you need to be able to
do that, to assume that other person doesn't have a right to exist. So right
now, the film can make people understand that there are other histories, other
perspectives, that you cannot abstract. Genocide is the result of being able to
abstract an entire people. But that can exist in a domestic situation, to
abstract another member of your family, we can all do that, but have to be
vigilant, and try to discover the complexity of someone else's right to exist.
think I read another interview with you, where you discussed the possibility of
an acknowledgment by an institution, a state, that might allow a "moral
also the lot of diaspora. We found ourselves in these host countries, and if the
countries that we found ourselves in would acknowledge. And there are many
states that have acknowledged that there was a genocide.
a memorial being planned in the U.S., right?
Politically, the federal government can't use the word -- it makes you wonder
when that word is used. Reagan used it once.
read that. And that was a slip?
was, actually. But it is true, that you take comfort knowing that the place that
you live in, recognizes it, even if Turkey cannot. That has a huge symbolic
value. Last night there were Turkish people in the audience, and outside of the
context of their own country, they could see that the film is offering a
discourse. I am hopeful that the film might go to the Istanbul Film festival in
helps construct that discourse.
he's so sympathetic, and so progressive. For a person of that culture to be
comfortable with his homosexuality is rare, but he's completely comfortable in
his skin, more so than his lover. When he is uncomfortable, after playing that
stereotype, Jevdet Bey, in the film, you see that he doesn't really come with an
agenda. It's interesting that the director dismisses him, just because he has
that privilege, just as Ani dismisses Celia. It's like they're saying,
"Even if I could believe, I wouldn't, because I don't have to." The
most soul-destroying aspect of this process is that you realize that recognition
is a privilege that some people grant themselves.
as when Ani tells Raffi, about Celia, "I'm not responsible to her,"
not even acknowledging that he has feelings for and responsibility to Celia.
It's interesting that there are these small gestures that are more telling than
the broad clinical gestures. Because ultimately it's about moments between
individuals, negotiations not between countries but between mothers and sons,
and strangers in a hallway, stepdaughters and mothers. And they break down
because people don't need to engage. In the hallway, when Raffi and Ali are
talking, Raffi compares the Turks to Hitler. It's a response that every Armenian
has in his back pocket, but it stops the conversation dead. The only history
that's changed or made, is between two strangers in a customs office, because
the officer believes that something has changed in that kid.
it is a question of belief, and a choice to believe.
We showed the film in Armenia last week, and this villager said to me, that he
was struck by the fact that the customs officer won't let the pomegranate
through at the beginning of the film, kind of a national fruit for Armenians,
but a the end, he's willing to let something else pass. Again, it's because of
his own personal needs.
are changed by listening to the story. He goes through the transformation
inherent in being a reader.
it's funny because I'm not quite sure: has the link with his son -- who's living
with Ali -- been broken so he doesn't know about the film he's hearing about
from Raffi? Or does he know all about this movie? We don't know that.
Ani has her own crisis of reading and identity, a serious academic working on a
movie, a bit of popular culture that is patently not completely factual.
why does she make the decision to be involved with the film? Because it's
flattering. She rationalizes, that she wants to get Gorky's story told, but she
has to go into denial, to be able to put up with the artifice, to see Mount
Ararat in the wrong place. So, she's in this sort of split. When she storms onto
the set and ruins the shot, it's completely irrational. And while she's worried
about trashing a work of art, Gorky's painting or his story, she's perfectly
willing to trash the film scene. You want to get the story told to as many
people as possible, but at what point are you compromising too much, so it's no
longer the story you want to tell?
how do you feel about where you are now, that you have more "clout,"
for lack of a better term, to get things done these days than in years past?
feel that whatever ability I have, it's amazing that I could focus it on making
this film. One of the reasons that this story has taken so long to be told, is
that it's difficult to justify it as a commercial enterprise. It's been
satisfying to use the "clout" that I have at this point to do it. I
realize it's a challenging piece of work, but I was happy to make it at this
scale. I think it needed the resources I had to make, say, the film within the
alone would be the entire budget of some of your other films.
It's also satisfying to see it distributed, because if you make something and
it's not seen, there's no discourse around it. I've been doing installation work
recently [Steenbeckett, for London's Artangel's 10th anniversary, and Hors
D'usage, for Montreal's Le Musée D'Art Contemporain, opened in the August,
2002], and explored effects of audio recording [in Krapp's Last Tape, an
adaptation of Samuel Beckett's stage-play, starring John Hurt]. I've been doing
that, along with opera work [he directed the Canadian Opera Company production
of Salome in 1996, and his own original opera, Elsewhereless,
composed by Rodney Sharman, premiered in Toronto in 1998], or theater work.
are very specific to the people who can get to see them. And that's made me
thankful for what film allows. But I do think there's an installation aspect to
my film work, as well. I became acutely aware of this in Cannes: there's a scene
in my film, showing the premiere of Edward's film, and those moments collided.
We were seeing his audience watching the premiere of his film, and then we see
ourselves watching this premiere. It was very exciting, that alchemy. In Speaking
Parts, when Gabrielle Rose walks into the video mausoleum, which is an
actual installation "event," in the film, or the club in Exotica:
these are physical spaces that characters and then viewers have to negotiate.
And the way they negotiate raises a set of other issues.
Ani takes her research "on the road," on her book tour, making it
those are the moments, the performances, when Celia chooses to intervene. When
you're denied, you try to crash someone else's show. And also, Ani was telling
the story about Gorky, but Celia heard her own story. And I love that moment at
the book reading, when Celia asks, "Can we talk about this other scene in
the book," and Ani just says, "No."
for installations or live performances, you're forced to take into account
alternative readings, or not, if you're Ani, I guess.
And that's something I've worked through in my films. They used to be more
formalistic. Say, Family Viewing, all the textures and grades, then that
becomes part of the language. I've come to understand that for the most part,
people aren't reading film textures. And maybe that's part of the problem with
the film within the film in Ararat.
reading the way they've learned to read.
people who just react emotionally, who are familiar with the grammar, but don't
read it in detail.
isn't that something you have to accept, that a film is out there and it's
beyond you? Though, the controversy about it sort of brings it back round to you
and expects you to "explain," to be responsible.
AE: There's so much you're expected to do and that you want to do. You fight for final cut, but in the end, you're at the mercy of viewers.
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