review by Cynthia Fuchs, 29 November 2002
27th Toronto International Film
Egoyan's Ararat opens with a close shot on paintbrushes. In
the background stands an easel and, nearby, the artist, Arshile
Gorky (Simon Abkarian). It's around 1934, and he's painting a
portrait, himself and his mother, one of his most famous works. At
this moment, he's paused, contemplating. Just what he's thinking
about however, remains unclear.
this first scene sets up everything that follows, including the
film's increasingly complex evocations of Gorky's own troubled past:
he survived the Armenian massacre by the Turkish army during World
War I, losing his mother in the city of Van, near Ararat Mountain.
Beyond recounting this saga, Ararat investigates the nature
of storytelling, the ways that particular stories linger or
evaporate, how stories are told (to what points and to whom), the
vexed and shifting ways that stories are interpreted. Various modes
of storytelling come into focus, from history and familial lore, to
memory and fantasy, all told and retold, repressed and refashioned
to suit needs -- emotional, political, and economic.
arranges its many stories along a zigzaggy route (a structure that
is characteristic of Egoyan's work), moving in and out of times and
settings, breaking down characters' experiences, recollections, and
self-images. Gorky is the subject of scrutiny throughout the film,
by multiple writers and readers. Art historian Ani (Arsinée
Khanjian) has written a provocative new book on Gorky, citing his
survival of the massacre as a source for his art. In turn, she's
hired to consult on a film about the massacre by ambitious
screenwriter Rouben (Eric Bogosian) and aging director Edward
Saroyan (Charles Aznavour), who are seeking an identifiable figure
like Gorky to propel their (hopefully) commercial enterprise.
being of Armenian descent, each has personal stakes in recounting
the killings, an event the Turkish government does not acknowledge
to this day (this denial underlies the "controversy"
surrounding the film, much generated before it opened). The story
also moves the actors in the film within the film, also called Ararat,
to rethink some of their attitudes and self-images. The accomplished
Canadian actor Martin (Bruce Greenwood) is playing the selfless
American missionary, Clarence Ussher, whose 1917 memoir, An
American Physician in Turkey, grounds Rouben's script, and
provides grisly imagery), and his first exposure to the brutality
changes his sense of history, and to whom it's accountable.
actor who is most visibly affected by his participation in the
project is the half-Turkish Ali (Elias Koteas), who admits, "I
never heard about any of this stuff when I was growing up."
Playing Jevdet Bey, the military officer who orders the slaughter of
hundreds at Van (and who is written as a stereotypical monster), Ali
starts to question his own identity, his sense of community. Feeling
alternately defensive about his "people," and open to the
career opportunity presented by the film, he asks Saroyan if he
hired him (Ali) because he's Turkish. The question cuts all ways --
Ali is worried that he's hired only because of his ethnic background
(thus undermining his reputation and skill) and that he's being
blamed for the horrors depicted by the self-admittedly biased
Armenian filmmakers. Saroyan avoids answering at first, but when Ali
pushes him, he pushes back, revealing a deep-seated anger and
resentment at an entire people in his dismissal of the actor.
film within the film occasions the story of yet another character,
Ani's eighteen-year-old son Raffi (David Alpay). Hired as a
production assistant, he's coming back from Turkey with canisters
that he claims are filled with film he shot as background. Stopped
by a Toronto customs officer named David (Christopher Plummer),
Raffi spends the night recounting how he came to be in this place,
at this time. As he talks, the film cuts back and forth, from this
present, to Raffi's flashbacks of his familial difficulties and his
time on the movie set, Gorky's childhood in Van (and the moment when
the famous photograph of him and his mother is taken), and Ani's
efforts to reconcile her conflicting aspirations: to be truthful, or
at least respectful of her subject, and also to get his story told.
is dealing with her own trauma and revisionary history. Her first
husband, Raffi's father, was killed while trying to assassinate a
Turkish politician; her second, father to Raffi's stepsister Cecilia
(Marie-Josée Croze), killed himself when he learned she betrayed
him. Cecilia, now sleeping with Raffi, repeatedly confronts Ani
during the film, "stalking" her at Ani's readings, because
her stepmother won't speak to her privately. Cecilia is trying to
find out what "really happened." This leaves young Raffi
with a raggedly divided sense of loyalty, and neither woman is able
to see the other's needs or his pain.
usual in Egoyan's films (see also Family Viewing, Speaking
Parts, Exotica, The Sweet Hereafter, etc.), such
tangled familial relationships inspire chaos and meanness as much as
understanding and benevolence. Elegant and deliberate even as it
depicts horrific events, the film is both intellectual and deeply
tellers and listeners are responsible for their relationships as
well as the stories that sustain them (even, or perhaps especially
when they resist such responsibility). Raffi is invested in what
happened to Gorky, his mother's dedication to her project(s), his
lover/stepsister's anger at his mother. And while he tells his
layered tale, David is clearly fascinated, even sympathetic, but
also distracted. Flashbacks reveal that he too is undergoing
domestic strain -- his son (who happens to be sleeping with Ali)
accuses him of homophobia, and threatens not to let him see his
grandson. Thus David's reaction to Raffi (much like Raffi's to his
mother, or Ani's to Cecilia) emerges in part out of his own desires
-- to have revenge, make things "right," or make sense of
all the tumult in his life, maybe even to help Raffi recover his own
shows David the digital video diary he made during his trip to
Turkey, during which he visited shrines (and Mount Ararat) he knows
are important to Ani's research, her personal interests, and
self-identifications. At this moment, though he's still, Raffi is
visibly wound up, eager to win her understanding and approval and
also, to understand her and feel proud of her. As he frames the
video's story for David, the film frame is segmented, showing the
video and Raffi's face, as well as David's reactions. This layering
-- ancient artifacts, contemporary technology, sober human
reflection -- depicts, in an instant, Ararat's project, its
study of the interrelated processes of reception and belief.
must choose to believe -- what's in the film cans, what Raffi
intends, what Raffi knows, what's the "best" thing to do.
His decision will have lasting effects on the boy and himself. But
it's unknowable how their stories will end. Here again, Gorky's
story is helpfully emblematic. Near the end of Ararat, the
scene returns to its opening, the artist paused at his canvas.
Looking at the portrait of himself and his mother, almost finished,
he suddenly grabs up a handful of paint solvent and destroys the
section representing his mother's hands. The portrait will remain
unfinished. Of all the violences depicted in the film, this is
perhaps the most visceral, and it makes clear that no single
history, whether personal or collective, can be complete.
Toronto International Film Festival Coverage:
R - Restricted.
Under 17 requires
parent or adult