Egoyan Turns Lens on Lingering Anguish of Armenians With ‘Ararat’

DAVID GERMAIN
AP Movie Writer

LOS ANGELES (AP) – On a small scale, audiences are accustomed to seeing stories of grief, loss, anguish and denial in Atom Egoyan’s films.

Now Canadian director Egoyan is exploring those themes in a grand manner as he tackles his Armenian heritage with “Ararat,” an intricate tale that weaves personal stories of contemporary Armenians with their mass displacement from their homelands during World War I.

Egoyan deals with the roots of the Armenian diaspora in an oblique way, chronicling those events through a fictional film-within-the-film as an Armenian director shoots a historical epic about his people.

Making such a straightforward epic himself did not interest Egoyan, whose films center on the shades of gray in human relations rather than black-and-white surface appearances. Egoyan was more intrigued by the collective hurt of a scattered people and how, generations later, they cope with the fact that what they consider genocide against their ancestors has been virtually forgotten by non-Armenians.

“I knew I wanted to deal with this issue at some point. The question was how to find a way to make it relevant,” Egoyan, whose paternal grandparents were orphaned during World War I, said in an interview. “And that was to deal with what I think is the most defining aspect of the genocide, which is not the event itself but the denial of it.”

Armenians claim 1.5 million of their people were killed in a campaign by the Ottoman Empire to force them out of Turkey. Turkey says the killings did not amount to genocide, claiming the death toll is inflated and that Armenians were killed or displaced as the empire tried to quell unrest.

Many governments, the United States’ included, have not formally recognized that genocide was carried out against Armenians. “Ararat” includes a reference to Adolf Hitler’s conviction that Nazi Germany could get away with the Jewish Holocaust because no one remembered the Armenian extermination.

Egoyan had long considered a film examining his Armenian roots. A major impetus came a few years ago, when his son, now 9, asked him if the Turks ever said they were sorry for what happened, Egoyan said.

Before “Ararat” premiered last spring at the Cannes Film Festival, some Turkish groups tried to pressure distributor Miramax to shelve the film.

“Now that they realize the film is being distributed, they’ve been very smart and are just trying to be as quiet as possible and diplomatic as possible, because they understand you can’t just prevent a film from being seen,” Egoyan said.

The ensemble cast of “Ararat” includes Charles Aznavour as a director making an epic about the Armenian tragedy, Eric Bogosian as the screenwriter, Bruce Greenwood as an actor playing an American missionary and Elias Koteas as a Turkish-Canadian actor playing a villainous Turk who orchestrates the slaughter of Armenians.

Characters involved with that film-within-the-film intersect with an Armenian-Canadian art historian (played by Egoyan’s wife, Arsinee Khanjian, a co-star in most of his films), her son and estranged stepdaughter, and a Customs agent (Christopher Plummer) who becomes an oral-history witness to the plight of Armenians during an airport interrogation.

Egoyan, 42, often uses loosely connected ensembles of characters and tells stories in nonlinear fashion, arranging the action more for emotional impact than to satisfy a chronological timeline.

The results have been a collection of dreamily idiosyncratic films, including “Exotica,” “Felicia’s Journey” and “The Sweet Hereafter,” which earned Egoyan nominations for best director and adapted screenplay at the 1997 Academy Awards.

Born in Egypt, Egoyan grew up in Victoria, British Columbia, where his parents immigrated and ran a furniture store.

While studying international relations at the University of Toronto, Egoyan developed an interest in filmmaking. He earned acclaim at film festivals and in Canada with his 1980s and early ’90s films, including “Speaking Parts” and “The Adjuster,” and started gaining greater recognition outside his home country with 1994’s “Exotica.”

As a boy, Egoyan was aware of the calamities that befell his ancestors but was not steeped in stories of Armenian history. He began researching the issue in college, after joining an Armenian student association.

Egoyan’s wife, on the other hand, grew up in Lebanon amid horror stories of atrocities committed against her Armenian ancestors at the hands of Turks. All four of Khanjian’s grandparents were orphaned.

“Probably my generation is the generation that became more militant in expressing it, having the words to talk about it,” Khanjian said. “Getting also the distance and finding the context, whereas my grandparents did not have that, or my parents could not necessarily distance themselves from the darkness of this weight.”

“Ararat” was shot for $15 million, small by Hollywood standards but Egoyan’s biggest budget yet. Even for Egoyan, “Ararat” is a somber film, lacking the dark humor that helps lighten some of his previous movies.

Egoyan said he’s interested in doing a comedy and perhaps coming to Hollywood for a bigger-budgeted project, so long as he can maintain the sort of control he’s had for the films he has shot in Canada.

But he concedes that gloomier material often preoccupies him.

“There is something engaging – I won’t go so far as to say entertaining _ but there is something engaging in understanding how people come to terms and negotiate their way through circumstances which might otherwise be seen as crippling,” Egoyan said. “The story of Job is compelling. How do you endure and continue to maintain faith?

“The way people deal with pain, the creativity that average people can exhibit in coming to terms with personal trauma, is something I find very compelling and moving and actually quite empowering.”