Genocide is not a topic that any filmmaker would undertake lightly. But Armenian-Canadian director Atom Egoyan felt driven by his personal history to make "Ararat," a film about the massacre of Armenians that began in 1915 as the Ottoman Empire dissolved into present-day Turkey.
Armenians say 1.5 million of their people were killed over the following four years, and the man who later wrote the protocol on genocide for the United Nations said the slaughter is the seminal example of genocide. The episode continues to generate controversy, however, because the Turkish government to this day denies that what happened qualifies as genocide, stating that atrocities occurred on both sides.
Indeed, the Turkish government threatened to block "Ararat" at the Cannes Film Festival this past spring. The director says he made the film to deal with what he calls the consequences of denial.
The film, opening in theaters today, is not a debate on the political issues of genocide. It is, says Egoyan, about the struggle for meaning and redemption in the aftermath of genocide. The technique he employs has several modern-day families playing roles in a feature film being made about the Armenian genocide. All the families have a connection to the film being made by an Armenian filmmaker (played by Charles Aznavour).
Events switch back and forth between modern times and the epic film about the brutal destruction of a people nearly a century ago. The families are trying to come to terms with events in their own past. Egoyan, whose previous films ("The Sweet Hereafter," "Exotica") have been on a smaller scale, says his concerns remain the same.
"I am concerned about the impact of denial," he says, "denial of the truth, whether it's history or your own personal story." Without the truth, he says, connections between people and nations become corrupt. History books don't tell the story of the Armenian genocide. More significantly for a film director, the events took place long before today's media age in which pictures have forced people to believe the unbelievable.
"If it isn't on film or tape, did it really happen?" says Egoyan, referring to an attitude that he says has allowed both private citizens and politicians to sweep difficult historical events aside. Adolf Hitler was said to have told his aides that his plans would succeed because history confirmed that events that are not documented are forgotten. "Who remembers the Armenians?" Hitler asked.
"This film," says Egoyan, "has the incredibly heavy responsibility to document what actually took place."
The events of the film-within-a-film are based on eyewitness accounts of an American missionary who survived the worst of the sieges within the Armenian villages. Egoyan's wife, Arsinée Khanjian, plays an art historian who has written a book about Armenian artist Arshile Gorky. Her husband died trying to assassinate a Turkish diplomat, and she has a difficult relationship with their son, who is trying to understand why his father died.
The fictional Armenian filmmakers bring the Armenian massacre up close and personal by using the missionary and Gorky, whose mother was killed, as central characters. Throughout Egoyan's film, all the characters try to distinguish truth from personal and political lies.
Khanjian believes that coming to grips with the Armenian genocide is important for reasons far beyond the healing it may bring for the descendants of those who died. "We have a collective responsibility for truth, as a people," she says. "We have to ask ourselves, 'How is it that we have become comfortable forgetting about this genocide and remembering another? How have we gotten to the point that we can turn away from what happened in Rwanda but pay attention to South Africa?' We have to become conscious of this problem for the entire species.... This should not be allowed to occur, anywhere."
Egoyan screened the film for the Library of Congress this past month. He hopes that it may play some small role in bringing about a wider official recognition of the Armenian massacre. "I feel we're on the cusp of recognition," says the filmmaker. Several politicians who attended the screening supported his cause, he says. "If my film can help create a sense of urgency about this issue," he adds, "then I will have done something important."