ARARAT written and directed by Atom Egoyan, produced by Robert Lantos and Egoyan, with David Alpay, Charles Aznavour, Eric Bogosian, Brent Carver, Marie-Josée Croze, Bruce Greenwood, Arsinée Khanjian, Elias Koteas and Christopher Plummer. An Alliance Atlantis release. 116 minutes. Opens Friday (November 15). For venues and times, see First-Run Movies, page 84. Rating: NNN Rating: NNNNN
atom egoyan isn't making it easy for us. Us being critics and other members of the film world's chattering class. We line up to praise his craft and his imagination but sometimes find ourselves defending films we don't really like.Us being viewers. We enter the cinema looking for characters to identify with, emotions to feel, stories to follow. But Egoyan's Ararat thwarts all such expectations, or at least subjects them to tough interrogation. Are we stupid for wanting to feel?
And us being Armenians. If "we're all Americans" since 9/11, or Australians since Bali, haven't we been all Armenians since 1915? So we want our story up on-screen. For posterity, and vindication.
Ararat approaches the Armenian genocide of 1915, but through and alongside other stories. A filmmaker (Charles Aznavour) comes to Toronto to shoot a film set during the genocide in the Armenian town of Van. A scholar (Arsinée Khanjian) investigates the artist Arshile Gorky's presence in Van as a young boy. The adult Gorky struggles to paint a family portrait distilling a remembered moment from Van. The scholar's son Raffi (David Alpay) works as a driver on the film. On a return trip from Turkey, he's stopped at customs by an officer (Christopher Plummer) who suspects him of smuggling drugs, or worse, in film cannisters. That prompts Raffi to tell the story of the genocide.
In 1915, as Russia threatened Turkey from the east, Turkish soldiers slaughtered more than one million Armenians, whom the Turkish government accused of siding with Russia.
If the above sentence were an undisputed fact there might be no reason for Ararat. But the Turkish government still denies that what happened in 1915 was genocide. And the world beyond the Armenian diaspora still has scant knowledge of the event. It fades from public histories with each passing year and now risks being seen as no more than an uncertain grievance between two distant peoples.
For years Armenians have looked to Egoyan to give them their Schindler's List, or even their Roots. They were barking up the wrong auteur. Egoyan's work in film, opera and art installation is nothing if not disciplined. His project has been to hold storytelling, and the emotions it conjures, up to the light. His work reveals the mechanisms of telling stories, and of watching them.
It's possible to find delight in this -- I still find Calendar and Family Viewing thrilling -- but for some it leads to nothing but frustration. I sometimes suspect that the vaulting success of The Sweet Hereafter stemmed from a misunderstanding. What audiences took for sincere expressions of parental anguish might just have been the stuff inside Egoyan's narrative quotation marks.
Ararat is more baldly confrontational, and in one important way it marks an evolution beyond The Sweet Hereafter. This is a film that understands and speaks to every possible response to it. Any niggles critics, viewers, Armenians or Turks bring to it have been anticipated. But that doesn't mean they're not valid.
My own niggles? The subplot involving Arshile Gorky never feels integral to the story. It's a fascinating digression, but a digression -- and a long one -- nonetheless.
Plummer's customs officer never feels remotely realistic. He works in a nearly vacant Pearson Airport and seems to have all the time in the world for an extended verbal cat-and-mouse game with Raffi.
The film within Ararat that Edward Saroyan (Aznavour) directs fails to convince. Given the set-up, it should work as a sweeping, directly emotional historical epic, something like Gandhi or The Killing Fields -- the sort of film Ararat mistrusts.
But Saroyan's film feels tentative and stagey. Its horrors are abstract. Its failure to provide more of a contrast to Egoyan's Ararat means the point about mistrusting simple storytelling is lost.
More important, I'm not so sure of the ultimate power of that point.
In a recent interview about Bloody Sunday, director Paul Greengrass insisted that his film isn't just an accurate reflection of the truth of the 1972 Irish conflict; it is the truth. That struck me as bizarre and disappointing.
But it's no less disappointing that Ararat would skirt the challenge of the actual genocide and revolve so entirely around second-order questions of how we tell each other stories.
By anticipating and responding to criticism, Ararat assumes a garrison mentality. It comes across as a defensive movie, a reaction. That might work as an interesting sixth film about the Armenian genocide.
But this is the firstname.lastname@example.org Opening this week: GOING BACK -- THE DIARIES OF VASLOV NIJINSKY -- For details, see reviews, page 84.