An Analysis of Atom Egoyan’s Film “Ararat”
By Bedros Afeyan
Armenian News Network / Groong December 11, 2002
Introduction and a Proper Context
Atom Egoyan, the highly accomplished Canadian-Armenian director of motion pictures, has finally made a movie about the Armenian Genocide of 1915. It is called “Ararat” and in it another filmmaker, a famous French-Armenian one apparently, is in the process of making a movie about the Van resistance against the Ottoman Turkish onslaught, which eventually wiped out the Armenian population of that region of historical Armenia. That movie within a movie is also called Ararat, conveniently.
So Mr. Egoyan embarks upon the heavy task of thinking about how to make a movie about the villainous, treacherous, barbaric attempted extermination of an entire subjugated people and its eradication from its ancestral homeland, namely the Armenians, the perpetrators of this systematic and premeditated crime against humanity being the Ottoman Turks, and decides to keep himself once removed from having to show Turks aggressing, Armenians reacting, victims, rape, slaughter, long caravans on death marches into the desert, etc. No, this is not what Mr. Egoyan does. He stays behind a curtain or two and depicts how a fictitious French-Armenian film director, late in his life, comes to this subject that he heard so much about from his (fictitious) mother, namely, the particular story of the Van rebellion and the eventual massacre of all the native Armenians in that region.
This is terribly convenient. Van is an exception to the true Armenian genocide story and not the norm. In the span of the four years of the first world War, one and a half million Armenians were slaughtered by Turkish armed forces, police, bands of brigands (hardened criminals released from prison specifically with instructions to go and do as they pleased to Armenians in the villages), and a large numbers of incited Kurds who were opportunistic (envious and economically worse off) neighbors. Most of these Armenians were unarmed, defenseless, nonviolent and docile with their backs already broken under imperialist Ottoman rule which had lasted for five hundred years by then. The year was 1915. The Turks had seen Greece and Bulgaria, Herzegovina and Serbia, and the rest of the Ottoman footholds in Europe vanish for good. These Christian subjects were all unassimilatable, engulfed in nationalistic and liberal fervor and backed by the Tsar or by Western European powers. The Sultan’s reign, corrupt and stagnant, with sky rocketing debts to the West, was ending and leading the way to the unavoidable carving up of the Ottoman empire into the greedy grabbing hands of the British, French, Italian and Austro-Hungarian empires, to say nothing of mother Russia ready for the annexation of Western Anatolia and a reach perhaps to the warm water ports of the Mediterranean. Ah! But for that perennial Russian unfulfilled strategic dream which is yet to come true. In this heady time of the implosion and disintegration of the Ottoman Empire, there was yet another tenacious and ancient indigenous people no more than two and a half million in number right in the middle of it all. They had dispersed from their traditional homes of the East down throughout the Anatolian plain in the last 500 years and settled everywhere they could conduct some commerce, weave their carpets, plow their land and earn a living and provide for their families. They had lost kingdoms and full-fledged cities and left behind ruined middle-ages-built churches but they held on to their Christian faith as if it were a powerful weapon itself and equally to their language and their traditions. Life was not easy for this sad lot since they were systematically discriminated against. They were second-class citizens since they were not Muslims and therefore never to be members of the privileged classes of Ottoman citizenry. They were mostly peasants who were multiply taxed and on whose backs nomadic Kurdish tribes and their cattle could be hoisted throughout the winter months of every year as well. They could not accuse a Muslim of wrongdoing. They could not defend themselves if so accused themselves since they could not testify on their own behalves in any Muslim court. They were systematically subjected to unreasonable taxation by local governing bodies, regional governors and the empyreal Ottoman rulers of Istanbul in turn.
This story is a hard one to tell. How do you bring in the young Turks, the Ittihadi party which toppled the rule of the Sultan and in the second decade of the twentieth century spread evil hatred and racism throughout what remained of the Ottoman empire and raised its ire against the latest and least effective of its unassimilatables: The Armenians? Armenians were dogs and infidels, actively dehumanized by the political organs of the state, as strange business savvy evildoers who were a danger to the good race of fighting Turkish men. Their beloved empire faced many an enemy and its plate was full trying to hold onto its vast lands and to enlarge it yes, pan turanically, back all the way to China, reclaiming its ties with and re-forging its manifest destiny as the liberators of all of Asia.
This explicitly stated goal of the pan-turanic Young Turkish regime made it necessary to eliminate yet one last pesty obstacle in its path, this hapless and militarily impotent force known as the Armenians. How dare they send their intellectuals as emissaries to speak to the great Western powers demanding reforms and less oppression in their hundreds of villages? How dare they not kiss the hands of their benevolent benefactors, the Ottoman Turks? Instead, they dare to publicly expose the corruption and oppression to which they were subjected, further humiliating the Ottoman Turks in front of the West for the barbaric practices they endorsed and on which their empire ran? No, this band of malcontents was not worth preserving. Not even as workhorses any longer. They were too much trouble and they deserved to be eliminated once and for all. Turkey for Turks! Long live the empire of pure believers! And so on…
Mr. Egoyan, does not get himself embroiled into this scene either and who can blame him? It is ugly and barbaric and frankly, quite unfathomable. How could one depict meetings Enver Pasha must have had with Jemal or Talyat Pashas, thinking who will do what part so as to put into action the extermination of the Armenian Gyavours? Who calculated what supplies would be needed? What estimates did they have to make on the number of bullets needed to kill the men first and then to enforce the death marches the women and the old had to endure? What alternate methods were discussed? Were possible choices of efficient vs. humane tactics of mass extermination tossed about? How can you begin to penetrate the hearts and minds of those “Young Turk” political leaders who hated and despised these different looking and different acting Armenians who are always toiling, scheming and represent nothing more than a merchant-class-aspiring people of a different tongue and different religion? How do you tell the story of these infidels and their extermination, cinematically? Where do you begin? Sultans, one after the other, made the life of Armenians and Greeks and Jews hell. They were not concerned with how oppressive they were towards these minorities. They could have their churches and religious leaders but the central government always kept an eye on those ethnic authority figures as well and coerced them whenever necessary. Pacify the population, make them pay their taxes, tell them to be happy that we let them live in our midst and prosper, no less… No, Mr. Egoyan is much too clever to fall into that particular trap.
There are other traps to avoid too. There is the entire issue of contemporary genocide denial. A particularly outrageous example of this is the cottage industry of scholar buying that official Turkey is engaged in today. That cynical and extraordinarily corrupting exercise of courting western scholars, giving them access to Ottoman archives and Turkish hospitality and letting them know that there is much more where that came from, including endowed chairs to be created in prestigious US universities if only they would say the right things and deny the appropriate things and down play the necessary things and help Turkey establish, for instance, that they, the Turks, are original peoples of what everyone else knows as historic Armenia. Why not add that Armenians are late arriving hoards and that Turks belong in these lands conquered from the Armenians, which ironically they now have to share with the Kurds in the area who also lay a claim to it? This is Western Armenia, the Anatolian plane. This is Armenia, through and trough with mount Ararat right in the middle of it and lake Van and Sevan and Oorfa and Izmir and Trabizond, and Sasson, and Zeitun and Aintab and hundreds of other Armenian enclaves and thriving ancient cities and civilizations. Turkey, even as we speak, is engaged in a full-fledged assault designed to muffle scholars by stuffing their faces with Turkish sweets and other goodies they could not get otherwise. Hospitality indeed. This is corruption and state sponsored history rewriting Soviet style. Except, our ally does it. Our dear and trustworthy ally and in OUR universities! Right here in Princeton or Harvard and Purdue and Michigan and wherever else an endowed chair is up for grabs with millions of dollars deflected from the foreign aid we give them! What does that mean? WE are paying for this travesty-- we, the taxpayers of this country. Yet we deny this Armenian genocide ourselves officially so as to be on Turkey’s good side. Why irritate a useful ally, come the cries of Washington realpolitik practitioners. Mr. Egoyan is smart to sidestep this issue too. These are issues that must be faced by civilized nations and by the peoples of the world interested in not allowing monstrous barbarism to go unpunished and unnoticed, even. No, it is not Mr. Egoyan’s task in Ararat to do any of this. Let us not forget that his is the first major motion picture on the Armenian Genocide. It need not carry the burden of having to accurately reproduce or present the entire sordid history of that saddest of pages of world history. What is his task then? Let me say what I think he has done and how he has done it.
Analysis of “Ararat” the Movie
Mr. Egoyan sets out to construct a yarn of a famous French director in the middle of making a movie about the Van Rebellion of 1915. Not being satisfied with that layer of fiction alone, he also imagines a scholar who has just finished a book on Archile Gorky, real name, Vostanig Adoian, the famous and influential abstract expressionist New York painter of the 1940’s who saw the Van rebellion as a child, was forced out on death marches, where his mother starved to death, survived and settled in the Unites States and tried to become a painter between the years 1920-1948. Gorky is used as the bridge between the 1915 atrocities and modern Armenian concerns, for just as we must celebrate our successful artists, we must come face to face with their demons and haunts. Gorky was not a simple man. He constantly credited his mother’s aesthetic and poetic sense as his highest inspiration followed by his memories of the flora and fauna of the Lake Van region of Armenia. He was spiritually attached to his roots and tried preserving them in his paintings while fully aware of the wholesale uprooting and genocide that had visited his Armenian brethren. His psychological state was not stable. He faced many hardships, physical, emotional and financial and after a car accident that left him paralyzed, in extreme pain and unable to paint, he committed suicide by hanging himself in his own garden. His second wife had just left him for good and taken away their two young children. He had made life simply unbearable for them with his outbursts and tantrums and incessant demands. He was burning up and finally ended the ordeal by his own hand. He left behind a great treasure trove which inspired De Kooning, Pollock, Rothko, and many other abstract expressionists who dominated the world art scene and made New York its center in the late forties and fifties. Gorky was a trailblazer in this arena. But just like the fate of his brethren in Armenia, his successes were short lived and his pain and sadness took the better of him.
Egoyan has these two stories to work with and interweave. One comes from the eyewitness memoir of Dr. Clarence Ussher who was a surgeon in charge of the American hospital and school in Van in 1915. That is the story being filmed in the movie within the movie. The other is Gorky’s famous picture of his mother and himself in Van when he was eleven years old. A photograph that survived the death marches and deportations now serves as the inspiration for a series of sketches and two paintings that become central to the movie as well.
On top of these two foundations, a set of characters are imagined whose lives intermingle with a healthy dose of coincidences served up to keep the story tight and without the need to introduce more and more characters. But the price of this narrative short cut is that it strains credulity. Conveniently, a half Turkish actor playing the ruthless Turkish Pasha role in the movie within the movie happens to be the lover of a museum guard who happens to be guarding the Mother and Son painting of Gorky, but who is also the son of a customs officer, acted to perfection by Christopher Plummer, who plays a central role in the movie which will be explained below. The museum guard has left his wife and son and set up house with the Turkish actor. His father is not comfortable with any of this and the tension between them, the government official and his late life blooming son, their unresolved cultural differences and mutual disapproval has a strange parallel with the Armenian genocide and its denial. The central issue becomes the inability of some people to let others be. It was intolerance of a different people after all that fuelled the Turkish desire to exterminate the Armenians. Tolerance, love, and fraternity, whether between family members or citizens, are the building blocks of harmony. Turkish history provides a rather poor example of such sentiments for many centuries. Not too surprisingly, this movie is shot in Canada with a Canadian cast and crew. Tolerance and ethnic diversity are hallmarks of that country’s citizenry.
Other coincidences abound. The Gorky scholar, Ani (played by Arsinee Khanjian), who is on a book tour promoting her latest book on Gorky, happens to have a son, Raffi, who is a production assistant on the set of the movie within the movie on the Van Rebellion, as well as being a driver for the main actors. He happens to be having an affair with his stepsister. His mother happens to have been married previously with her father. Ani said she would leave him and he committed suicide, or did she push him off the cliff? (What a cliffhanger!). Even before then, Ani had married Raffi's father who happens to have been a freedom fighter killed during a political assassination attempt of a Turkish diplomat in the 1970's, one would assume. This death baffles Raffi who needs to go back to Ararat, the symbol of Armenia, yet a mountain in modern Turkey, to historical Armenia, to lake Van, to Aghtamar, the island in that lake that has a famous cathedral which has inscribed on its walls a picture of the Madonna and Son which is then seen as yet another inspiration for the Gorky painting of Mother and Son (The Artist and His Mother), as if the orphaned son who saw his own mother starve to death and whose aesthetics he clings to so dearly were not enough. And thus we weave and heave tying strands of dispersion together with what must be allowed to pass for internal logic.
But Raffi, being a young man in his twenties, is looking to see what have Armenians lost that is so precious that his father would choose to die to avenge or reverse that loss? Until he goes to Western Anatolia, he cannot understand. But upon his return, he claims to have done so. What are we to believe, that he now understands the plight of an entire people victimized by Turks, or has he decided that he can live with the bits and pieces he does possess and its time for him to move on? It is never made clear because it cannot be made clear. These are irresolvable issues. What is and what merely appears to be, what counts and what society pushes you towards giving lip service to, what pleases and what hurts, what is moral or convenient, or immoral and forbidden fruit are not ever black and white. So Raffi’s story can never be a clear one. He is a young man probing to find his way through the world. He has a mother in academia and the world of letters, a heroic father who joined the ranks of the martyrs for a noble cause and he likes to chase his stepsister’s skirt. She on the other hand has demonized his mother and is out to destroy her. She hates not having a father and thinking that the revelation of the cheating of one woman could compel him to give up his own life and his relationship with his daughter. This cheapens her in her own eyes and so she must avenge that injustice set into motion by Ani. She cannot do anything but try and unsuccessfully humiliate Ani during her public book promoting lectures. Frustrated and fed up, she slashes the Mother and Son painting of Gorky, instead. She avenges Ani’s success. She destroys the symbolic source of pride for these down trodden Armenians. Because any amount of success they may have will make someone jealous and someone flex some superior muscle, which Armenians have perennially lacked.
In the process of his travails in Turkey Raffi either participates in drug smuggling or is a dupe in the hands of Turkish drug smugglers. This is never made clear either. It is a silly plot twist that is quite annoying. It artificially gives an excuse for the customs inspector to dwell on finding out more and more about what Raffi has to say about what he was doing in Turkey. This then gives Egoyan the excuse to employ his favorite artifice of having a hand held video camera stream mix in with panoramic views shot on film and next to actors in an interrogation room being sweated much in the style of Crime and Punishment or Colombo. It is so silly to have Raffi go to Turkey on his own money (what money?) to take process shots of authentic Armenian ruins and scarred villages, or claim that to be his purpose. When that doesn’t work, he switches to the story that he is in fact searching for his father’s goals. This alternate stated purpose of his voyage just makes things murkier, however more convenient, in the quest to make him appear to be noble or at least looking for noblesse. Raffi is a spokesman throughout the movie of the writer’s need to interject short bursts of history, verse, outrage, reason and other non-breathing characters into the dramatic flow. He is a guinea pig nudging the story forward whenever Egoyan feels it needs veering or straightening out. It is awkward to watch these puppeteer’s hand showing adjustments, which ring hollow.
Egoyan wants a drug addict or perhaps an opportunistic drug smuggler. He wants a sister-loving rake. He wants a mother betraying handsome devil. Egoyan wants a lost Armenian who knows and understands little, and hence a good stand in for the audience, but one who magically becomes transformed into a soothsayer or the conscience of a people. He questions yet knows, he searches yet has deep conviction. How convenient! You can have him say anything at any time. He is not a well-molded figure. He is infinitely transformable as the scenes change and the current needs of the narrative pass through one bottleneck after another. Raffi is a wild card and yes, a joker, who can be placed into any hand and have it come up aces… It is the deepest flaw in the story, except for the stepsister whose existence and boiling temperature are entirely unnecessary in this film. Egoyan has a need to keep Ararat from being a narrow ethnic story. He is terrified of being labeled narrow in his scope so he must have a French Canadian who misses her daddy ands so goes around slashing Armenian icons! This almost detaches crime from ethnic hatred. It could be interpreted as a means to absolve Turks and Kurds from genocidal acts by saying who knows what drives a person to commit unfathomably disgusting acts such as crimes of passion, crimes of the moment, crimes that mean nothing? Well, as we hope Mr. Egoyan knows himself, nothing of the sort is true in the case of the Armenian Genocide. Premeditation, insidious hatred and venomous megalomaniacal aspirations cannot be dismissed as simply the work of madmen. It is no excuse. It is no justification or cause for mere parental pity and concern. Christian charity and forgiveness are noble but not at the cost of having one’s dignity trampled over without so much as a demand for justice and a demand for recognition and formal apologies by the descendents themselves who are thoroughly unrepentant, engaged in obfuscation, behind the scenes bribery and payola, hushing Western historians and scholars, deflecting their attention from the historical record and thus paving the way for US politicians to say, well, if the historians can’t agree, we must not get ourselves involved in this matter.
The Armenian genocide is a matter of historical fact. The encrypted telegrams between officials in the various outlying districts and Istanbul, party meeting records, position papers and plans, execution style descriptions are all documented in Turkish, German and Austrian archives, let alone those of Britain, France, Russia and the US. Which towns were fumigated and when, which forces were sent where for what end are all known. The death-marches, the torching, the rapes, the sadistic cat and mouse games are all a matter of record. It is the painted on face of a civilized Western leaning “democracy” with which Turkey wants to be seen by those who will buy it that makes them unable to come face to face with who they really are, what they do today to Kurds, or socialists, or dissenters or intellectuals who do not tow the party line. We must remember that diplomacy is not always the friend of truth and political expediency often paves the road to hell with corpses of moral certitude and justice denied.
Let us not forget that one of the strange logical arguments for instituting the death marches in the first place was that Armenians were perceived to be a suspicious lot who horded and hid their wealth. How could one get at it all? The reasoning was that if you told them they had twenty four to forty eight hours to get moving with as much as they could place on a cart or even less, they would dig up their treasures and precious belongings and carry them along. Then, en route to the Syrian Desert, the Armenian women and old folk would try and bribe you with what they had for a bit of food or some other favor and so the attrition of their wealth would occur in an orderly fashion. Why expend energy torturing them so that they give you some of what they have when you can make them give it all voluntarily? Plus, if at some point, they seemed to have no rings or broaches or gold coins left, well then that would be a good time to rape or kill them, thus thinning the lines and teaching the rest a lesson on what happens if you hold back. This chess game was played out to perfection by the Turkish soldiers and gendarmes and the Kurds working under their wings as the sun made the trip shorter for many who succumbed to thirst and hunger if not a scimitar and a bayonet.
Mr. Egoyan wants to explore the authenticity of image vs. reality, perception vs. fact, wishing something to be true vs. making it so, and lying to oneself enough that one begins to believe what one is saying. Nothing is solid and unchanging in his world. Try and dig beneath the surface and you will find ambiguity and discord, mind twisting choices, humiliating and humbling cacophony, whirlwind storms and thunderous danger so we shut that door as quickly as we can, and we start making up yarns rationalizing the world where we are rendered ineffectual and overly compromised, lying bastards and hypocritical cads. Always with a smile and quick with a short stifling speech, Egoyan’s characters are invariably far from being in charge of their own destinies. There is a morbid resignation to a fate that allows you to wiggle around but never run free. This band of skewered wriggling archetype populating the entirety of Egoyan’s oeuvre find an especially horrifying setting as Armenians struggling with the genocide, its denial, dispersion, identity loss, and always drowning in ambiguity.
No amount of fast-talking by Raffi or her stepsister or Ani or Edward Saroyan, the movie inside the movie director, or his very smooth producer played, again to perfection, by Eric Boghossian, can change any of it. The scenes from Van are real. The Pasha will send his troupes up the steep mountains, which are temporarily protecting the perched population above, and eventually these forces will wipe out the Armenians. No matter how many telegrams Dr. Ussher sends to US or other Western embassies, no matter how many articles get published in the New York Times of the day on the bloody barbarism against an innocent Christian oppressed minority, the forces of evil will win. There will be Turkey for Turks and Cyprus for Turks and Armenia for Turks, and no Turkey for Kurds and no future for anyone without military might to stem the tide of boundless aggression be it from Azerbaijan or Turkey, Grey Wolves or Bashibozooks, religious fanatics or rabid nationalists, all.
Impressions and Conclusions
Ararat, the movie is a masterpiece in restraint displaying a cinematically mature style. Certain scenes are so extraordinarily touching that they bear description and particular comment. First among these is the fact that the entire movie including the genocidal scenes are shown in color and for Armenians who have read the books and seen the authentic pictures from that time; this is new and particularly searing. The pictures of moving horses, cannons, scimitars and soldiers in living color as they kill Armenians, beyond the yellow and brown still photographs we know, is much too disturbing. It makes one instinctively try to resist accepting them. They bring genocidal facts to life and make one relive the entire sordid affair despite the familiarity one thought one had with it all. This is painful indeed and takes getting used to.
More poignantly, there is a brilliant story line having to do with the fact that in one of the two Mother and Child portraits that Gorky painted, he has erased the mother’s hands, or whited them out as well as one of his (the one not holding the flowers welcoming his father) and left her apron white and unfinished (despite the fact that this painting was worked on for eight years). The simultaneous wanting and not wanting to bring his mother back to life, this simultaneous desire to make her alive again even if it is only on canvas, with his artistic style and breath of life exhaled into her, or on the other hand to forget his past and move on, to dream and leave her be in a memory world where no one tires, no one breaks down, no one preserves the lives of her children by slowly starving herself to death in the process, the love of a mother. The unreasonable, undeserved, unfathomable love of a mother that extends through her hands to her loved ones is no more and so the denial of those exposed hands of his sweet mother to exist even on canvas. A detachment with severed limbs, while flowers are held out in his other hand as a welcoming branch to a father far away in America preparing a home so as to send for them. But then, the advancing Turkish soldiers come in and rearrange their best-laid plans.
We witness an artist in his studio paying homage to a mother he owes his life to in more ways than one including his art which has now become his most tangible attachment to life itself. This artist, stands in front of the Mother and Son painting listening to some Armenian folk dance music, feels light on his feet and starts to dance and tap his brushes rhythmically against his palette, perhaps somehow wishing she could see her full grown boy now, an artist no less, perhaps they could dance together, he could hold her in his arms and who knows… And then, as if by all the guilt of a survivor, a dilatant, an impotent son, a broken man, a lost soul, an undeserving cad playing games with his sacred mother’s image, atones for these excesses and erases her hands with his bare hands dipped in white oil paint. With tears flowing from his cheeks, he erases his desires and punishes himself for his foolish dreaming, living, surviving. This scene is accompanied by Isabel Bayrakdarian’s magical rendition of the song that is sung during the Armenian Mass when depicting Jesus on the cross “Where Art Thou, Mother?” It is haunting, breathtaking and so powerful that the entire 1934 New York studio scene, so authentically cinematic, becomes a masterpiece in and of itself.
A final element of this movie which is also cinematic through and through, is when the art historian Ani, furious with the director of the movie within the movie, walks onto the sound stage while the cameras are rolling to address the director while the actors are in the midst of a particularly harrowing scene. Dr. Ussher is tending to a bleeding boy who might hemorrhage to death due to his gunshot wounds. The actor playing the Doctor’s part (Bruce Greenwood, again played to perfection) suddenly addresses the wayward intruder and asks her what she means by her presence? Does she know what is going on here? A boy is dying whom they must try and save so as to have a ray of hope amidst the catastrophe raining down on them. His brother next to him just saw his sister get raped and then killed. Their father’s eyes were gouged out and placed in his mouth. His mother’s breasts were yanked off and she was left to bleed to death. So “Who the fuck are you?” The Doctor asks the self-importance suffering intruder. She is left speechless. History, its gravity, playing consultant on a sound stage criticizing and nit picking, a mother who has done well for herself but whose son is off who knows where doing who knows what? All these elements (and so much more) come crashing in and raising the scene to a magical level. Egoyan is at his best in moments like this. He shines with technique and meaning fusing so elegantly and potently.
But then there are some weak spots as well. The Rambo scene in the movie within the movie is so shallow and silly that I wish it had been avoided. The inaccuracy of police procedure used at the customs office and the strange redemptive motif that is sprung upon the audience at that juncture does not work at all and it leads to the gravest flaw in the movie. It seems as if Mr. Egoyan is praising the virtues of a good family. There seems to be a “family values” motif running throughout the movie that is somewhat disturbing. First of all, Armenians did not invent strong families and all cultures have this quest at their core. Trying to say that Armenians cling to family and to leave it at that is to miss the point entirely. Since we in the Diaspora live without legitimate Armenian government bodies, we tend to cling to the family as the nucleus of all that is Armenian. But this is true of the Chinese or the Jewish or the Haitian communities, to name but a few. Besides, this is why temples, synagogues and churches play such an important role in diasporan communities. Besides religion, they also provide a cultural and community atmosphere for those hungry to preserve their ethnic identities and values. That Mr. Egoyan’s Armenians have no interest in community or church organizations makes it necessary for him to revert to family as the only legitimate fulcrum of Armenian identity. It is an artifact of what we lack in the diaspora and not what we have as an additional treasure. It is necessity that leads us there and not choice. This is never made clear in the movie and the over the top scene of Ani thinking she is seeing Gorky at the movie within the movie’s premiere suddenly making her run to her son’s aid is weak and less that credible (it resembles a quick Hollywood fix). A much better ending should have been contemplated than the customs officer letting the drug smuggler go because Raffi merely states that he can not believe himself that he could possibly be a smuggler. The explanation the customs officer gives his gay son at the end is that he was thinking of the injustice he, the father, had brought upon his own son due to the son’s lifestyle choices and that these made him let Raffi go. This is so weak, illegal and sentimental puff (one more Hollywood fix) that it makes one cringe as compared to the magical heights other aspects of the movie do attain.
Raffi is a fast talking liar but we are supposed to have sympathy for his since he is young and that is what the young are like these days? This aspect of the movie just does not work. The son and his stepsister are weakly constructed characters. Ani is a heavy presence. She is hard to take and awkward to integrate into an otherwise interesting set of elements in the movie. Christopher Plummer and Eric Boghossian do superb jobs as does Bruce Greenwood whose character is the true center of the authenticity of the entire movie. He is an American doctor who wrote his memoirs in 1917 bearing it all and calling it as he saw it. No diplomacy, no realpolitik, no sucking up to an ally who may or may not be trustworthy when push comes to shove, as events in Iraq will soon attest.
Let us hope that the unexplored and precious elements of the saga of the Armenians in the twentieth century will be further explored now that Mr. Egoyan has made his definitive movie in his own inimitable style. Let us hope that genocide denial forces and undercurrents of racism and hatred that permeate the skins of those who keep trying to rewrite history will be cleansed some day. Mr. Egoyan shows them the way and soft pedals enough that it effectively makes for an olive branch extended to the other side, assuming there are takers out there.