Arts: When History Still Hurts ; Atom Egoyan's Controversial New Film, Ararat, Deals with the Massacre of the Armenians by Turkish Soldiers during the First World War. NOURITZA MATOSSIAN Explains Why the Subject Is Still So Explosive and Why Turkey Is Threatening to Take Legal Action
Matossian, Nouritza, The Independent (London, England)
Ararat, a politically explosive film that has been compared to Midnight Express, premieres today at the Cannes film festival, despite a threat from the Turkish government to take legal action on its first public showing. The feature film is the latest work from Atom Egoyan, Canada's best-known film-maker, and in part deals with the controversial genocide of Armenian civilians living in the Ottoman Empire. They were massacred between 1915 and 1918 under the regime of the Committee of Union and Progress, led by Enver, Talaat and Jamal Pashas, more widely known as the "Young Turks".
Earlier this year, at a meeting chaired by the Turkish Deputy Prime Minister, entitled "Commission against false genocide accusations", a decision was taken to utilise all the resources of Turkey's culture and foreign ministries to prevent the movie's opening. In attendance were senior officials from the Turkish National Security Council and MIT (the Turkish secret service), officials from the ministries of foreign and internal affairs, and the chairman of the Institution of Turkish History. Similar measures were taken in 1978 against Alan Parker's movie Midnight Express, which displayed Turkey's legal and prison systems in an unfavourable light.
The story behind Ararat began innocently enough. Atom Egoyan was born in Cairo to Armenian parents and emigrated to Canada as a young child. His parents never spoke of their traumatic history. In 1998, Egoyan read my biography of the Armenian artist Arshile Gorky and was deeply moved by the story of a boy who had fought in the siege of Van, seen his mother starve to death, emigrated to the United States, and rose to fame as one of the leading artists of the New York School. Though tempted to film the book he decided that historical films were not his genre. Instead he produced a screenplay that wove a carpet of interconnected modern stories that radiated from the life and the shocking suicide of Arshile Gorky,
In Egoyan's scenario an Armenian woman, Ani (played by Egoyan's wife Arsinee Khanjian) has written a biography of Arshile Gorky, which she reads aloud in an art gallery. A veteran Armenian film director, (played by Charles Aznavour), decides to include the story in the epic historical movie he is currently shooting about the American Missionary Dr Ussher (played by Bruce Greenwood) at the heroic siege of Van. The film within a film highlights the plasticity of memory as the characters propelled by their "true remembrances" link and pivot around the central theme. Several actors play two parts, their historical role in the epic and their character in the modern story.
Ararat is eagerly awaited by Armenians across the world, whose large diaspora of more than five million, outnumbering the current population of Armenia, was created by the genocide of 1915-1918 that displaced 1.5 million Armenians from their homelands. Turkish governments still deny these organised deportations and killings. Hitler himself said: "Who today remembers the Armenians?"
Yet the tide has turned and the European Parliament, Italy, Belgium, Argentina, France, Switzerland, have all recently passed legislation acknowledging the Armenian genocide. The film's namesake, Mount Ararat, the resting place of Noah's Ark, has symbolised Armenia for centuries. But it was captured by Turkey in 1918 and as it rears over modern day Erevan, the capital of Armenia, it is seen as a prisoner by Armenians. In the Soviet era its name was censored from poetry as too "nationalistic". …