Surname is pronounced "Eh-goy-en"; born July 19, 1960, in Cairo, Egypt; immigrated to Canada, 1962; naturalized Canadian citizen; son of Joseph (a furniture store manager) and Shushan (a furniture store manager; maiden name, Devletian) Egoyan; married Arsinee Khanjian (an actress); children: Arshile (son). Education: Trinity College, University of Toronto, B.A., 1982. Hobbies and other interests: Classical guitar.
Home—Toronto, Ontario, Canada. Office—Ego Film Arts, 80 Niagara St., Toronto, Ontario, Canada M5V 1C5.
Director, producer, film editor, actor, and writer. Associated with Playwrights Unit in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. Director of Ego Film Arts, Toronto, beginning 1982. Director of films, including Howard in Particular, 1979; After Grad with Dad, 1980; Peep Show, 1981; (and producer and editor) Next of Kin, 1984; Men: A Passion Playground, 1985; (and producer and editor) Family Viewing, 1987; The Final Twist, 1987; Speaking Parts, Cinephile, 1989; (and producer) The Adjuster, Orion Classics, 1991; "En passant" in Montreal vu par, 1991; (and producer and coeditor) Calendar, Zeitgeist, 1992; (and producer) Exotica, Miramax, 1994; A Portrait of Arshile (short), 1995; The Sweet Hereafter, 1997; Bach Cello Suite #4: Sarabande, 1997; Felicia's Journey, 1999; The Line (short), 2000; Diaspora (short), 2001; and Ararat, 2002. Director of television movies, including Open House (broadcast as part of Canadian Reflections series), Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC), 1982; In This Corner, 1985; Looking for Nothing, 1989; and Gross Misconduct, CBC, 1992. Director of episodes of television shows, including Alfred Hitchcock Presents and Twilight Zone; director of stage productions, including Salome, 1996. Actor in motion pictures, including Next of Kin, 1984; La boite a soleil, 1988; Calendar, Zeitgeist, 1992; and Camilla, Miramax, 1994. Member of jury for Cannes International Film Festival, 1996.
Academy of Canadian Television and Radio Artists, Directors Guild of Canada.
Grant from University of Toronto's Hart House Film Board; prize from Canadian National Exhibition's film festival, for Howard in Particular; grants from Canadian Council and Ontario Arts Council; Gold Ducat Award, Mannheim International Film Week Festival, 1984, for Next of Kin; Toronto City Award for excellence in a Canadian production, Toronto Film Festival, 1987, International Critics Award for Best Feature Film, Uppsala Film Festival, 1988, and Priz Alcan from Festival du Nouveau Cinema, 1988, all for Family Viewing; prize for best screenplay, Vancouver International Film Festival, 1989, for Speaking Parts; Special Jury Prize, Moscow Film Festival, Golden Spike, Vallodolid Film Festival, Toronto City Award, Toronto Film Festival, and award for best Canadian film, Sudbury Film Festival, all 1991, all for The Adjuster; Golden Gate Award, San Francisco Film Festival, 1992, for Gross Misconduct; prize for best film in "new cinema," International Jury for Art Cinema, and prize from Berlin International Film Festival, both 1994, both for Calendar; Genie awards for best picture, best director, and best writer, International Film Critics Award, Cannes Film Festival, Prix de la Critique for best foreign film, and Toronto City Award, Toronto International Film Festival, all 1994, all for Exotica; eight Genie Awards, including for best picture and best director, grand prize and International Critics Award, Cannes Film Festival, and Academy Award nominations for writing and directing, all 1997, all for The Sweet Hereafter; Genie Award for screenplay adaptation, and Golden Palm nomination, Cannes Film Festival, both 1999, both for Felicia's Journey; Order of Canada Medal, 1999; first prize, Golden Apricot Film Festival, 2002, for Ararat.
(And director) Howard in Particular, 1979.
(And director, producer, and editor) Next of Kin, 1984.
(And director, producer, and editor) Family Viewing, 1987.
(And director) Speaking Parts (produced by Cinephile, 1989), published with essays and interviews, Coach House Press (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 1993.
(And director and producer) The Adjuster, Orion Classics, 1991.
(And director, producer, and coeditor) Calendar, Zeitgeist, 1992.
(And director of "En passant" segment) Montreal vu par, 1992.
(And director and producer) Exotica (produced by Miramax, 1994), with interview with Egoyan, introduction by Geoff Pevere, Coach House Press (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 1995.
(And director and producer) The Sweet Hereafter, Fine Line Features, 1997.
(And director) Felicia's Journey, Marquis Films, 1999.
(And director) Ararat (produced by Miramax, 2002), Newmarket Press, 2002.
Also director and writer of short films, including Open House (broadcast as part of Canadian Reflections series), Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, 1982.
(Editor with Ian Balfour) Subtitles: On the Foreignness of Film, MIT Press, 2004.
Also author of plays, including The Doll.
Filmmaker Atom Egoyan gained a following with critics and cinema buffs in the 1980s with his atmospheric, haunting, darkly humorous, and intellectual works dealing with alienation, loss, and the search for identity. With efforts such as Family Viewing and Speaking Parts, he explores the issue of human bonding and how media such as video and film can serve to deepen an individual's detachment. Though he is still not exactly mainstream, Egoyan's
works became better known after the release of his breakthrough film, Exotica, an intricate investigation of several characters and subplots surrounding a strip club. Subsequently, the filmmaker's name got its biggest boost to date, as well as an Academy Award nomination, with his release of 1997's The Sweet Hereafter, adapted from the book by Russell Banks. He has also been hailed for his 1999 effort, Felicia's Journey.
Egoyan was born on July 19, 1960, in Cairo, Egypt, the oldest of two children born to Joseph and Shushan Yeghoyan; the family changed their surname to Egoyan to make it easier to pronounce. When the parents named their daughter Eve, it led to a barrage of jokes on the theme of Atom—which sounds like "Adam"—and Eve. Egoyan's parents were Armenian refugees and aspiring artists who operated a thriving furniture store in Cairo; they gave their son his unconventional name in honor of the onset of nuclear energy in Egypt.
When Egoyan was three years old, the family relocated to Victoria, British Columbia, Canada, where they opened another furniture business. Both parents were creative, which helped to inspire their children; Eve Egoyan eventually became a concert pianist. Egoyan's mother once had a painting accepted by the National Gallery of Armenia, while his father had attended classes at the Chicago Art Institute at age sixteen, and staged his last major art show when Egoyan was ten. "They gave him the whole second floor of the provincial museum in Victoria, and his show was just images of dead birds," the filmmaker recalled to Brian D. Johnson in Maclean's. "The year before, our house was full of dead birds. It did not go over well. He would pose them around the house and paint them." Egoyan added, "I think I had a very early exposure to a very excessive mentality."
Assimilating to his new country, Egoyan enrolled in hockey school and soon refused to speak Armenian. Later, though, he joined an Armenian campus group at college and began to take private Armenian language courses, eventually becoming fluent again in his native language. Meanwhile, Egoyan showed an early interest in the arts, learning classic guitar, which he still plays, and beginning to write plays in his early teens. Among his influences he counts Harold Pinter, Samuel Beckett, and Eugene Ionesco.
College Films Lead to Television Work
At age eighteen Egoyan headed east and enrolled at Trinity College, Toronto, where he earned a bachelor of arts degree in international relations in 1982. In addition to writing film reviews for the student newspaper, he joined the Trinity College Dramatic Society and began to direct his own works, which did not prove to be the most popular campus productions. "I was trying to prove that I had something to express," Egoyan told Patricia Pearson in Saturday Night, "but at the same time I never wanted to bend to what was popular." Still, he pressed on, starting to create short films and submitting them to festivals. His first project, the fourteen-minute Howard in Particular, was financed by a small grant and filmed using equipment from the Hart House Film Board and the University of Toronto. The film focuses on an old man who is retiring from a fruit cocktail factory when its line becomes automated. In Egoyan's senior year, he created a 30-minute short, Open House, about a young man who tries to express his love for his father. This film was televised in the early 1980s by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) as part of its Canadian Reflections series.
In the meantime, Egoyan worked in Toronto with the Tarragon Theatre, where he studied playwrighting. After Open House aired, he was given $37,000 in grants from the Ontario Arts Council and the Canada Council, allowing him to shoot his first feature film. Egoyan thus put together Next of Kin, about a bored young man who pretends to be the long-lost son of an Armenian couple. This established what would become recurring themes in his work: alienation, loss, and identity. The film was accepted for showing at Toronto's Festival of Festivals in 1984, and then won the Gold Ducat Award at the Mannheim Film Festival in Germany the same year. In addition, Egoyan was nominated for a Genie Award, Canada's version of the Academy Award, as best director.
While planning Next of Kin, which was released in 1984, Egoyan cast actor Arsinee Khanjian, an Armenian who immigrated to Canada from Lebanon at age seventeen. Though she was married at the time to an Armenian dental student who also had a part in the film, she and Egoyan began a romantic relationship. After Khanjian's marriage broke up, the two later married. She has appeared in all of Egoyan's films, and serves as his artistic muse. The couple has a son, Arshile, who was born in 1993.
Despite Next of Kin's exposure in Toronto and Mannheim and the fact that it found favor among critics, it did not transform Egoyan into an overnight sensation. For a time after its release, he worked as a porter at University of Toronto's Massey College for $5 an hour. However, he soon landed work directing a 1985 television movie titled In This Corner, which is about an Irish-Canadian boxer who gets involved with an Irish Republican Army gunman. After that, he was hired as a freelance director on episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, The Twilight Zone, and other American television series, as well as some Canadian programs.
In 1987, with financial help from the Ontario Film Development Corporation, Egoyan made his second feature film, Family Viewing. This unsettling drama involves a man who has split with his Armenian wife and tries to erase his past by taping over old home videos with scenes of him and his new lover engaging in sexual acts. Meanwhile, the man's mistress repeatedly propositions the son. The son, in turn, moves in with a woman who works as a telephone sex operator, who counts his father as one of her clients. Attempting to find some stability in his life, the son begins visiting his maternal grandmother in a nursing home, where she has been placed by the father, and devises a plan to restore some semblance of order to his family.
Family Viewing gained praise at film festivals worldwide and won an award for best Canadian feature film at the Toronto Film Festival in 1987. Even more astounding, at the Festival of New Cinema in Montreal, legendary director Wim Wenders, who was accepting an award for Wings of Desire, offered his prize money to Egoyan, boosting the young film maker's reputation even more. However, as Egoyan pointed out to Pearson, "The great myth was that he loved my film so much that he wanted the world to embrace me, but actually he hadn't seen the film. What he really wanted to embrace was the notion that a young film maker needed money more than he did."
In 1989 Egoyan released Speaking Parts, which continues to explore notions of voyeurism and deception. It is set in a hotel, a venue Egoyan became familiar with as a teenager when he worked in housekeeping at a hotel in Victoria. The film involves a chambermaid who is obsessed with a coworker, an actor who has had bit parts in some films. She rents and replays his movies nightly. Meanwhile, the actor tries to impress a screenwriter staying at the hotel, and manages to win a part in her upcoming film after seducing her. This enigmatic film moves at a deliberately slow pace and offers a purposely stilted acting style, prompting viewers to remain conscious of the fact that they were watching a film, not a slice of reality, as Hollywood products attempt to do. When Speaking Parts first aired at the Cannes International Film Festival in 1989, the third reel burst into flames and the audience had to wait 40 minutes to see the conclusion. The delay did not water down the critics' praise, however.
Egoyan was inspired to do his next project, The Adjuster, after a fire destroyed his parents' home and store on New Year's Eve in 1989. The story focuses on an alienated insurance adjuster who gets emotionally involved in his clients' lives. His wife, meanwhile, works as a government film censor and often tapes portions of the pornographic films she is assigned to watch. This dark comedy won a Toronto Film Festival Award and a Special Jury Prize at the Moscow Film Festival in 1991. Afterward, Egoyan embarked on a low-budget project resembling a home movie called Calendar, in which he also stars as a photographer who takes shots of Armenian churches for calendars. While overseas, his wife abandons him for a tour guide. This intimate effort, with a clever combination of unscripted moments and a postmodern sensibility, was made with help from German television network ZDF. It gained a small following among art-house circles and attracted applause from critics.
Just before Egoyan's wife became pregnant with their son, he started filming Exotica, the tale of a grief-stricken father who has lost a young daughter and frequents a striptease club where he talks to the performers. The plot is complex, also weaving in a character who smuggles exotic pets and a love triangle involving the dancer, the club disc jockey, and
the club owner. By the time shooting began on the film, his wife, actress Khanjian, was seven months pregnant. "It was such a perverse film for a new parent to have made," Egoyan remarked to Brian D. Johnson in Maclean's. "But it wasn't conceived that way." As it turned out, Exotica won the International Critics Prize and was voted best foreign film at Cannes in 1994, in addition to reaping Genies for best picture, best director, and best writer, along with another Toronto Film Festival Award. It also became Egoyan's first widespread commercial success.
Adaptation Earns Major Awards
In 1997 Egoyan won even more acclaim for The Sweet Hereafter, about a group of grief-stricken people in a small Canadian town who try to rebuild their lives after a traumatic school bus accident. The film is adapted from a novel written by Russell Banks. It was the first time Egoyan directed a feature film script that he did not also write, but the film is nevertheless stamped with his trademark hypnotic style. However, the work also branches away from the director's earlier coldness to delve into the emotion of the characters; Owen Glieberman in Entertainment Weekly described The Sweet Hereafter as a "metaphysical soap opera." Indeed, Egoyan himself told Johnson, "What makes this film such a huge step forward is that for the first time you can identify with the characters. You're not outside them. In all my other films, the characters have been fragments of aspects of my personality. They were people looking for their own identity through rituals or gestures. But they were just shells." The Sweet Hereafter reaped a total of eight Genie awards, including for best picture and best director, and won the grand prize and International Critics Award at Cannes, among other honors at various festivals. It was also nominated for Academy awards for writing and directing. As Richard Porton noted in Cineaste, "While Egoyan had enjoyed a cult following during the 1980s, The Sweet Hereafter appeared on more than 200 'Ten Best' Lists in 1998 and won him a much larger audience."
Egoyan's next endeavor, Felicia's Journey, is also an adaptation, this time of a prize-winning novel by William Trevor. The film concerns a pregnant, destitute Irish girl who ventures to England to locate the boyfriend who abandoned her. Visiting the factory where he has told her he works, Felicia instead meets up with Joseph Hilditch, an older man who works in the factory cafeteria. While seemingly a gentle soul, Hilditch is actually a psychotic killer of homeless girls. "Unable to know themselves, out of place in their societies, these two characters nevertheless form a temporary world of their own," according to Stuart Klawans, reviewing Felicia's Journey in Nation. Calling the film "a small masterpiece of literary creepiness," Patricia Hluchy in Maclean's concluded: "Felicia's Journey emphatically is not a feel-good experience. But it is an exquisite film." Reviewing the film for Entertainment Weekly, Lisa Schwarzbaum stated: "Egoyan has a talent for locating the dream-state perversity that runs just under the surface of everyday life," while Klawans described the film as "droll, disquieting, enigmatic." According to an essayist for the International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers, "The Sweet Hereafter and its successor, Felicia's Journey, marked a departure in Egoyan's career, adapting material by others … instead of working to his own original scripts. Both films are sensitively crafted, keeping faith with their originals while further exploring his perennial themes of loss and disaffection." For Felicia's Journey, Egoyan won a Genie award for screenplay adaptation and was nominated for a Golden Palm award at Cannes.
Armenian Tragedy Presented on Film
Egoyan returned to his Armenian roots in the 2002 film Ararat, the story of the 1915 slaughter of one million Armenians by the Turks. He tells the story through present-day Canadians of Armenian heritage who seek to discover who they are by learning of their people's past. The story follows a film director, an art historian, and their children, all of whom must confront the past to understand the present. Within Ararat is another film, an historical film about the tragic events of 1915, being shot by a Toronto director of Armenian descent. As Schwarzbaum noted in Entertainment Weekly, Egoyan's film is a "difficult, dense, passionate drama. It's a story only he would tell this way, circling round and into the painful past through the stories of vivid characters in the crisp Canadian present of multicultural Toronto." Todd McCarthy, writing in Variety, called it an "ambitious, time-jumping mosaic," while Maryann Bird in Time International described Ararat as "a contemporary tale of two families' searches for truth and reconciliation as they struggle with uncertainty, insecurity and the legacy of denial." Writing in the Hollywood Reporter, Michael Rechtshaffen found Ararat to be "an intricately scripted, beautifully photographed meditation on redemption and reconciliation."
If you enjoy the works of Atom Egoyan
If you enjoy the works of Atom Egoyan, you may also want to check out the following films:
The Ice Storm, directed by Ang Lee, 1997.
Affliction, starring Nick Nolte, 1997.
A Map of the World, starring Sigourney Weaver, 1999.
Egoyan told Bird that he was moved to make Ararat because of a question asked by his young son. When the boy was six or seven years old, Egoyan first told him about the genocide of 1915. But when the boy asked whether the Turks had apologized for this atrocity, Egoyan was startled. The Turks still refuse to admit any wrongdoing in the events, attributing the many deaths of the time to the fortunes of war. "I realized that by telling him the answer, the trauma of denial that I had been raised with would be transferred to him," Egoyan told Bird. "I understood that I wanted to talk about how this trauma lives on today."
Biographical and Critical Sources
Desbarts, Carole, editor, Atom Egoyan, Dis Voir, 1994.
International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers, Volume 2: Directors, 4th edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 2000.
Ismert, Louise and Michael Tarantino, Atom Egoyan: Out of Use, Musée d'art contemporain de Montréal, 2002.
Romney, Jonathan, Atom Egoyan, British Film Institute (London, England), 2003.
Artforum International, November, 1999, Steve Erickson, review of Felicia's Journey, p. 59.
Catholic New Times, February 9, 2003, Rosemary Ganley, "Ararat: An Egoyan Masterpiece," p. 16.
Cineaste, December, 1997, interview with Egoyan; winter, 1999, Richard Porton, "The Politics of Denial" (interview), p. 39.
Entertainment Weekly, March 24, 1995, review of Exotica, pp. 46-47; December 19, 1997, Owen Gleiberman, review of The Sweet Hereafter, p. 57; November 19, 1999, Lisa Schwarzbaum, review of Felicia's Journey, p. 111; November 22, 2002, Lisa Schwarzbaum, "Haunting History," p. 54.
Film Comment, January 1, 1998, Kent Jones, "The Cinema of Atom Egoyan," p. 32.
Hollywood Reporter, May 21, 2002, Michael Rechtshaffen, review of Ararat, p. 10.
Interview, March, 1995, Laura Winters, "Atom Egoyan Is Watching Us," p. 58.
Jeune Cinema, April, 1995, Marcus Rothe, interview with Egoyan.
Maclean's, October 3, 1994, pp. 45-47; April 6, 1998, "Atom's Oscar Diary: A Director Basks in Cinema's Biggest Spotlight," p. 61; November 15, 1999, Patricia Hluchy, "Starvation of the Soul: Atom Egoyan's Latest Is a Troubling Minor Masterpiece," p. 148.
Narrative, January, 2002, Katherine Weese, "Family Stories: Gender and Discourse in Atom Egoyan's The Sweet Hereafter," p.69.
Nation, July 13, 1992, Stuart Klawans, review of The Adjuster, p. 64; March 21, 1994, Stuart Klawans, review of Calendar, pp. 190-192; October 13, 1997, Stuart Klawans, review of The Sweet Hereafter, p. 34; December 6, 1999, Stuart Klawans, review of Felicia's Journey, p. 50.
National Post, November 6, 1999, Rick McGinnis, "The 'Egoyanesque' Atom Egoyan," p. 4.
National Review, February 9, 1998, John Simon, review of The Sweet Hereafter, p. 59.
New Statesman and Society, September 22, 1989, Suzanne Moore, review of Speaking Parts, p. 43.
Opera Canada, March 22, 2004, Wayne Gooding, "Forging the Ring: Atom Egoyan in Pre-Rehearsal Rehearsals for Die Walkure," p.14.
Parachute, July-September, 2001, Jacinto Lageira and Stephen Wright, "Relocating the Viewer" (interview), pp. 51-71.
Saturday Night, April, 1998, Patricia Pearson, interview with Egoyan, p. 67.
Sight and Sound, October, 1997, Tony Rayns, interview with Egoyan.
Take One, September 22, 1999, Marc Glassman, "Atom Egoyan's Delusional Felicia's Journey," pp. 12-16; September 1, 2002, Tom McSorley, "Faraway, So Close: Atom Egoyan Returns Home with Ararat," p.8.
Time, November 22, 1999, Richard Corliss, review of Felicia's Journey, p. 108.
Time International, April 28, 2003, Maryann Bird, "Moving the Mountain: A Meditation on Memory and Denial, Atom Egoyan's Ararat Explores the Armenian Genocide of 1915," p. 92.
Variety, May 13, 2002, Brendan Kelly, "Ararat Draws Ire: Egoyan's Hot Button Screens out of Competition," p. 14; June 3, 2002, Todd McCarthy, review of Ararat, p. 26.
Written By, February, 1998, S. B. Katz, interview with Egoyan.
Egoyan Nucleus, http://www2.cruzio.com/~akreyche/atom.html/ (April 20, 2005).*