Films, Armenian Feature

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Films, Armenian Feature

Any act of tyranny or terror involves a dehumanizing of the "other"—the individual or group upon which the act is perpetrated. Can a work of art that depicts an act of terror ever serve to counter this effect? If an act of genocide is only made possible by the abstraction of other human beings, can a film about genocide serve to rectify this violence? While it is certainly clear that there is a disparity between the horror of man's inhumanity to man and the uneasy alchemy that occurs when one combines elements of cinema and atrocity, it is also obvious that we live in a world where the currency of images is crucial to our understanding of any historic event. Who has the authority—be it moral, spiritual, or artistic—to tell a story of horror? And who decides if this story of horror can even be told?

The best-known novel to deal with the Armenian Genocide was written by an Austrian Jew, Franz Werfel, in 1933. The Forty Days of the Musa Dagh was translated into over twenty languages and became an international best-seller. The novel is about the siege of the mountain village of Musa Dagh, where a group of exhausted and poorly armed Armenians were able to resist a Turkish attack for forty days before being rescued by French warships. Its potential as a Hollywood epic was immediately seized upon, yet despite repeated attempts by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) to translate this important story to the screen, Turkish pressure on the U.S. State Department prevented the film from ever being made.

Besides some scenes dealing with the Armenian Genocide in Elia Kazan's 1963 classic America, America, the historic event was not really touched upon again until the French-Armenian director Henri Verneuil (born Ashot Malakian, the son of genocide survivors), told his autobiographical version of the event in his 1991 film Mayrig, starring Omar Sharif and Claudia Cardinale. Despite the presence of these stars and a substantial production budget, Mayrig failed to find international theatrical exposure. Indeed, the only other dramatic feature films that have dealt with the aftereffects of this trauma—Don Askarian's Komitas and Henrik Malian's Nahapet—have received only limited distribution, despite their artistic merits.

In both these later films, the viewer is engaged by the eponymous survivors as they try to deal with the burning memories of the genocide. Nahapet (the very name means the head of a large family group) is seen at the beginning of the film as he crosses the border from historic Western Armenia into the fledgling Caucasian state. His memories come flooding back throughout the film, most poetically in a flashback where hundreds of red apples fall off a gigantic tree (or family tree) into the banks of a river, where they rot, turning the sky-blue water into blood. Eye-witness accounts tell of thousands of bodies floating down the river Euphrates during the genocide, and Malian's cinematic interpretation of this horror is stunning in its beauty and restraint.


It is this very denial of the genocide which was to become the central theme of my film, Ararat, which was produced in 2002. In this film, an aging French-Armenian film director (a reference to Henri Verneuil, played by the legendary French-Armenian singer Charles Aznavour) arrives in Canada to shoot his old-fashioned interpretation of another heroic event in Armenian genocide history—the siege of the city of Van. Intercut with staged scenes from this film-within-a-film, various contemporary characters interact in relation to their roots, their family problems, and the lingering effects of ancient history on their modern lives.

The structure of the film is multilayered and complex, showing how history is often created from the effort to accommodate differing accounts of the same event. By interweaving the stories of different families and different generations, I wanted to show how the stories of the survivors passed onto children and grandchildren create a collective human linkage of experience. Ararat is a film about the transmission of trauma, and is the first film dealing with the Armenian Genocide that has been internationally distributed, having been theatrically released in over thirty countries around the world since its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival.

In making Ararat I was aware that any film dealing with this historic event would be accused, from a Turkish point of view of perpetrating stereotypes. Indeed—as of this printing—the film has been prevented from screening in Turkey, despite the efforts of a Turkish distributor who bought the film for release in that country in 2003. While Ararat certainly shows scenes of extreme cruelty and torture, these stories—from an Armenian perspective—are part of any upbringing. The barbaric and vicious imagery is very real. In this context, the challenge of telling the story of Araratwas threefold: First of all I had to find a way of presenting the strongest and most persistent of cultural beliefs with which I had been raised. Secondly, I needed to examine and question the drives and sources that determined those beliefs. And finally, I had to show the emotional foundations of those beliefs as they persist in our culture today.

Like many in my community, I await a traditional large-budget film that will set the record straight. But it is important to stress that the mere production of this film will not assure its distribution, as evidenced by Verneuil's Mayrig. I believe that the success of Ararat is based on its ability to find a compelling way of dramatically presenting the most distinct aspect of the Armenian Genocide: its complete denial by the Turkish perpetrator. This, undoubtedly, is the most painful source of continuing confusion and trauma.

Askarian's Komitas is a highly charged and visually impressive piece of filmmaking. Highly influenced by the transcendent style of the Russian master Andrei Tarkovsky, it tells the true story of an Armenian priest and musicologist who survives the genocide, only to spend the later part of his life in an asylum, unable to overcome his deep psychic wounds. It is interesting to note that in both these later films the references to the perpetrators of these crimes, the Ottoman Government of Turkey, are muted and vague. In the case of Nahapet, which was produced by the Soviet regime, this may have been a calculated attempt not to offend subsequent Turkish governments, none of which have accepted the guilt of this crime against humanity. At no point in Malian's film is the word "Turkish" ever mentioned, thought the murderers are visually identified.

SEE ALSO Film as Propaganda; Films, Armenian Documentary; Films, Dramatizations in; Films, Holocaust Documentary


Egoyan, Atom (2002). Ararat. The Shooting Script. New York: Newmarket Press.

Werfel, Franz (1934). The Forty Days of Musa Dagh. New York: Viking.

Atom Egoyan