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AN ANALYSIS OF ATOM EGOYAN'S FILM "ARARAT"

Armenian News Network / Groong
December 11, 2002

By Bedros Afeyan


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 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 extermination
of an entire subjugated people 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 of 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 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 the 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 Bosnia, 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 inching towards 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 citizens. 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, 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 impereal 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 subjeced, 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 hordes 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 through with mount Ararat right in the middle of it and lake Van
and Sevan and Oorfa and Izmir and Trabizond, and Sassoon, 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 became 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. 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 fueled
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, who is on a book
tour promoting 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 day 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
Armenians have 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 us 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 finding 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 finds himself chasing 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 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 humiliate Ani publicly during her lectures.
So, instead, she slashes the Mother and Son painting of Gorky. 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 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. Then Raffi switches to the story that the search for his
father's goals was the true purpose of his voyage which 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 fulfilling the writer's need to
interject 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 and 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 who are themselves engaged in obfuscation, behind the
scenes bribery and payola, hushing Western historians and scholars,
deflecting their attention from historical facts and truth 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
purpose 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
face of a civilized Western leaning "democracy" with which Turkey so
very much wants to portray itself to 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 strangely logical arguments for
instituting the death marches in the first place was that Armenians
were a suspicious lot who horded and hid their wealth. How can 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, along the way 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,
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 everywhere,
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 archetypes 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's director, or his very smooth
talking 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 (even though 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 no more exposed hands of the mother either. 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 when the advancing Turkish soldiers come in to
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 sole attachment to life itself. This artist stands in front
of the 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 dilettant, 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 paint. With tears flowing from his cheeks, he
erases his desires and punishes himself. This scene is accompanied
with 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 torn off and she was left to bleed to death. So "Who
the fuck are you?" the Doctor asks the self-importantly 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
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 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 than 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
himself could not believe 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 (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
him, 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, Dr. Ussher, is
the true center of the authenticity of the entire movie. He is an
American physician 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 on
film 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.


--
Dr. Bedros Afeyan is a theoretical physicist who works and lives in
the Bay area with his wife, Marine. He writes in Armenian and in
English and also paints and sculpts. Samples of his work can be found
on his personal web pages at: http://208.177.152.139/

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