Atom Egoyan’s Ararat addresses a genocide that predates the invention of the term: the slaughter of 1.5 million Armenians by the Turkish Ottoman army during World War I. The ethical dilemmas involved in depicting a historical atrocity are summed up in Theodor Adorno’s injunction against post-Auschwitz verse. But the habitually self-conscious and self-critical Egoyan (born to Armenian parents in Egypt, and raised in British Columbia) doesn’t just concede the impossibility of his task. This conflicted epic, sprawling in scope yet painfully aware of its limitations, widens the frame in order to give Egoyan’s reservations free rein.
Ararat concerns the production of a movie about the genocide (also called Ararat) and ponders the damages incurred both when history is negated and when history becomes narrative. If Schindler’s List repackaged the Holocaust as prestige entertainment and was duly extolled in some quarters as the last word on the matter, Egoyan’s film is the Spielberg monument’s tormented antithesis—elaborately circumscribed and obsessed with what historiographer Hayden White calls “the fictions of factual representation.”
Egoyan’s has always been a cinema of trauma and aftermath, profoundly attuned to the dimensions of absence. His circular, repetitive-compulsive films even approximate mourning rituals: Events are refracted through an achronological prism, repeatedly orbiting a defining calamity while the bereft zombies who populate his cracked snow globes numbly fumble their way around a hollow core. The void this time is unspeakably enormous, and in struggling to give shape to it, Ararat also transposes onto an immense historical canvas a perennial Egoyan subject: the mechanisms and consequences of denial.
The director’s customary narrative elisions and evasions have an unsettling mirror function here. The Armenian mass murder is something of a forgotten holocaust (not even two decades after the fact, Hitler remarked, “Who remembers the extermination of the Armenians?”). Turkey still classifies the victims as casualties of war, and U.S. congressional resolutions to recognize the genocide have yet to pass in the face of continued opposition from the Turkish government.
The film-within-the-film—a gauche period costumer shooting in Toronto, adapted from a memoir by real-life missionary Clarence Ussher—portrays the 1915 siege of the city of Van. Its director, Edward Saroyan (Charles Aznavour), hires Ani (Arsinée Khanjian), an expert on the Armenian painter Arshile Gorky, to help incorporate Gorky, who spent his childhood in Van, into their scenario.
Ararat is fraught with the obligations of creating art on behalf of a community. Egoyan cannily displaces part of that burden onto Saroyan’s Ararat, which speaks to a collective need for an act of retrieval and witness, while illustrating the inadequacies of a conventional narrative form. Egoyan’s closest surrogate here is not the elderly auteur but Ani’s ardent, questioning son, Raffi (David Alpay), who wrestles with the meaning of an event that overwhelmingly defines his sociocultural identity and yet remains a frustrating abstraction. Like Peter Balakian’s impassioned memoir Black Dog of Fate (nestled, to begin with, in the cozy suburbs of ’50s New Jersey), Ararat examines the legacy of the Armenian genocide as it is transmitted across time and space, against dimming memories and willed amnesia.
A portion of the story unfolds at an airport—for Egoyan, a metaphor for alienating, multicultural Canada, with its implications of transience, interconnection, and baggage. As Raffi is interrogated by a suspicious customs officer (Christopher Plummer) upon his return from Turkey, another film-within-the-film is introduced: a video diary of Raffi’s pilgrimage to the primal scene (echoing Egoyan’s own Armenian travelogue in his masterful quasi-memoir Calendar). Like almost everyone else in Ararat, Raffi finds himself in the position of a storyteller with something to prove. If the movie feels cumbersome and overstuffed, it’s because Egoyan’s characters, so often aphasic, are this time driven by a compulsion to speak—though the noisy tumble of words mostly underscores their failure to communicate.
While Egoyan’s formal strategies would appear to grant him a safe distance from the representational jumble onscreen, he implicates himself by blurring the lines between Saroyan’s project and his own. Egoyan is careful not to mock; indeed, there’s something protective about the way he insulates the other Ararat in what amounts to a benevolent critique. While Saroyan’s epic dutifully embalms century-old horrors, it’s telling that the most shocking present-day violence is perpetrated against a Gorky painting. Ararat anticipates its own divisiveness, acknowledging that testimonial art, exposed to competing agendas, is always open to interpretation and attack.
In the mockumentary Interview With the Assassin, history is, as Voltaire noted, the lie most commonly agreed upon. Schlumpy cameraman Ron (Dylan Haggerty) thinks he’s stumbled on the scoop of the century when old-coot neighbor Walter (Raymond J. Barry) informs him that he has a confession he wants captured on tape. Producing a shell casing, Walter asserts he was the second shooter at Dealey Plaza that fateful afternoon in November 1963. He’s plainly a violent loon—as military buddies and an ex-wife attest—but does that diminish or bolster his claim? Pitched somewhere between Oliver Stone’s JFK and the Seinfeld parody thereof, Neil Burger’s debut never quite transcends jokester status—it’s a veritable menagerie of shaggy dogs, red herrings, and wild geese—and the punchline doesn’t live up to Barry’s dead-eyed, perfectly chilled delivery.
Tim McCann’s nifty indie Revolution #9 also indulges in conspiracy paranoia, not to mention an Egoyan-esque taste for technologically mediated malaise. Twentysomething Manhattanite Jackson (a superb Michael Risley) becomes convinced that a TV spot for something called “Rev9″—actually a voguishly ambiguous fragrance commercial—is sending him subliminal messages, and not just the ones encoded by Madison Avenue think tanks. Writer-director-cinematographer McCann (Desolation Angels) precisely illuminates the frustrations of trying to help someone in the throes of a schizophrenic breakdown: Jackson’s fiancée (Adrienne Shelley) finds him increasingly distrustful and hostile, and the mental health care network proves a nightmare bureaucracy.
McCann resorts to the default shorthand for mental instability (a jangling camera, with jump-cutting and time-lapse effects), but overall, both script and direction display an aversion to the obvious. And while the ideas about techno-saturation are far from novel, they’re presented with a wry dark humor. In a priceless bit, Jackson, posing as a reporter, interviews the pretentious director of the Rev9 promo (Spalding Gray), and as the blowhard drones on about the first time he saw an Antonioni, Jackson impatiently cuts to the chase: “Can we get to when you became part of the reprogramming?” At its most mordant, the film recalls the young nihilist’s self-diagnosis in Bresson’s The Devil, Probably: “Seeing clearly is my sickness.” Revolution #9 dares you to wonder: Has Jackson really lost his mind, or is he just a preternaturally perceptive media critic?