Ararat is a highly personal statement from Armenian-Canadian director Atom Egoyan. The film’s central concern is the forced march imposed in 1915 upon the Armenian people by the Turks of the Ottoman Empire. Two-thirds of the Armenian population, more than one-and-a-half million people, were killed between 1915 and 1923. Egoyan, whose grandparents were both orphans of this genocide, depicts in Ararat how this eighty-seven-year-old historical trauma still reverberates through the lives of contemporary Armenian-Canadians living in Toronto. Throughout the film, Egoyan interweaves glimpses of the characters in Toronto with scenes of the atrocities committed during the forced march.
The complex story centres around eighteen-year-old Raffi (David Alpay), an Armenian-Canadian returning from a trip to Turkey. He is stopped at the border by David (Christopher Plummer), a customs agent who is curious about the contents of the film cans Raffi is carrying. Raffi is working on a film about the Armenian genocide, which is being directed by Edward Saroyan (Charles Aznavour), a French filmmaker of Armenian heritage, and is based on the actual experiences of Clarence Ussher (Bruce Greenwood), an American Red Cross doctor who served in Turkey and wrote of the horrors he witnessed. Raffi’s mother Ani (Khanjian), an art historian whose specialty is the work of famed real-life Armenian artist Arshile Gorky, is working on the film as a consultant. She is harassed by Celia (Marie-Josée Croze), her stepdaughter, who is having an affair with Raffi and blames Ani for the death of her father.
David, meanwhile, listens to Raffi’s story, but he is struggling with his own issues: he is trying to come to terms with his gay son Philip (Brent Carver), whose lover Ali (Elias Koteas) happens to be working on the film with Raffi, playing the role of a Turkish officer. Ali is of Turkish descent and openly questions the accuracy of the Armenian claims of genocide.
Ararat is an ambitious, moving and provocative film about a sometimes overlooked event in the history of the twentieth century. Intricately scripted and beautifully photographed, it offers a profound meditation on redemption and reconciliation. Egoyan draws upon his Armenian heritage to reflect on the ways the past informs the present. Ararat shows how time distances but never separates us from the past, turning the memory of specific horrors into more general, yet lingering, issues.
At Egoyan’s request, Ararat screened out of competition at the Festival de Cannes in order to assuage the intense controversy it was expected to arouse (Turkey still denies the genocide, insisting the death toll has been inflated and that the killings were the result of civil unrest). The film received an extremely favourable response at Cannes, where audiences greeted it with extended standing ovations. A wide North American release brought generally positive reviews; even though some critics found the film somewhat didactic, they praised Egoyan for his passionate commitment to shedding light on an historical period long kept in the shadows.
Ararat encountered the anticipated controversy on the eve of its release in Turkey in January of 2004. Egoyan ceded to re-editing the film in order to satisfy Turkish censors (a scene depicting Ottoman soldiers raping Armenian women was cut), but when nationalist extremist groups – who considered the film anti-Turkish propaganda – threatened violence at any theatre where Ararat might screen, the film’s release was indefinitely postponed.
Ararat was nominated for nine Genie Awards and won five for Best Motion Picture (Robert Lantos, Egoyan), Music/Original Score (Mychael Danna), Lead Actress (Arsinée Khanjian), Supporting Actor (Elias Koteas) and Costume Design (Beth Pasternak). It was also named one of Canada’s Top Ten of 2002 by an independent, national panel comprised of filmmakers, programmers, journalists and industry professionals.