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Atom Egoyan

Atom EgoyanCairo, Egypt, 1960

Atom Egoyan occupies a distinct position within Canadian filmmaking — that of auteur. His unequivocal authorial vision and inimitable style are sustained throughout a body of work that includes 10 feature films. Egoyan is the most consummate filmmaker of his generation, and his films appeal to national and international audiences alike and, increasingly, receive greater critical acclaim and commercial success.

Born in Cairo of Armenian descent and raised in Victoria, B.C., Egoyan moved to Toronto at 18 to study international relations at the University of Toronto. While studying, two formative encounters fused to inform his life work — fluency with his ethnic heritage and the cinema. Egoyan produced several short films at the Hart House Film Board while furthering his knowledge of Armenian history and politics. Often submerged and mediated, the residual effects of the Armenian genocide shadow Egoyan’s work to date. The recurring themes of ritualized trauma from dispossession to alienation to “baggage,” in general, arose from the unsaid of Armenia’s past, posing an indomitable challenge to representation in the present. Egoyan’s films work at the intermediacies of memory and fiction almost by necessity.

Archaeological in impulse, Egoyan’s approach to truth and character is incessantly layered. His films relentlessly highlight the act of looking from both structural and thematic perspectives, fully exploiting possible implications from knowledge to voyeurism to comprehension and insight. At the same time, the oft-used Canadian filmic tropes of identity and its uncertainty, image and technology, and communication or the lack thereof compete for equal thematic screen time. The content, aesthetics and production contexts of Egoyan’s films are decidedly interstitial. Multi-directional, they spring from national and diasporic contexts, between art cinema narration and the recent adoption of popular genres, chiefly the thriller, that coalesce into an unprecedented brand of filmmaking. Still, Egoyan remains our resident “spokes-filmmaker” for Canada’s brand of New World modernity.

Renowned actor Arsinee Khanjian, Egoyan’s long-time collaborator, helps to solidify the label of international art-cinema auteur. Khanjian’s roles now approximate a signature effect in the films; her performances span from characters such as telephone sex trade worker, frumpy hotel cleaner, pregnant strip club proprietor to Ontario Censor Board member, cultural translator, cooking show celebrity and art history professor. The consistent participation of numerous actors — Bruce Greenwood, Sarah Polley, Elias Koteas, Gabrielle Rose, Maury Chaykin, among others — also provide identifiable Egoyan markers across a range of films. The reliable makeup of Egoyan’s habitual crew further strengthens auteurist coherency. Paul Sarossy’s cinematography, Mychael Danna’s musical compositions, Steve Munro’s soundscapes and Phillip Barker’s designs routinely conjoin to imbue and consolidate the look and sound of the films.

Key Egoyan sensibilities emerge in Next of Kin (1984) and continue throughout Family Viewing (1987), Speaking Parts (1989) and The Adjuster (1991), though these early features share a fascination with surface affectation particular to emerging filmmakers of the period. Side-stepping the banal, seemingly superficial exteriority serves to foil signature Egoyan thematic obsessions with social taboos, specifically sex, technology and looking and relations locked into the hermetic horrors of family closets. The films follow a strict interwoven structure loosened by enigmatic abstraction and oblique ethnic references. Surprisingly, the effect is sustained suspense and an arch brand of humour fed by a formally procured self-conscious chilly distance. Driven by loss of all kinds, characters are chronically detached, and shape their relations toward one another through absurdist speech and the non sequitur, yet, uncannily, they prompt compassion all the same.

While detachment is partially upheld through a seemingly mundane surface, these early works all utilize video and the televisual and/or photographic reproduction to work against its remote effects. Themes integral to the image assist in teasing out the various narratives’ reiteration of the slippery slope between image and identity, between the video image and death, between replication and reality, between the false and the true. Without exception, representational technologies as practice and mediating motif continue to recur throughout Egoyan’s career. Across a range of usage from familial and sacred, as record and fetish, to voyeuristic enactment, bordering on pornography and surveillance, the use of video in Egoyan’s universe stresses the role of mediation in ordering experience.

The films of the mid-1990s offer a more profound exploration of contemporary anxieties. Calendar (1993), a work both raw and tender, wrestles with belonging and identity from here to Armenia and back again. The dissolution of home and tradition and its uneasy, lived effects command its 12-part calendar structure. Travelling to Armenia to procure 12 photographs of sacred churches for a calendar is the pretext for Egoyan (playing the photographer protagonist) to interrogate historical memory and illuminate its unattainable retrieval, in spite of the precision of imaging technology. With Exotica (1994), perhaps an apt title for all of Egoyan’s enterprise, original trauma (Armenia’s genocide) shifts into the more familiar terrain of terrifying psychic dispossession. Increased production values and less plot fragmentation than in earlier films make room for more fully fleshed but equally disaffected and obsessive characters. An exotic pet store owner, a stripper and a government tax auditor, to name but a few beleaguered souls, collide at the strip club Exotica. Here, these orphaned adults ceremoniously work through their individual baggage of inheritance or soul murder — from abandonment to straight-out child abuse. Trepidation combines with the sublime to create the film’s sense of wonder, the epicentre that also, not surprisingly, coalesces around the sticking point of life in Toronto, or more sub-textually, Canada — “difference.”

The adaptations of The Sweet Hereafter (1997) and Felicia’s Journey (1999) (novels by Russell Banks and William Trevor, respectively) effortlessly mesh with Egoyan’s preoccupations, as both stories' claustrophobic worlds turn on the themes of loss and violation. The Sweet Hereafter recounts a small B.C. town’s painful recuperation from a tragic bus accident that claimed most of its children. The individual grief of the parents is imparted, but it is the responses of a persistent lawyer seeking to assign blame and a young survivor who entreats acceptance beyond the accident to include incest which take precedence. More linear and seamless than extant works, the film’s tone and subject matter are nevertheless Egoyan’s.

While a menacing ambiance often girds Egoyan’s films, Felicia’s Journey’s thriller roots amplify this tendency. Third in a series of films that revolve around endangered young women and their eerie, ritualized encounters with father figures, we witness a sensitive and sympathetic serial killer stalk an innocent stray Irish girl. In spite of the film’s source, the radical changes in production contexts and locale (his first co-production and the shift to the industrial setting of Birmingham, England, and rural Ireland), signature Egoyan fixations remain. Egoyan’s diasporic constants, such as home and family, betrayal, the impossibility of return and the dangers inherent in detachment and impaired sight that result are dramatized to different ends in Felicia’s Journey. The protagonist’s criss-crossed trauma takes the opposing routes of vulnerability and violence. But the stalker complements his emotional image bank of looped home movies of his departed, fetishized mother with his own Peeping Tom-like video productions, replacing the good object to horrific effect.

With Ararat (2002), Egoyan widens the standard intimacy of his palette to produce the first film to wrestle with the Armenian genocide of 1915. Ambitious in scope, the film memorializes the atrocities of the Armenian holocaust, but it also conveys its residual effects from a multi-focal perspective across generations traversing the diaspora. Beyond the immediate narrative, Ararat’s complex lattice structure directly queries the representation of history itself, exposing its inherent constructed nature through wildly opposing modes of address. The sophisticated treatise on “past-ness” and the official record builds upon and expands Egoyan’s incessant experimentation with the dubious promise of the image. While a contemporary Toronto tale pivots around two families in crisis, a film-within-a-film dramatizes eyewitness accounts of the siege of Van in eastern Turkey and the ensuing death march in epic scale. A fictionalized celebrated Armenian director (played by Charles Aznavour) directs scenes of slaughter in a rival filmic register; attempts at flat-footed accuracy meshed with melodrama to signify Turkish atrocities.

The staged excess, however, underscores the futility of replication. Distancing Brechtian techniques notwithstanding, the limitations of history as spectacle exceed simple lessons on how visualizing history confines. Just when the re-enactments of massacres allure, a counter-narrative suggesting fabrication often intervenes. Each modern-day character in the framing narrative is associated with the film production, also titled Ararat, serving to intertwine their individual, familial and communal lives. Ararat opens with the great Armenian painter Arshille Gorky struggling to perfect his celebrated The Artist and His Mother. Gorky’s fraught life is Ararat’s touchstone (both the outer frame and the film-within-a-film), its psychic structural and visual motor. Gorky survived the massacre but not its legacy — his unremitting attempts to render memory are also Egoyan’s. Ararat’s mastery lies in dually sustaining belief in the possibility of representation and its fallibility, in looking both ways.

The constant, perspicacious depth-probing in Egoyan’s films also extends to a range of creative projects that span several artistic mediums to include opera, music and the visual arts. No doubt, Egoyan’s intellectual scope and creative dexterity inform all of his endeavours, engendering a crosshatch effect across art forms. With the Canadian Opera Company, he successfully launched Salome, his directorial opera debut in 1996, followed by his own Elsewhereness in 1998 and Gavin Bryar’s Dr. Ox’s Experiment. Egoyan proved his musical acuity with the attentive aural direction of Yo Yo Ma in Sarabande, a telefilm inspired by Bach’s Cello Suite #4.

Egoyan’s art installations have similarly gained distinction to include works completed for the Irish Museum of Modern Art in Dublin, the Venice Biennale and Le Frenoy in France. His latest projects span from Evidence (2002) to Notorious (2000) (a video installation that commemorates Alfred Hitchcock) to Diaspora (a short film with music by Philip Glass, which is part of the program Philip on Film) to Hors d’usage, a soundscape work based on reel-to-reel tapes of Montreal residents. Krapp’s Last Tape (2000), a film adaptation of Samuel Beckett’s play, attests to Egoyan’s tremendous formal latitude, one that defies the supposed restrictions of film as a popular medium.

Such evident, unfailing commitment to innovation and the moving image, regardless of medium, typifies Egoyan’s output, solidifying his atypical position in Canada’s swiftly evolving film industry. Egoyan’s zealous production signifies his exemplary role throughout this shifting landscape. As auteurist hallmark and chief architect, Egoyan has helped to shape and define the contours of contemporary Canadian film, triggering, and exceeding, its promise.

By Kass Banning

Film and video work includes

Howard in Particular, 1979 (director; writer; producer)
After Grad with Dad, 1980 (director; writer; producer)
Peep Show, 1981 (director; writer; producer)
Open House, 1982 (director; writer; producer)
Next of Kin, 1984 (director; writer; editor; producer)
Knock! Knock!, 1985 (actor)
In This Corner, 1985 (director; TV)
Men: A Passion Playground, 1985 (director; cinematographer; editor)
Family Viewing, 1987 (director; writer; co-editor with Bruce McDonald)
The Final Twist, Alfred Hitchcock Presents series, 1986 (director; TV)
Friday the 13th, 1987 (director; TV)
The Box of Sun, 1988 (actor)
Looking for Nothing, 1988 (director; writer; TV)
There Was a Little Girl, Alfred Hitchcock Presents series, 1986 (director; TV) 
Inside Stories, 1989-1991 (director; writer; TV)
Speaking Parts, 1989 (director; writer; producer)  
The Wall, The Twilight Zone series, 1989 (director; TV)
The Adjuster, 1991 (director; writer; producer)
Montréal vu par..., Episode 3: En passant, 1992 (director; writer)
Calendar, 1993 (director; writer; editor; producer; actor)
Gross Misconduct, 1993 (director; TV)
Camilla, 1994 (actor)
Exotica, 1994 (director; writer; co-producer with Camelia Frieburg)
1984: Limousine from Take 20: The Retrospective, 1995 (director)
Curtis’s Charm, 1995 (executive producer)
Portrait of Arshile, 1995 (director; writer; editor; cinematographer; producer; TV)
Sarabande: Bach Cello Suite #4 from Yo-Yo Ma Inspired by Bach, 1996 (director; writer; TV)
The Sweet Hereafter, 1996 (director; writer; co-producer with Camelia Frieburg)
Babyface, 1997 (executive producer)
Jack & Jill, 1998 (executive producer)
Felicia’s Journey, 1999 (director; writer)
Krapp’s Last Tape, 2000 (director; editor)
The Line from Preludes series, 2000 (director; writer)
Diaspora, Philip on Film, 2001 (director)
Ararat, 2002 (director; writer; producer)
Gambling, Gods and LSD, 2002 (co-executive producer with Peter Mettler, Andrea Züst)
Luck, 2002 (co-executive producer with Susan Cavan, Daniel Iron)
Foolproof, 2003 (co-executive producer with Peter Sussman)
The Saddest Music in the World, 2003 (co-executive producer with Daniel Iron)
Where the Truth Lies, 2005 (director; writer)  

Note: Updated to April 2005.

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