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Past Article

The Currency of Our Time: a talk with Atom Egoyan
By Nina Rehfeld
April 9, 2003 - 4:11 PM PDT

Denial is reality.

It's all Miramax's fault. At least that's the impression you'd get watching the video biography handily provided at egofilmarts, the "official website" for Atom Egoyan, a site that does considerable justice to the director's sleek aesthetic as well as his penchant for just-as-sleek technology. But, watching that bio, you'd get the impression that Egoyan was quietly making his little artsy films when Miramax came along, took Exotica and marketed it as this really, really sexy movie you could watch with a clear conscience because it was also, you know, classy and avant and, since it was made by a filmmaker who lived up in Canada, almost foreign, even.

On the one hand, it's understandable that Egoyan would want to distance himself from the Weinsteins' predeliction for the low road. On the other hand, that campaign made Exotica a hit, relatively speaking, Egoyan's first. And on yet another hand, for all its psychological complexity, which got the movie invited to Cannes, it was sexy, too, which scored it an Adult Video News Award as Best Alternative Adult Film (what does that mean?). If Egoyan can't face it himself, we can face it for him: Yes, he is an intellectual. Each of his films is a demolition derby of competing, contrasting, sometimes contradictory ideas. Yes, he is a craftsman. The man knows his film history and he knows how to use it. But damnit, he also has a real thing for sex. That early effort, Family Viewing? Very smart. Very kinky. Speaking Parts? Brilliant set-up. The lead's a gigolo. The Adjuster? Again: Complex. Family issues. And porn.

And so it goes. Until The Sweet Hereafter, a film that ranks high in my own personal constellation of all-timers and one both brilliant and sexless enough to earn Egoyan a couple of Oscar nominations. Media and its helping hand in creating and ameliorating sexual tension made a return in Felicia's Journey, but as much to Egoyan's surprise as to everyone else's, it seems, politics is taking over the role of sex as the visceral force of his work recently.

That's certainly true of Ararat, the film Egoyan was more than pleased to be able to show in Berlin in February because, "I think a lot of the issues are very urgent, very vital here: How do you deal with history and the residues of this in terms of the negotiations you have to make in our present? How do you deal with images of hatred?" The catalyst of the film, you see, is genocide. More than a million Armenian citizens of Turkey were slaughtered by the Turks in 1915, and if you remember your history, there was quite a war going on around the world at the time, and this little incident has been more or less forgotten, willfully or unwillfully.

Showing the film in Berlin was, Egoyan said, quite a different experience from showing it in Cannes: "I think what happened with this film was that so many people were expecting this historic statement. They were expecting the film that Edward is making. You know, something that's very, very blunt and obvious. I think they had to respond to something that was very different from what they had in mind." [- dwh]

Arshile Gorky, sketch for The Artist and His Mother

How difficult is it to make a film on a subject that you're personally involved with?

That's the huge issue. How do you distance yourself and still be honest to the different experiences of what those issues mean? First of all, I tried to make a historical film, and I wrote this script, and I just felt that it wasn't honest. It wasn't personal. I realized that that was because I was suspicious of what it would do, why it needed to be made. And also how authentic it was.

Then I realized that all these questions about needing to make something to express authenticity or experience was the way that culture is ultimately communicated. I thought: Well, this happened over 85 years ago. Rather than deal with reconjuring that history, why not deal with different generations having to deal with it.

So, you have the generation of the survivor, which is Arshile Gorky making this painting. You have the generation of the children of the survivors, Saroyan as played by Aznavour, who's heard all these stories in a certain way and feels he has to make this for his mother. You have the grandchild, which is Ani, the art historian, and then you have the great-grandchild, Raffi, who's working on this digital document, but again: Try to find a way of expressing what these people's truth is.

Even the character of Ali, the actor who accepts this role just because he thinks it's a great opportunity -- the moment he's putting on this uniform and saying these lines, he's incarnating this and feeling very uneasy about it. There's something about the stereotype he's creating which makes him feel very insecure. And he has to deal with this. But it's interesting that Saroyan's generation is very dismissive. "Go away. You finished your role. I don't need to talk to you anymore." But the boy needs to deal with this issue, has to understand what his feelings were, what he feels on the set watching this.

And I think those are my questions. You can feel that, I think, when you see the film within the film. It's uneasy. What does it mean to create this? It's kitsch. You know, what are you expecting this to be? The big problem that I have is that, when you deal with the Holocaust, there's such a tradition of films and literature. You can now make fun of it. You can have Life is Beautiful. You can have Hogan's Heroes. It's a cliché.

Then you have Schindler's List, you have Shoah, the Lanzmann, you have The Pianist, everything. And then you have terrible ones, you know. But you have The Producers, Mel Brooks. I mean, this is fantastic that it's become so discussed. But the Armenian genocide has never ever been presented on a commercial screen. There have been small films, either art films or community films which only Armenians have seen, and they're like Edward's film. Not as well produced as that, but awkward.

Was that your approach to this? To say, Ok, I have to make a film that shows the mediation process? Someone said about The Pianist that there's a problem in that the image material is assembled in your head already. You don't need to see it again. It's already there.

Yes. And then the issue becomes, What do you show or not show? With the Holocaust, that seems to be the big issue now. We don't have the luxury of doing that. I mean, it'd be great to have these very intellectual conversations about showing or not showing. But we haven't shown anything. So even though my tendency is to be involved with that level of discussion, I had to create it within the film itself. I had to actually create the structure of that conversation to generate those images but also to critique them at the same time. All these people are desparate to communicate what they're experiencing by what they make. Like I am. Ultimately, I'm also implicated in that process as well. I'm responsible for that. I feel that what I do is something between what Raffi is doing with the digital video and what Edward is doing. With all due respect, of course, to this one masterpiece, which is Gorky's painting.

Didn't you also intend to raise awareness of this crime? But on the other hand, is that possible when your film says that there's no possibility for a truthful view of history?

I trust the intelligence of the viewer. That's why, to be honest, that part at the end is something that we added later on. I wanted to just ascertain that this is irrefutable. That this actually happened. I did feel, when I looked at the film, that a question might be raised. And that horrified me. So, I wouldn't normally have this card. But I thought it was necessary.

But I don't make propaganda. Propaganda by nature is blunt and straight and simple. I wish that film had been made before. I wish we had a Schindler's List. I wish we had something that everyone knew, but we don't. We don't have Primo Levi, we don't have Elie Weisel, we don't have these figures. Arshile Gorky is the most famous Armenian survivor and even he denied it himself. He changed his name. His real name is Vosdanik Adoian. He made up this whole story about himself, that he was the cousin of Maxim Gorky. Again, he denied it. That generation did. They just wanted to not talk about it.

Which film do you think the audience would prefer to see, Ararat or the movie within your movie?

I know that the audience and even most of the critics in their own imagination would want to see Edward's film. But I don't think we really want to see that film. We think we'd want to see it. But we would not go and see it. That, I think, is the bitter truth. Everyone wants that film to be done as a matter of record but it doesn't actually engage with anything as to how we live our lives today.

The fascinating thing about the Holocaust is that it was done with the world watching, it was mediated, and it was done by a civilization which was at its peak. The Ottoman empire was falling apart. There's no lesson to be learned that we haven't already learned from the Holocaust. The only lesson to be learned about this is denial. How denial effects later generations. How the trauma gets transmitted from one generation to the other. That, to me, is the originality of the Armenian experience.

But if there's no truthful view of history, then the denial is as true as your reproach.

The experience of denial is true. Of course it is. Because we live it. That's the reality. It's not valid except that it's an absolute reality in the world I inhabit and that the Armenians inhabit. You have to show it. An Armenian person, though, after the screening yesterday, said, Why do you have to have Ali? And then someone else, another Armenian, said, Because those are the conversations I have to have here in Berlin every day.

I was talking to a young Armenian woman who I met in Yerevan a year ago when we were doing the music. She was born and raised in Yerevan. Never left it. She didn't understand the film completely until she came to Germany three months ago, and for the first time, she's living in the diaspora. She understands that no one here knows anything about the country she comes from. She has to explain it all the time. No one has heard about the history. She watched the film again last night and she understood exactly what it's about. Denial is reality.

Do you think there are any similarities between the way the Armenians were treated by the Turks and the way the Turks are treating the Kurds now?

Yeah. In both cases, those populations have been abstracted and victimized. Of course. There's a direct parallel. The only difference is that, I would say, the world seems to be responding. But look at what's happening right now. It's very, very ominous, this whole idea of the border now with Iraq, which is, in fact, Kurdistan. It's very threatening to the Kurds right now, this extended border for Turkey. It's a very perilous time for that culture.

If you could choose between showing your film in competition and being on the jury, what would it be?

In retrospect, I realize that this film is more vital here in Germany than it was in France. It was important symbolically to show it in Cannes, to have it shown in a country that had recognized the genocide. France had recognized it. But, in fact, the issue has almost been resolved in people's minds because it's acknowledged. Here, it's very interesting because it's not known about. It creates more of a dynamic. It's unusual to have a film in both Cannes and Berlin, but Dieter [Kosslick, Berlinale director] understood that it was important. It's been very crucial because we didn't have German distribution and it looks like we do now.

The subject isn't entirely forgotten because we do have this famous novel by Franz Werfel, The Forty Days of Musa Dagh.

It's a brilliant novel.

You have one very important line in this movie suggesting that Hitler thought that the Holocaust would be forgotten like the holocaust in Armenia.

Yes. What happened is very, very important to understand. The Turks were able to say that all the eyewitness accounts from England, France and America were irrelevant. All the newspaper reports, missionaries and diplomats: It was propaganda. The one thing that they cannot respond to are the German archives. Because the Germans had consular heads in each of these towns. And they were witnessing this.

It's fascinating to read this material. These people are terrified by what they're seeing and thinking that they will be blamed as well. They're trying to distance themselves from these Turkish actions. It's there. If you go to the German archives, it's there. What happens, though, is that 25 or 30 years later, these same people, many of them, have learned that, under the cover of war, you can get away with something like this.

That's why the Hitler quote is so chilling. He didn't say it about the Holocaust. Actually, the quote comes from when he's giving a speech to the commanders before they entered Poland. He's not actually talking about the Jews specifically. He's talking about the Poles. He's saying, I've given death orders to the commanders to eliminate all the population of Poland and we must do this swiftly, and I don't remember the exact quote, but it went on, without hesitation; after all, who remembers the extermination of the Armenians? The idea is that in war, you can do that. That's what was learned, I think.

You know, any culture is capable of this. This trigger is there in all of us. We've seen genocide happen here, we've seen it happen in Turkey, we've seen it in Rwanda, we've seen it in Cambodia, we've seen it in Bosnia. If the government propels a people to victimize someone else, it's a trigger we can all react to. It's frightening how easily that happens.

You know, I wrote and shot the film before September 11. When Americans say, How can people hate us so much? What did those people in those planes have to imagine those other people were? But we are all capable of projecting that. Now, the really scary question is, When a government mobilizes that hatred, what would you call that act of creation? Are they creating this very sinister and evil work of art? These images, these cariacatures that they have to generate. What is the line between that and what Edward is doing? The images that Edward is creating in his film will create hatred. You can see his hatred when Ali stalks him. And he doesn't want to talk to this guy. It's just, "Go away." He's inherited that from his mother.

It's very important to show the difference between that generation and the current generation. Because I cannot teach my son that hatred. I wasn't taught it. I wasn't raised that way. I was raised outside of the community. If I look at my wife, I mean, she was raised in Beirut within the Armenian community with those stories that you hear Ussher saying. And then look at Beirut. Look at what happens in that city and that civil war.

The issue is: At what point is the creative act sacred and at what point is it evil? It's very complex.

next >>>

Denial is reality.
"I am understanding what the currency is."

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Nina Rehfeld
A freelance journalist based in Berlin, Nina Rehfeld's reviews, interviews and articles have been published in several major German papers and magazines. For more info, see the Kulturbotschaft.

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