INTERVIEW: In "Adoration" of Atom Egoyan

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Atom Egoyan, ADORATIONBy John Esther

The New York Times' Stephen Holden certainly adored Adoration: "A profound and provocative exploration of cultural inheritance, communications technology and the roots and morality of terrorism, the Canadian filmmaker Atom Egoyan nimbly wades into an ideological minefield without detonating an explosion." Here's a synopsis from the official site:

High school French teacher Sabine (Egoyan's wife and frequent collaborator Arsinée Khanjian) gives her class a translation exercise based on a real news story about a terrorist who plants a bomb in the airline luggage of his pregnant girlfriend. The assignment has a profound effect on one student, Simon (Devon Bostwick), who lives with his uncle. In the course of translating, Simon re-imagines that the news item is his own family's story, with the terrorist standing in for his father. Years ago, Simon's father crashed the family car, killing both himself and his wife, making Simon an orphan. Simon has always feared that the accident was intentional. Simon reads his version to the class and then takes it to the Internet. In essence, he has created a false identity which allows him to probe his family secret. As Simon uses his new persona to journey deeper into his past, the public reaction is swift and strong. Then an exotic woman reveals her true identity. The truth about Simon's family emerges. The mystery is solved and a new family is formed.

John Esther chatted with Egoyan on April 24, to some known as "Recognize the Armenian Genocide Day," an annual event protesting the continued denial of the 1915-1916 massacre of an estimated 1.5 million Armenians at the hands of the Turkish government, a theme explored in Egoyan's 2002 film Ararat.

Adoration is currently playing in limited release.

Why did you want to make this film? Is your son telling stories about his parents in school?

[laughs.] Actually, it started because I wanted to tell stories when I was in school. I started writing plays when I was pretty young, and I've been thinking a lot about that impulse—how, at that time, it was about telling stories to friends, parents, and now [there's] the opportunity for a kid to create any sort of persona he wants. If he finds the audience, it's global. In a lot of my earlier films, I was dealing with ideas of there being something oppressive and malevolent about the way media and technology can suppress and filter emotion, but the reality now is that it's completely unfiltered and open.

There is a freedom and exchange, which is very exciting. Yet there's a velocity and acceleration, which is troubling because people don't have time to consider. It becomes really easy to abstract identities. It almost lends itself to degrees of confabulation. I wanted to have a character emerge from the world, diverted by the excitement of a response, but realizing that's not going to lead to any sort of personal revelation. In some ways, the technology isn't designed to be cathartic. It sets up a number of possibilities but it's open-ended, by its nature. You still need a journey in the physical world. So those were some of the ambitions of the story.

Arsinee Khanjian, ADORATIONYou do allow Simon's mythical narrative to go on for a considerable time without verification. It takes some time before someone comes out and says, "Hey, this isn't the kid of those terrorists/ parents." We knew the banal backstories of "Octo-Mom" and "Joe the Plumber" within hours of their notoriety. Why did you hold off on verifying an act of terrorism?

The kids are so excited by the possibilities. In the workshops I did at various high schools, I said, "Suppose one of your friends did this?" For them, it wasn't really about ascertaining whether it was true or not. All the stuff the kids were saying in the film was actually what those kids were saying. None of it was scripted. They're smart kids and some of the ideas in the film came up in the workshops. They were probably more consumed with the way they were appropriating, to express their own story.

Then the narrative trickles into the adult world.

The adults know, but Tom doesn't know Simon was doing this. Sabine knows right off, and she probably knows why he's so attracted to that narrative. Then Principal Robert says, "Well, the other kids have to know that it's not true." Tom is not really in touch with what's going on until it gets out of hand.

What does Arsinée think of her role in this film?

It's a problematic role for any actor because she or he doesn't get the satisfaction, at any point, that someone's going to identify with the character. It's a risky role. The more distance I've had from it, the more the perverse it is. She's a traumatized victim, but she doesn't invite any empathy. She's irresponsible, very obsessive. She was probably stalking her former husband, but seeing Tom reawakens all these feelings. When she dresses up in the chador, she's not teaching the kid about tolerance.

Her character plays into a lot of Occidental fears. She is a smart, Muslim woman. And she teaches French, another threat to many Americans.

[laughs.] That's really interesting. So it's not a gratifying role for Arsinée. It's true to what that character would be, but it's not conventionally structured.

You typically do not have Arsinée play empathetic characters.

Why is that? We've been talking about that. One exception is Calendar, maybe?

Except her Translator leaves Photographer, played by you.

Generally, it's a big question in the relationship. I trust her to play those roles that are more challenging. Yeah, you're absolutely right. I can't really explain it, other than that I cherish the relationship and it's a course we took from very early on.


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