I’ve just seen Ararat, a film by Atom Egoyan made in 2002. Each of Egoyan’s films – Calendar, Exotica, The Sweet Hereafter – has struck me as allusive, resonant and intriguingly structured. Until now, however, there’s been a sense that the emotional element, though deeply felt, was very tightly controlled by the director’s intellectual concerns. The effect of this was an apparent alienation, as if the characters were in deep space, their voices delayed by the distance they needed to travel to the viewer.
At the time of its release, I recall reading reviews of Ararat which appeared to recoil at Egoyan’s treatment of the film’s central concern, that of the Armenian genocide in 1915. My reaction is rather different, in that I feet that, while the director’s intellectual engagement is as seriously playful as ever, his emotional engagement acts as a passionate medium that invests the film with . As always with Egoyan’s work, Ararat demands repeated viewing to gain an understanding of the multiple levels at which the film engages with the viewer: the film within the film, the allusions – both direct and indirect – to the Jewish Holocaust that Armenia prefigured, the impact of historical events upon the characters, the validity – or otherwise – of poetic interpretation particularly with regard to film (but also mirrored in Gorky’s painterly interrogation of his photograph and by extension, memory), nationalism, ethnicity, faith and so on. If that sounds awfully overloaded, the subtlety of the direction means that such weighty themes never oppress. In contrast to the reviews, I very much admired Egoyan’s courage in addressing (t)his history so directly. I’m probably being unfair, but in retrospect it’s as though the critics were recoiling from the earnestness of the approach.
The Armenian painter Arshile Gorky, and particularly his painting The Artist and His Mother is used as a potent symbol of the deliberate genocide which even now the Turkish government refuses to acknowledge (as this BBC report about the trial of the author Orhan Pamuk attests). I first saw Gorky’s work in my early 20s at The Whitechapel Gallery and continue to be moved by his work. Thank you Robin.