If you think the subject of Atom Egoyan’s Ararat is the genocide in 1915 of 1.5 million Armenians by Turks (as most critics seem to believe), you’ll find the movie a confused mess.
But reducing the film to that summary is akin to saying the director’s The Sweet Hereafter was about a bus accident, or that his Exotica was about strippers. Yeah, it’s true enough, but that ignores the textures, structures, and richness that Egoyan weaves into his work.
More importantly in this case, though, reviewers seem to be doing more than mischaracterizing the film; its primary themes seem to elude them. The exasperation that many critics expressed about the movie’s complexity and indirect approach — the main plot thread concerns a movie being made about the genocide — amounts to their failure to meet the film on its own terms.
Yes, Egoyan — a Canadian of Armenian decent — would like audiences to learn about the genocide. But the movie doesn’t work as an educational vehicle, and I don’t think he wanted it to. The movie is wonderfully effective at spurring education.
That’s because at its heart, Ararat is about belief, skepticism, and their impacts on relationships. Can we know that what we’ve been told about history — family, political, or cultural — is true? Why do we believe what we believe? And what happens when we believe something not because of any evidence of its veracity but because it fills some psychological or emotional need?
These questions manifest themselves in interesting, troubling ways in Ararat’s multiple storylines. A young woman blames her stepmother for the death of her father, even though neither of them really knows what happened. A customs agent holds a young man and tries to figure out by talking with him whether he’s being truthful about the contents of some film cans. That same young man, working on the film about the genocide, confronts one of the lead actors — a man of Turkish decent — about his belief that the death of 1.5 million Armenians was a justified part of war. The makers of the film-within-a-film sacrifice facts for a stronger narrative, even though one of their primary missions is to educate the public about the nearly forgotten atrocity.
Curiously, these issues of truth and Egoyan’s blend of fact and fiction could result in viewers questioning whether the Armenian genocide happened or whether Egoyan made it up. That the movie being made within Ararat has the same name as Egoyan’s film is itself a warning to audiences. Just as one should be skeptical about the veracity of historical fiction — or history written in retrospect, or even first-person accounts of historical events — one should not swallow anything Egoyan asserts without proper research.
Roger Ebert gave the movie a mixed notice and hit upon that point almost inadvertently in a note at the end of his review:
In the film, Adolf Hitler is quoted discussing his plans for genocide and asking, “Who remembers the extermination of the Armenians?” The film presents this as fact, although there is enormous controversy over whether Hitler actually ever said it.
But he was an exception. Critics generally characterized the movie’s mission as educational. Ebert at least allowed for an alternative reading but in the end didn’t subscribe to it:
Ararat clearly comes from Egoyan’s heart, and it conveys a message he urgently wants to be heard: that the world should acknowledge and be shamed that a great crime was committed against his people. The message I receive from the movie, however, is a different one: that it is difficult to know the truth of historical events, and that all reports depend on the point of view of the witness and the state of mind of those who listen to the witness. That second message is conveyed by the film, but I am not sure it presents Egoyan’s intention.
Like most of Egoyan’s work, Ararat is nonlinear, and the writer-director doesn’t coddle audiences. He jumps around in time, without obvious markers to orient viewers. This technique is certainly precious, but it’s not an affectation. Egoyan reveals his stories and themes slowly, and he uses structure to create initial confusions and mysteries that involve the audience; he wants you to work. His storytelling method is also designed to gradually provide context for his establishing scenes. In other words, Ararat’s “difficulty” is of-a-piece with the rest of Egoyan’s work.
Ararat is a bit clumsy, but only compared to the director’s other films. I can’t think of another director who can consistently tie together — through plot and theme — so many disparate elements. The trouble Egoyan runs into with Ararat is that he has enlarged his scope so much that elegance suffers. Instead of dealing with intimates — as in Calendar — or a single community — as in The Sweet Hereafter — the narratives and themes encompass history and entire cultures. The result is almost necessarily heavy-handed.
The film-within-the-film also causes problems, because of its tone. Egoyan, whose work tends to the sober and exploratory, seems to me to be mocking this internal movie and its high-minded historical costume-epic ilk, specifically Schindler’s List.
The American doctor on whose diary the movie is based is a self-righteous outsider who adopts a savior pose à la Oskar Schindler in Spielberg’s movie, and the narrative manipulation by the screenwriter and director warns audiences to never take a popular entertainment, no matter how well-intentioned, seriously as education. In addition, the acting, sets, and costumes are all more than a little amateurish, and given the talent on display, particularly reliable performers such as Elias Koteas and Bruce Greenwood, that seems intentional. But it could also be that Egoyan is out of his element. His intimate, inward movies are the antithesis of the Important War Spectacular picture.
Beyond that, satire and levity from somebody whose work — in general and here — is so humorless seem incongruous. And whether this film-within-a-film is badly executed or an unsuccessful attempt at skewering is not important; its quality drops Ararat to second-tier Egoyan, which is still pretty damned wonderful.
Addendum, 30 July 2003
In his self-satisfied (but otherwise excellent) commentary track on the Ararat DVD, Egoyan doesn’t quite cast his movie as I did.
The key difference is that while I saw the movie as being about “truth,” the writer-director considers “meaning” its larger subject. Egoyan says he is particularly interested in the cultural meaning of objects, and how history and meaning are transmitted, particularly through objects — from a button to a painting to a film. Our views of the film aren’t exactly at odds, but his is (not surprisingly) a more nuanced perspective.
Basically, I saw the film akin to the game of Telephone, in which the more a story gets passed around, the more degraded it becomes, and the harder it is to discern its original incarnation. Egoyan views the movie in terms of how each person handles the story and makes it meaningful to him- or herself. A series of artistic interpretations in the movie — a physical reality transformed into a photograph transformed into sketches transformed into a painting (all of which are themselves interpreted in Egoyan’s film) — serves as a good example of how at each point the history or story isn’t less valuable or valid, just different.