At the Mercy of Viewers
Interview with Atom Egoyan
interview by Cynthia Fuchs, 29 November 2002

27th Toronto International Film Festival

Atom Egoyan's black suit is rumpled. But as always, he's alert and probing, hungry for conversation. And he's had a lot of that recently, traveling with his new film, Ararat. Alternately cheered and damned for its representation of the Turkish army's massacre of a million Armenians during World War I, the film has become "controversial." He's received emails calling him a "hatemonger." All this is new for the forty-two-year-old Egoyan, whose work is characteristically deliberate, elegant, and above all, exploring relationships between art and interpretation.

These ideas are also at the center of Ararat, which represents the massacre at Van in a film within a film, and focuses its interrogation of art and history through the vexed story of Arshile Gorky, a survivor of the 1915 massacre at Van. Around this figure (who was the subject of Egoyan's short film, A Portrait of Arshile [1995]) swirl several others, each attempting to know his or her own position in relation to this (repressed) history and a diasporic Armenian identity. The film is of a piece with his previous features, for examples, Next of Kin (1984), Family Viewing (1987), Speaking Parts (1989), The Adjuster (1991), Exotica (1994), The Sweet Hereafter (1997), and Felicia's Journey (1999), as well as his TV film (featured at the Toronto Film Festival), Krapp's Last Tape (2000), in its exploration of the medium of film as a means to remember and revise. Ararat also explores limits and promises, the ways that art allows communication and also complicates it, the ways that "history" might recover and situate identity, as well as reshape it.

Cynthia Fuchs: I confess, I walked into the film knowing very little about the massacre, other than hearing that it was contested "history."

Atom Egoyan: I think it's better if you know nothing about it, because the effect of understanding that something of that scale could have happened without you knowing about it, is then almost cumulative as you watch. It makes you better understand the Plummer character's transformation.

CF: I was struck by the opening on Arshile Gorky in his studio, painting his mother's hands.

AE: Yes. Ultimately, histories are transmitted by artifacts, by cultural objects that we can appreciate. But we don't usually understand how they were made. And the decisions behind the gesture to make something and the details that define that object require investigation. That idea threaded into the larger idea of the film, which is that history is not just about telling a story. Someone has to receive it, someone has to listen, someone has to be curious and investigate. And there are a number of people who are making things in the film: Ani [Arsinée Khanjian] is writing a book, Raffi [David Alpay] is making his digital diary, Edward [Charles Aznavour] is making a film, Rouben [Eric Bogosian] is writing his screenplay, and Gorky [Simon Abkarian] is making his painting. Of all of these objects that are transmitting the story of the genocide or transmitting some notion of trauma, the one that emerges as an acknowledged masterpiece is Gorky's painting. Yet, for many years, it hung in the Whitney, and another version in the National Gallery of Art in DC, and no one even knew he was Armenian. And people could respond to the power of the piece without understanding the story it told.

And this ties in with the story of Gorky: he transformed himself, remade himself, when he came here. Arshile Gorky is not his real name. There was more in the original script about that, but it just became too much. He produced this body of work, but the indicators as to who he was were shrouded in mystery. He said he was the cousin of Maxim Gorky, and created this whole myth about himself. That fascinated me, that he was the most famous survivor of the massacre at Van, the only person who created a masterpiece from the ashes of this experience. But he felt he had to became a Zelig character, redefine himself to accommodate this new reality. And then, he created his most original work when he went back into his subconscious. And the study of him could be the conduit through which this woman, Ani, could begin to deal with her own trauma. It interests me that we have these objects, but we're unsure how far we want to go in investigating them. The hands -- why he didn't finish them -- that's conjecture, but it's a possibility.

CF: The image of his erasing the hands is powerful.

AE: And for all the violence in the film, that is probably the most visceral moment.

CF: The painting of his mother also speaks to the relationship between Raffi and his mother Ani.

AE: The fascinating thing about the painting is that it's based on the only surviving portrait we have of Gorky, from his ancestral homeland. Even when his studio burned, that was the one object he salvaged. And the pose, which is so touching, the way the boy holds the flower. And there might be a story behind that. There are a lot of decisions that give us access to the emotional life of an object, that we can either attend to or discard. And the decision to discard is so frighteningly easy, because we can't absorb everything, we can't look at everything. That's just our condition. And the only reason perhaps that the customs officer [Plummer] takes the time that night [to listen to Raffi's story] is because of what's happened in his own personal life. He's worried that his contact with his grandson might be cut off because he's perceived as intolerant. But is he being intolerant? He's trying to accommodate his son's situation, but the son can't see that because he has his own traumas.

We'll never know why the customs officer did this. And Raffi, he's just this kid who's made a foolish choice, and caught up in this extraordinary confabulation of the film he worked on and his own diary. He gets carried away with telling the story. And the mother is, in Armenian culture, as she is in many cultures, the one who transmits language and culture. So there's an important scene with Gorky's mother and the child, telling him that he'll never forget what's happened here, what will happen here. It's a crucial link between mother and son, and it's been broken between Ani and Raffi. When she says, "Your father died for something he believed in," Raffi can only say, "I wish I knew what that was." So, when he's on the movie set, there's something very fake about what he sees being made [the recreation of the massacre], and yet, in those stereotypes, there is something primal for him. While mothers and sons embody this transmission of culture, the film is about the transmission of trauma, as it's transmitted from one generation to another.

CF: The story Raffi tells at the beginning of the film, about the son with his mother's heart in his hands: what is the background for that?

AE: There are two well-known Armenian poems. The first is about a mother's heart, which is the key to what is happening with [Raffi's stepsister] Celia [Marie-Josée Croze]. The whole story is that the girlfriend says, if you love me, you must prove it by bringing me your mother's heart, and the boyfriend kills a deer. But the girlfriend says no, I want your mother's heart. And the other poem, recited later in the film, is about the dancing women and the German missionary. That's a third person story: the poet tells what he's heard from someone else. And that has to do with the film's layering of telling: we have this poem that was taken from a third person, a screenwriter takes that poem, a director takes the screenplay, directs actors, Raffi watches the performance, then tells the story to the customs officer. So there are layers of people interpreting the story, and passing it on.

CF: And isn't that where some of the controversy about the film is located, that somehow, seeing an image on screen makes it fact, and so the representation of the massacre, no matter how layered and in process of interpretation as history, upsets viewers?

AE: I find that baffling. People have conflated the film within the film with my movie. I think people who should be smarter about the type of work I'm doing just can't get beyond it. The artifact of Edward's film is not "truth." I think of him as someone who is a child of survivors, who has heard the stories as a child, and is making this film at the end of his career. I didn't want to be ironic about his film, to make fun of it, because that would have been tonally wrong. But there are a lot of clues that there is a separation between his film and my film.

CF: Then again, that's a point in the film, that you can't predict how people will react.

AE: Yes, and I should have understood this. You can frame a premiere of the film, have shots of people watching it in a theater, but there's this atavistic effect that the film image has -- we break down the frames, we are in that space. I have to keep reminding myself about how that works, especially when you're dealing with such violent imagery. People have odd journeys through movies. And that's what makes it fascinating, that we're in this weird dream state as we watch. There are differences in the ways people react: some are completely drawn into the melodrama of these families, and others find it too "thick."

CF: That complexity of effect is repeated in all your films, and responses to them take many forms: emotional, formal, political, spiritual, intellectual, combinations of all of the above.

AE: Yeah, and I think with this film, there's an expectation that the film is going to finally tell the truth of what happened. And actually, that's not what it's about. It's about what the cumulative effect of what happened is, today. So, I think there is a viewer who during the first half hour, without even seeing any historical footage, will feel a little lost.

CF: Maybe you need to make more explicit transitions, dissolves to indicate "flashbacks."

AE: And that would be so painful, right? I think very often, people think they want things clearer and more streamlined, but they don't, really. When people say they want to see more of the film within the film, they probably don't really. If you saw more of that movie, you'd find it sort of unwatchable.

CF: And that's a function of anxiety over taking responsibility for your own reading.

AE: And it goes back to having this object that you can be attracted to but you don't take the time to investigate it.

CF: There's also the longstanding vexed relationship that governments, and people who want to trust their governments, have with history. We're seeing this happen daily in the U.S. right now, in particular.

AE: And that's why I'm so excited about the film coming out right now. In dealing with any sort of tyranny or terror -- it's about denying someone else's humanity, being able to abstract. To commit any sort of violence, you need to be able to do that, to assume that other person doesn't have a right to exist. So right now, the film can make people understand that there are other histories, other perspectives, that you cannot abstract. Genocide is the result of being able to abstract an entire people. But that can exist in a domestic situation, to abstract another member of your family, we can all do that, but have to be vigilant, and try to discover the complexity of someone else's right to exist.

CF: I think I read another interview with you, where you discussed the possibility of an acknowledgment by an institution, a state, that might allow a "moral resolution."

AE: It's also the lot of diaspora. We found ourselves in these host countries, and if the countries that we found ourselves in would acknowledge. And there are many states that have acknowledged that there was a genocide.

CF: There's a memorial being planned in the U.S., right?

AE: Yes. Politically, the federal government can't use the word -- it makes you wonder when that word is used. Reagan used it once.

CF: I read that. And that was a slip?

AE: It was, actually. But it is true, that you take comfort knowing that the place that you live in, recognizes it, even if Turkey cannot. That has a huge symbolic value. Last night there were Turkish people in the audience, and outside of the context of their own country, they could see that the film is offering a discourse. I am hopeful that the film might go to the Istanbul Film festival in April 2003.

CF: Ali helps construct that discourse.

AE: Yes, he's so sympathetic, and so progressive. For a person of that culture to be comfortable with his homosexuality is rare, but he's completely comfortable in his skin, more so than his lover. When he is uncomfortable, after playing that stereotype, Jevdet Bey, in the film, you see that he doesn't really come with an agenda. It's interesting that the director dismisses him, just because he has that privilege, just as Ani dismisses Celia. It's like they're saying, "Even if I could believe, I wouldn't, because I don't have to." The most soul-destroying aspect of this process is that you realize that recognition is a privilege that some people grant themselves.

CF: Yes, as when Ani tells Raffi, about Celia, "I'm not responsible to her," not even acknowledging that he has feelings for and responsibility to Celia. 

AE: Right. It's interesting that there are these small gestures that are more telling than the broad clinical gestures. Because ultimately it's about moments between individuals, negotiations not between countries but between mothers and sons, and strangers in a hallway, stepdaughters and mothers. And they break down because people don't need to engage. In the hallway, when Raffi and Ali are talking, Raffi compares the Turks to Hitler. It's a response that every Armenian has in his back pocket, but it stops the conversation dead. The only history that's changed or made, is between two strangers in a customs office, because the officer believes that something has changed in that kid.

CF: And it is a question of belief, and a choice to believe.

AE: Yes. We showed the film in Armenia last week, and this villager said to me, that he was struck by the fact that the customs officer won't let the pomegranate through at the beginning of the film, kind of a national fruit for Armenians, but a the end, he's willing to let something else pass. Again, it's because of his own personal needs.

CF: Which are changed by listening to the story. He goes through the transformation inherent in being a reader.

AE: And it's funny because I'm not quite sure: has the link with his son -- who's living with Ali -- been broken so he doesn't know about the film he's hearing about from Raffi? Or does he know all about this movie? We don't know that.

CF: And Ani has her own crisis of reading and identity, a serious academic working on a movie, a bit of popular culture that is patently not completely factual.

AE: And why does she make the decision to be involved with the film? Because it's flattering. She rationalizes, that she wants to get Gorky's story told, but she has to go into denial, to be able to put up with the artifice, to see Mount Ararat in the wrong place. So, she's in this sort of split. When she storms onto the set and ruins the shot, it's completely irrational. And while she's worried about trashing a work of art, Gorky's painting or his story, she's perfectly willing to trash the film scene. You want to get the story told to as many people as possible, but at what point are you compromising too much, so it's no longer the story you want to tell?

CF: So how do you feel about where you are now, that you have more "clout," for lack of a better term, to get things done these days than in years past?

AE: I feel that whatever ability I have, it's amazing that I could focus it on making this film. One of the reasons that this story has taken so long to be told, is that it's difficult to justify it as a commercial enterprise. It's been satisfying to use the "clout" that I have at this point to do it. I realize it's a challenging piece of work, but I was happy to make it at this scale. I think it needed the resources I had to make, say, the film within the film.

CF: That alone would be the entire budget of some of your other films.

AE: Exactly. It's also satisfying to see it distributed, because if you make something and it's not seen, there's no discourse around it. I've been doing installation work recently [Steenbeckett, for London's Artangel's 10th anniversary, and Hors D'usage, for Montreal's Le Musée D'Art Contemporain, opened in the August, 2002], and explored effects of audio recording [in Krapp's Last Tape, an adaptation of Samuel Beckett's stage-play, starring John Hurt]. I've been doing that, along with opera work [he directed the Canadian Opera Company production of Salome in 1996, and his own original opera, Elsewhereless, composed by Rodney Sharman, premiered in Toronto in 1998], or theater work.

These are very specific to the people who can get to see them. And that's made me thankful for what film allows. But I do think there's an installation aspect to my film work, as well. I became acutely aware of this in Cannes: there's a scene in my film, showing the premiere of Edward's film, and those moments collided. We were seeing his audience watching the premiere of his film, and then we see ourselves watching this premiere. It was very exciting, that alchemy. In Speaking Parts, when Gabrielle Rose walks into the video mausoleum, which is an actual installation "event," in the film, or the club in Exotica: these are physical spaces that characters and then viewers have to negotiate. And the way they negotiate raises a set of other issues.

CF: And Ani takes her research "on the road," on her book tour, making it public.

AE: And those are the moments, the performances, when Celia chooses to intervene. When you're denied, you try to crash someone else's show. And also, Ani was telling the story about Gorky, but Celia heard her own story. And I love that moment at the book reading, when Celia asks, "Can we talk about this other scene in the book," and Ani just says, "No."

CF: So for installations or live performances, you're forced to take into account alternative readings, or not, if you're Ani, I guess.

AE: Right. And that's something I've worked through in my films. They used to be more formalistic. Say, Family Viewing, all the textures and grades, then that becomes part of the language. I've come to understand that for the most part, people aren't reading film textures. And maybe that's part of the problem with the film within the film in Ararat.

CF: They're reading the way they've learned to read.

AE: And people who just react emotionally, who are familiar with the grammar, but don't read it in detail.

CF: But isn't that something you have to accept, that a film is out there and it's beyond you? Though, the controversy about it sort of brings it back round to you and expects you to "explain," to be responsible.

AE: There's so much you're expected to do and that you want to do. You fight for final cut, but in the end, you're at the mercy of viewers.

Toronto International Film Festival Coverage:



  Copyright © 1996-2005 by Nitrate Productions, Inc. All Rights Reserved.