Ararat is a 2002 Canadian-French historical-drama film written and directed by Atom Egoyan and starring Charles Aznavour, Christopher Plummer, David Alpay, Arsinée Khanjian, Eric Bogosian, Bruce Greenwood and Elias Koteas.
It is about a family and film crew in Toronto working on a film based loosely on the 1915 defense of Van during the Armenian Genocide. In addition to exploring the human impact of that specific historical event, Ararat examines the nature of truth and its representation through art. The Genocide is disputed by the Government of Turkey, an issue that partially inspired and is explored in the film.
In Toronto, an Armenian Canadian family is headed by Ani, a widow whose husband attempted to assassinate a Turkish ambassador. Her adult son Raffi is involved in a sexual affair with Celia, his step-sister, who has accused Ani of pushing her father off of a cliff, while Ani insists he slipped and fell. Ani gives art history presentations on Armenian American painter Arshile Gorky, with Celia constantly attending and publicly heckling Ani about concealing the truth.
An Armenian film director, Edward Saroyan, arrives to Toronto with a goal to make a film about the Armenian Genocide, the Van Resistance, and Gorky. Ani is hired as a historical consultant, with Raffi working on the project with his mother. An aspiring Turkish Canadian actor named Ali receives his big break when cast as Ottoman governor Jevdet Bey. Ali reads on the history of the genocide, which he had never heard much of before, and offends Raffi when he tells Saroyan that he believes the Ottomans felt the genocide was justified, in light of World War I. Raffi attempts to explain to Ali that the Armenians were citizens of the Ottoman Empire and that the Turks were not at war with them. Ali shrugs the encounter off, saying they were both born in Canada and they should together try to move past the genocide.
After Raffi returns to Canada from a flight to Turkey, he is interrogated at airport security by a retiring customs official named David, who has reason to believe Raffi is involved in a plot to smuggle drugs. Rather than employ drug-sniffing dogs, David prefers to speak to Raffi at length, with Raffi claiming he had taken it upon himself to shoot extra footage in Turkey. In fact, the film is premiering that night. Inspired by his own son, David chooses to believe Raffi is innocent, and releases him. The film reels remain with him, however, which David discovers to contain heroin.
- Charles Aznavour as Edward Saroyan.
- Christopher Plummer as David.
- David Alpay as Raffi.
- Arsinée Khanjian as Ani.
- Eric Bogosian as Rouben.
- Marie-Josée Croze as Celia.
- Brent Carver as Philip.
- Bruce Greenwood as Martin Harcourt, the actor playing Clarence Ussher.
- Elias Koteas as Ali, the actor playing Jevdet Bey.
- Lousnak as Shoushan, mother of Arshile Gorky.
- Simon Abkarian as Arshile Gorky.
- Garen Boyajian as young Arshile Gorky.
Issues explored in the film include truth and art. Using a story within a story device, the film explores whether films should recreate war crimes, and whether films can alter facts to communicate more important truths.
Another theme of the film is gaps between generations, as it explores how later generations understand the historical record rather than the Armenian Genocide itself. Numerous Armenian Canadian characters in the film identify symbols with their heritage, such as pictures of Mount Ararat. The fictionalized Arshile Gorky’s symbols are a button and a photo of his mother. Gorky is depicted in the film as a link between the history and current life of the Armenian people.
Director Atom Egoyan and his wife, actress Arsinée Khanjian, are Armenian Canadians, and some of Egoyan’s ancestors had been lost in the genocide. Egoyan had attempted to explain the genocide to their son, Arshile, when he was around six. Arshile asked, “Did the Turks say sorry?” The film Ararat is intended as a response to that question.
Producer Robert Lantos had promised that he would support a film about the genocide if Egoyan ever felt prepared to make one. Alliance Films provided Egoyan a budget of $12 million.
For cinematography, Egoyan worked with his frequent collaborator Paul Sarossy, with shooting taking place over 45 days during summer 2001. The battle scenes depicting the Defense of Van were shot in Drumheller, Alberta, with some of the soldiers actually being computer generated. The Van villages were also computer generated.
Other scenes were shot at Cherry Beach in Toronto. The film could not be shot in Turkey or at the real Mount Ararat because of Turkey’s denial of the genocide.
The film was made prior to the Parliament of Canada voting to recognize the Armenian Genocide in 2004. Egoyan said it was more important that the Turkish government accept the truth.
MGM considered distributing Ararat but Alex Yemenidjian, the chief executive, stated that financially it would not be rational for it to distribute the film; therefore Miramax distributed it instead.
The film was screened out of competition at the 2002 Cannes Film Festival. The film also played on the opening day of the 2002 Toronto International Film Festival on 05 September. The film opened on 15 November 2002 in Los Angeles, New York City and Toronto.
When Ararat was released, it was the sole film screened in commercial theatres in the United States in the modern era to be about the Armenian genocide.
The Italian release of Ararat was intended to for 24 April 2003. However, its showing was unexpectedly banned by Italian authorities a day before the planned release, with the authorities explaining that the film’s distributor missed the deadline to apply for a mandatory censorship certificate. The Embassy of Turkey in Rome acknowledged its government did not want the film screened in Italy, but said it was not involved in the decision that the film would not be shown.
Initially Yılmaz Karakoyunlu, the Turkish Minister of State, said that the Turkish government would oppose the film as much as possible. However the Turkish government had given permission for the film to run in Turkey as it was, at the time, trying to increase freedom of expression so Turkey could join the European Union. Belge Film had permission from the Turkish government to release the film in Turkey itself, but opted not to when nationalists pledged to “take action”. It ran on the Turkish TV station Kanaltürk four years later.
In the opening week after the limited release on 15 November, the film averaged $35,188 per screen. It made $162,000 in five theatres by 18 November. By 24 days, it had made US$1.1 million in North America.
The film completed its run on 30 January 2003, with a gross of $1,555,959 in North America. It grossed $1,187,377 in other territories for a total of $2,743,336.
Critical reception was mostly negative.
Ethnic Turks in Canada had proposed boycotting films by Disney and its subsidiary companies, and several nationalist critics sent e-mails to Egoyan and established websites arguing that the film’s premise is not true. Some individuals sent threats to Egoyan, including statements that a release of the film could result in danger for Armenians in Turkey. Film Quarterly stated “Ararat touched off a new round of angry denials and charges of hate mongering.”
Awards and Accolades
The film won several awards. These included five awards at the 23rd Genie Awards, which Ararat star Arsinée Khanjian co-hosted with actor Peter Keleghan. Egoyan was not present.
In 2008, the government of Israel also awarded the Dan David Prize to Egoyan for “creative rendering of the past.” Ararat was especially a reason for the honour.
- The film was featured out of competition at the 2002 Cannes Film Festival.
- It won five awards at the 23rd Genie Awards, including Best Motion Picture.
Production & Filming Details
- Director(s): Atom Egoyan.
- Producer(s): Atom Egoyan and Robert Lantos.
- Writer(s): Atom Egoyan.
- Music: Mychael Danna.
- Cinematography: Paul Sarossy.
- Editor(s): Susan Shipton.
- Distributor(s): Miramax Films.
- Release Date: 20 May 2002 (Cannes International Film Festival).
- Running Time: 115 minutes.
- Rating: 15.
- Country: Canada and France.
- Language: English, Armenian, French, and German.