Atom Egoyan’s Ararat opens with a close shot on paintbrushes. In the background stands an easel and, nearby, the artist, Arshile Gorky (Simon Abkarian). It’s around 1934, and he’s painting a portrait, himself and his mother, one of his most famous works. At this moment, he’s paused, contemplating. Just what he’s thinking about however, remains unclear.
Quietly, this first scene sets up everything that follows, including the film’s increasingly complex evocations of Gorky’s own troubled past: he survived the Armenian massacre by the Turkish army during World War I, losing his mother in the city of Van, near Ararat Mountain. Beyond recounting this saga, Ararat investigates the nature of storytelling, the ways that particular stories linger or evaporate, how stories are told (to what points and to whom), the vexed and shifting ways that stories are interpreted. Various modes of storytelling come into focus, from history and familial lore, to memory and fantasy, all told and retold, repressed and refashioned to suit needs — emotional, political, and economic.
Ararat arranges its many stories along a zigzaggy route (a structure that is characteristic of Egoyan’s work), moving in and out of times and settings, breaking down characters’ experiences, recollections, and self-images. Gorky is the subject of scrutiny throughout the film, by multiple writers and readers. Art historian Ani (Arsinée Khanjian) has written a provocative new book on Gorky, citing his survival of the massacre as a source for his art. In turn, she’s hired to consult on a film about the massacre by ambitious screenwriter Rouben (Eric Bogosian) and aging director Edward Saroyan (Charles Aznavour), who are seeking an identifiable figure like Gorky to propel their (hopefully) commercial enterprise.
All being of Armenian descent, each has personal stakes in recounting the killings, an event the Turkish government does not acknowledge to this day (this denial underlies the “controversy” surrounding the film, much generated before it opened). The story also moves the actors in the film within the film, also called Ararat, to rethink some of their attitudes and self-images. The accomplished Canadian actor Martin (Bruce Greenwood) is playing the selfless American missionary, Clarence Ussher, whose 1917 memoir, An American Physician in Turkey, grounds Rouben’s script, and provides grisly imagery), and his first exposure to the brutality changes his sense of history, and to whom it’s accountable.
The actor who is most visibly affected by his participation in the project is the half-Turkish Ali (Elias Koteas), who admits, “I never heard about any of this stuff when I was growing up.” Playing Jevdet Bey, the military officer who orders the slaughter of hundreds at Van (and who is written as a stereotypical monster), Ali starts to question his own identity, his sense of community. Feeling alternately defensive about his “people,” and open to the career opportunity presented by the film, he asks Saroyan if he hired him (Ali) because he’s Turkish. The question cuts all ways — Ali is worried that he’s hired only because of his ethnic background (thus undermining his reputation and skill) and that he’s being blamed for the horrors depicted by the self-admittedly biased Armenian filmmakers. Saroyan avoids answering at first, but when Ali pushes him, he pushes back, revealing a deep-seated anger and resentment at an entire people in his dismissal of the actor.
This film within the film occasions the story of yet another character, Ani’s 18-year-old son Raffi (David Alpay). Hired as a production assistant, he’s coming back from Turkey with canisters that he claims are filled with film he shot as background. Stopped by a Toronto customs officer named David (Christopher Plummer), Raffi spends the night recounting how he came to be in this place, at this time. As he talks, the film cuts back and forth, from this present, to Raffi’s flashbacks of his familial difficulties and his time on the movie set, Gorky’s childhood in Van (and the moment when the famous photograph of him and his mother is taken), and Ani’s efforts to reconcile her conflicting aspirations: to be truthful, or at least respectful of her subject, and also to get his story told.
Ani is dealing with her own trauma and revisionary history. Her first husband, Raffi’s father, was killed while trying to assassinate a Turkish politician; her second, father to Raffi’s stepsister Cecilia (Marie-Josée Croze), killed himself when he learned she betrayed him. Cecilia, now sleeping with Raffi, repeatedly confronts Ani during the film, “stalking” her at Ani’s readings, because her stepmother won’t speak to her privately. Cecilia is trying to find out what “really happened.” This leaves young Raffi with a raggedly divided sense of loyalty, and neither woman is able to see the other’s needs or his pain.
As usual in Egoyan’s films (see also Family Viewing, Speaking Parts, Exotica, The Sweet Hereafter, etc.), such tangled familial relationships inspire chaos and meanness as much as understanding and benevolence. Elegant and deliberate even as it depicts horrific events, the film is both intellectual and deeply passionate.
Both tellers and listeners are responsible for their relationships as well as the stories that sustain them (even, or perhaps especially when they resist such responsibility). Raffi is invested in what happened to Gorky, his mother’s dedication to her project(s), his lover/stepsister’s anger at his mother. And while he tells his layered tale, David is clearly fascinated, even sympathetic, but also distracted. Flashbacks reveal that he too is undergoing domestic strain — his son (who happens to be sleeping with Ali) accuses him of homophobia, and threatens not to let him see his grandson. Thus David’s reaction to Raffi (much like Raffi’s to his mother, or Ani’s to Cecilia) emerges in part out of his own desires — to have revenge, make things “right,” or make sense of all the tumult in his life, maybe even to help Raffi recover his own way.
Raffi shows David the digital video diary he made during his trip to Turkey, during which he visited shrines (and Mount Ararat) he knows are important to Ani’s research, her personal interests, and self-identifications. At this moment, though he’s still, Raffi is visibly wound up, eager to win her understanding and approval and also, to understand her and feel proud of her. As he frames the video’s story for David, the film frame is segmented, showing the video and Raffi’s face, as well as David’s reactions. This layering — ancient artifacts, contemporary technology, sober human reflection — depicts, in an instant, Ararat‘s project, its study of the interrelated processes of reception and belief.
David must choose to believe — what’s in the film cans, what Raffi intends, what Raffi knows, what’s the “best” thing to do. His decision will have lasting effects on the boy and himself. But it’s unknowable how their stories will end. Here again, Gorky’s story is helpfully emblematic. Near the end of Ararat, the scene returns to its opening, the artist paused at his canvas. Looking at the portrait of himself and his mother, almost finished, he suddenly grabs up a handful of paint solvent and destroys the section representing his mother’s hands. The portrait will remain unfinished. Of all the violences depicted in the film, this is perhaps the most visceral, and it makes clear that no single history, whether personal or collective, can be complete.