The members of a film crew struggle with their own respective interpretations of the past as they make a docudrama about the Armenian holocaust. [ Ararat credits: Dir: Atom Egoyan/ David Alpay, Arsinee Khanjian, Christopher Plummer/ 115min/ Drama/ Canada/ Democide]
In 1939, when Hitler was boldly embarking on his genocide of six million Jews, he is reported to have remarked, “Who, after all, remembers the extermination of the Armenians?” Indeed, hardly anyone does. Hence the importance of this film, the first major cinematic production to address this tragedy.
The main characters of the story are Ani, an art historian of Armenian extraction consulting on the film, and her son Raffi, a young man who is haunted by the history of the Armenian holocaust. In a key scene, Raffi must convince a customs agent to allow him to bring into the country exposed film taken in Armenia to be used as background shots. The customs agent demands to know more about the film’s subject matter, and so Raffi has to relate the inner story (illustrated for the viewer in flashbacks)–how the Armenians were surrounded by the Turkish military, worn down in constant battle, and eventually tortured, murdered, and driven at gunpoint on long marches till many of them were dead.
Ararat should have been a powerful film, on the order of Schindler’s List or other major Holocaust films. Organized mass murder deserves a memorable telling. Unfortunately, this film takes a middle course, reporting the history of the massacres while at the same time giving voice to those who doubt that it happened.
This is very odd. Even Encyclopedia Britannica, a fairly objective source, states plainly that the Turkish government forcibly deported 1.8 million Armenians in 1915, during the course of which exodus roughly 600,000 Armenians either died of starvation en route or were killed by Turkish soldiers. Others estimate that more than a million Armenians perished.
So why the self-doubt? It probably reflects a frustration that the massacres left so little physical record. The only evidence for them is a slew of eyewitness accounts, some confessions, and the otherwise unexplained disappearance of a large part of the Armenian population. Of course, the Turkish government denies that it committed the alleged atrocities. But guess what? For all of human history until very recent times, that kind of limited and sometimes contradictory record is all historians have ever had to work with. That doesn’t mean reliable conclusions can’t be drawn. Even the Hitler quote at the beginning of this review is disputed by some. Does that mean that Hitler never said it? How can we know anything about the past? It’s just that kind of philosophizing that seems to bedevil the makers of this film.
Such intellectual angst, combined with long dramatic pauses, pouty emotional behavior, and the occasional gratuitous use of French, give this film a slightly pretentious flavor. But if you can get past that, Christopher Plummer delivers a solid performance, though in a relatively minor role, and the scenes of atrocities are touching.
From a libertarian perspective, Ararat is an important film because it brings into the popular mind the heretofore forgotten memory of one of the twentieth century’s worst crimes by government, indeed a crime that may have helped to set a pattern for massacres and genocides to come. If you’ve never heard of the Armenian holocaust, this would at least be a good place to start.