A Conversation with Atom Egoyan
by Ben Poster
Interview: Then’ and ‘Then Again’ and ‘Now’
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Though we touched briefly on his under-seen documentary Citadel, and his soon to be seen film, Adoration—due out this fall—my chance to speak with Atom Egoyan focused more on his work from the slightly-less-recent past. Atom was just awarded the Dan David Prize for ‘Creative Rendering of the Past: Literature, Theater, Film’ for work done throughout his career, but the prize singled out his achievements in Ararat, specifically, as truly ‘unique’ and ‘superb’ in their exploration of ‘Armenian history and culture and the human impact of an historical event.’ We discussed his feelings on that film across its varying stages of development, and how he considers its story, and the potential to tell other stories like it, in our current times today…
Ben Poster: First off, congratulations on your award. Were you familiar with that award prior to hearing that you’d received it?
Atom Egoyan: No, to be honest, I wasn’t. I’m teaching at the University of Toronto, and there’s an awards department here, and they identified the award and, given what the prize was acknowledging this particular year, they submitted the application. And it was really overwhelming, as you can imagine, especially given the two… heroes of mine that I’m sharing it with. I mean, it’s really quite a remarkable, and unexpected act of generosity.
I’m still a little stunned by it all. Were you familiar with it?
BP: I wasn’t, initially, but with the research that I’ve done since, yeah, it really is fine company that you’re sharing it with. (Amos Oz and Tom Stoppard were also awarded as fellow 2008 laureates for their ‘Creative Rendering of the Past’ in literature and theater, respectively.)
I did want to ask you how you felt about being awarded for, what looked to be, Ararat specifically?
AE: Yeah, I do think that one of the things that has been very gratifying is the enduring ripple effect of that film. I think that it was a film that many people were surprised by at the time and certainly may have not conformed to an expected genre, or formula, in terms of how history is presented. But I did have a very specific ambition in mind, and I’ve always been really proud of the movie, and I think that it’s really… quite amazing to me how much material has been written about it since its release, and continues to be written about it. It’s seemed to have found a very unique place, I think because of the very unique relationship that piece of history has to our collective consciousness. You know, the Armenian genocide is not widely known, and certainly, what makes it very unusual is that its perpetrators have never actually admitted or come to terms with it. So, its lingering effects on generations of Armenians has been really quite convoluted and unusual and I needed to find a film that could reflect that very particular experience.
And what’s been gratifying is that it’s actually been able to make it presence known very far outside of the community. In fact, one could maybe even say that many Armenians have a problem with the film because it doesn’t represent what they would like the external world to know about but it does reflect a communal consciousness and was certainly the only way that I could tell that story.
BP: Yeah, and it’s the ‘creative rendering’ of that story that I’m hoping to talk about because to me, it almost seems like a peak. It seems like a lot of the techniques and themes of your previous films, like your focus on mediation, seem sort of like they’ve almost been building to find a forum like this where there is such a larger, and more difficult story to tell.
AE: Well, you’re very right. I have always been fascinated by the notion of denial: how people can accommodate different versions of reality. And up until Ararat, that was largely focused within a family structure. Now that is still persistent in Ararat—certainly in the relationship between mother and son, and the step-sister, and certainly within the other family in the film, with Christopher Plummer and his son—but the challenge was to take some of those ideas and look at them in a broader way and to refer back to, what to me has been one of the most fundamental acts of denial in my upbringing, which is this almost… inexplicable persistence with which the Turkish government has denied a history that I’ve been taught. That does begin to distort your own sense of what that history might be, and it’s a very problematic and quite contentious issue within the community, and I think that might have been one of the reasons why aspects of my community responded quite violently against the movie. By no means am I trying to say that history is open to interpretation at one level, but, on the other hand, we do know that our sense of history is often the way in which differing aspects of what might have happened become resolved by all of the parties involved.
And that’s an ongoing and very troubling reality, especially when you are dealing with genocide, and when you are dealing with something where the violence is quite unspeakable because you do, still, have to speak about it, and articulate and define it. So, it’s an ongoing process and I needed to find a language and a structure which would allow me to examine that.
BP: And in… further considering how those different approaches effect what is then the ultimate authority of a story, I’ve recently here in Chicago been working on a documentary film centered around some local journalists here, and the development right now in journalism where reporters are taking more of a step towards… the contextual—taking a broader scope on a story. I’ve sort of been learning about, and talking to a few of them about how journalism specifically has a history of this sort of anecdotal approach, where you’ll have like a ‘one-off’ with a specific story that often will stay a little too self-contained within that specific person or story, etc. And a few of the guy’s that I’ve been interviewing have really worked to take this step back and use those instances or personal experiences as an ‘in’ to try and tell this broader story…
AE: Yes, and I think that that’s very true, but the troubling aspect of that is that it presupposes that there will a degree of curiosity or investigation on the part of the recipient which is not always there. Very often people are prepared to live with the anecdote, and not really read further into it. And because the culture is moving at such a high-pace right now, people don’t have the time, very often, to go further. So, we as dramatists, we are in this dilemma where we understand very often, what our responsibility is to a story, BUT, we are also aware of attention span and the need to seduce. You cannot impart an issue without it having a seductive element to the listener. And I think that’s what happens in Ararat, weirdly enough, is that this boy is stopped at customs with these mysterious cans of film and has to explain himself. And he starts off, really, in a very casual and anecdotal manner but as he develops his own version of the telling of the story, and he becomes more and more impassioned, and has happens to have fallen across a man who on that particular night, is prepared to listen and has time—and it’s because, as we find out later on, it’s Plummer’s last night on the job… and that maybe his issues with his own family, and with his relationship to his own son—he is prepared to spend more time listening to this story than… might have otherwise have happened. And that to me, weirdly enough, is very often how histories are actually exchanged—it’s not only the responsibility of the teller, but also the moment in which the person receiving the story is conditioned or prepared to actually absorb what’s being offered. And that’s a very precarious place! Especially when you are talking about it collectively. I mean to say that a group of people are prepared to accept a version, or to accept an anecdote, and repeat the anecdote, and actually discus it amongst themselves, and go further with that… I mean, that… has happened, but it’s increasingly rare in our structure.
BP: And that’s funny because I kind of think of two things with that: number one, the decision that you made to do Ararat within the timing of your career, as a ‘teller’ of that specific story a that time; and number two, also, what you’re saying is that… you need to consider the timing of the audience…
I mean, did you feel like it was a good time to tell this story?
AE: Honestly, no. Honestly, I would have preferred to have waited. But what had happened was that my producer, Robert Lantos… I was being honored by the Armenian community and I asked Robert, who is a Hungarian Jew and I very absorbed in telling the story of his people, to introduce me because we have a long-standing friendship. And, well, he, quite impossibly in front of my community said that, ‘as a Jew, we have many tellings of the Holocaust but there is still no telling, publicly, or widely distributed version of the Armenian genocide. And if Atom is prepared to make this film, I am prepared to support it.’ And this had an explosive response with this audience, and I felt that this was a moment that I needed to deal with this because Robert was prepared to support and it would have been foolish to not take advantage of that.
So, I had written a script in my early twenties, which was actually the film within the film, and it was when I was just really learning about my own history, and I had just come to Toronto which was the first time that I had visited with the Armenian community, and I wrote this historic drama which I quickly… put into a drawer because it wasn’t really my type of movie. But, I went back to it, and I started asking myself why I felt so uncomfortable telling the story that way and I realized that it wasn’t really my personal experience of what that history means in the present. And that’s how Ararat evolved—it was really a response, both on a practical level as a project that Robert was prepared to support, but also to my own need to make it personal and to tell it in a way that I felt was relevant to my experience. So, it suddenly became very urgent as a result of these factors… crashing into each other.
BP: It’s just ironic then, well… not ironic but… with the political implications that the film’s reception had specific to Turkey and their… ongoing attempts for inclusion into the EU and…
AE: And well, it continues—I mean, this issue won’t go away; you saw that with the murder of Hrant Dink, the Armenian journalist, last year, who was murdered outside of his office by these ultra-nationalists. I mean, this is crazy that an Armenian could still be murdered in Turkey in the present day but it’s…a strange story of racial hatred…and it persists.
I think the thing that makes it unique if you compare it to the Holocaust is that I think that anti-Semitism is a global phenomenon that has certainly occurred in many different cultures and at many different times, but, anti-Armenianism is something so specific to a response to a community in Turkey at that moment. In that way then, it doesn’t have that same global recognition, but that, perhaps, allows it to work for many people as almost a parable. It has a different status, and that’s dramatically interesting certainly.
I mean, a lot of people’s response to the film is, ‘how could something on that scale have happened that I’ve never heard about?’ That’s interesting. That’s just an interesting dramatic zone to be in.
BP: Yeah and, if it has, clearly, continued as an issue… has it continued as an interest for you as well? Do you feel now that you have addressed this, and that you no longer have any interest in revisiting it…?
AE: No, I’ve revisited it in that I did an art installation piece here last year which actually traveled to the Venice Biennale that was a collaboration with a Turkish film artist called Kutlug Ataman called Auroras. And in 2015, it will be the 100th anniversary and… you know, there may be another approach. I’ve certainly kept all of the costumes from the film and I’m not quite sure what that approach might be but it’s not something that I’ve conveniently now left behind. It’s an ongoing issue. But I really did feel as if that was all that I had to say about it at that particular moment of my life.
BP: I’m curious as to whether or not you’ve seen any of these newer Romanian films… 4 months, 3 weeks, 2 Days? Again, with these films, there’s clearly a much larger story about communism in that country and the reign of that dictatorship, but again how that film, and others, keep coming back to this ‘in’ that they use; this technique to have the film really be about this uniquely individual experience each time…
AE: But I do think that that’s how stories are communicated. It’s by individuals. It’s by intimate moments between parents and children and the telling of very very small stories in some ways which touch you; which may not be necessarily about the issues that are screaming all around you, but the things that you have to strain to listen to. And that act of applying yourself makes the reception of that story that much more resonant sometimes. I mean, how do most people know about the Holocaust? It’s through the diary of Anne Frank, that’s still a very… such an intimate telling of it.
BP: Something else that clearly plays a big role, and is a continuing interest of yours, is the role of visual mediation and imagery of these…historical events. Recently there’s been a lot going on in this country surrounding the anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s death, and I personally have been reviewing a lot of that iconic civil rights footage and how integral it was for that stuff to be on television, each and every night—the hosings and the riots and those things…and how having that… not ‘evidence’ but just the role of that imagery in mediating what was this larger cultural issue. I know that visual mediation is a theme of yours across the board but specifically in this context of representing the past…
AE: I think one of the things that we have to remember when we look at some of the civil rights movement footage, is that we can’t underestimate that millions of people were watching that footage at precisely the same time. And, there was a collective will which then, and without becoming too mysterious about this—when people are watching things collectively, it generates a very different type of response, then when it’s registered individually with these technologies that we’re dealing with now. That is to say that if someone were to post some of those images on the net, or, certainly a lot of those images exist on YouTube, the fact that you are watching it alone, and in a moment that is convenient for you, as opposed to that time when there were what, three networks, and at six o’clock, we all understood that we were watching the same thing…I think that that does create, you know, a different call. And that what’s happened now is that we are inundated with this visual communication, but it is so fractured in its mode of presentation and so disparate in the energy that it communicates because of the technology. So, there’s a paradox where we are seeing much more and having access to much more, but that somehow—and we all understand this—it’s not as forceful as it was to the generation that was witnessing that civil rights movement footage.
BP: Would you go as far as to say then that that collectivity is necessary for what would then be a ‘present’? To use another example, the horrible school massacre at Virginia Tech that happened in this country…it’s always bothered me a little bit that that almost instantly seemed to become ‘the past’ or ‘historical’—just seemed to be another notch in this legacy of school violence, only because there wasn’t enough of this sort of visual proof or evidence of it needed to make it something happening ‘now’…
AE: And again, the Armenian genocide, there was a documentation from a German missionary who took stills but…in an age when we need moving pictures, it’s been curiously unrepresented. So, does the fact that it does not exist with iconographic imagery in the public consciousness somehow diminish its status as a historic event? This, to me, is a very disturbing issue. One of the very troubling ideas that Ararat raises is that, if a genocide is reliant on a commercially produced film, what happens if the film—as we see in glimpses from the film within the film—is somehow compromised? What if it is an old-fashioned and antiquated approach to the subject which would diminish its value in our current culture? Does that somehow negate that history worse? And that’s where I think we get into a very, very dangerous zone. And that might even be more problematic than the issues of relativism that the film raises—whether or not we’ve become addicted to shear entertainment value in our manner in which history is absorbed.
BP: And again, all those things can and do come into play with our ability to have a reception of something in the present. I mean, if the civil rights movement was happening today, who knows how these news networks now would maybe… consider modifying that footage or the technique used in displaying that imagery to make it more affective…I guess what I’m getting at here is when something in that collective reception is able to remain ‘the present’ and isn’t relegated into the realm of the historical document, there is till that potential for action…
AE: It’s interesting because it’s like that old adage where, ‘if a tree falls in the middle of the desert, and no one hears it, is there a sound?’ If a historical event happens and there’s no way of telling it, did it happen? That…that’s troubling, and especially then if you are dealing with the denial of that event—if there is no one there not only to tell that story, but to receive that story, and to believe in its reception, does that diminish the value of that trauma? And I’ve dealt with that a lot in Exotica and The Sweet Hereafter and some of my earlier films…that was raised a lot in terms of a family, and within the dynamics of a family and the ability to relate and understand a trauma within a very domestic setting.
And that’s one of the other issues with Ararat. I think that some people at the time found that the inclusion of these seemingly divergent and distracting family issues seemed to pull away from the monumental nature of the genocide, but, in a way, that’s where the film’s power, for me, is located. It’s not in these huge epic scenes, but rather, in these transmissions between parents and their children and where those blockages occur.
BP: I mean, that’s where learning happens…
AE: Yes. Well, that’s maybe where it can happen…
Ben Poster is a writer and film critic living in Chicago.
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