This film deserves a thorough, analytical, review:
An intelligent and layered film about the way in which the identities of the modern-day characters have been forged by the Armenian genocide which took place in the Ottoman Empire during, and just after, the First World War. Egoyan uses a film-within-a-film device in order to accentuate the self-referential concepts which are explored: Collective history which moulds personal identity. Past events which sculpt present hopes. Characters who live both in past and present. Identities which struggle to make sense of their loss, both immediate and historical. Although the film, according to Atom Egoyan, is deeply personal, the way in which history stains and forms the present is a universal truth which gives the film even more weight and value.
The schizophrenic particularity of the Armenian genocide, and well represented in the multiplicity of view-points developed in Egoyan's film, is the fact that the genocide (usually calculated at between 1 million and 1.5 million deaths) continues to be officially denied by Turkey, the U.K., the U.S.A. and many other states whilst many others, as well as historians and scholars, do recognise it. This film shows us how a collective history which is at once accepted and yet denied creates personal histories and identities which balance precariously upon unresolved conflict.
The narrative: Raffi (David Alpay), of Armenian descent, is the son of an art-historian who is a specialist in the Armenian-American painter Arshile Gorky. She is asked to be advisor for a film which presents the Armenian genocide which weaves the painter into its narrative. She gets Raffi a job helping out on the film set, mainly driving, which allows him to meet the director and one of the lead actors who is of Turkish decent. The conversations which spark between these characters are fundamental to the film, and could have been more exploited, with a little less of a one-sided view. Raffi goes to Turkey and returns with four cans of footage, and is interrogated at customs in order to explain why he should not have to open the cans which would expose the film. In order to do so, Raffi tells the story of the film and the history which it is based on. All of the characters are intertwined in a way which tightens Egoyan’s cocoon, you breathe the truth of Raffi's family history, and yet all of the secondary characters also have depth.
The flimsiest part of the story is the character of the hash growing step-sister who, whilst sleeping with her brother-in-law (Raffi), hates his mother (her stepmother) as she blames her for her fathers death. Raffi's father also died, but in an act of political conviction against a Turkish diplomat. I understood the step-sister's character as a means of juxtaposing the collective notion of loss with personal loss, a fascinating concept which would have been better explored without using the device of such a banal and easily dismissible narrative structure (she is obsessive, hysterical, and jars with the rest of the film’s intellectuality). Whilst no clear conclusion is reached, one begins to feel that collective traumas -which go on to mark a society- do gain, and deserve, more weight and are historically more important.
The film is full of cinematographic genius thanks to the layered complexity of the camera shots, which create visual depth to support the conceptual depth. The film brings out a painterly quality to celluloid, each brush stroke perfectly controlled, without the images being painterly in themselves. More than being visually beautiful, the film plays with images within images. Throughout, Egoyan has a Brechtian way of making you aware that you are watching a film ("In my films, you're always encouraged to remember that you're watching a collection of designed images."). In one scene, a beautifully lit, although out of focus, mountain Ararat in the background is in fact a (contrived) film set and a painter is painting the finishing touches of light. In the interrogation, Raffi shows examples of his footage using a video camera and the film is in focus whilst he and the immediate settings are blurred. Later the same scene alternates the focus point.
Yet another layer to Egoyan's film centres on Arshile Gorky, a painter born in Armenia, who fled Turkey with his family during the genocide. Many art historians see his paintings as deeply related to his personal and collective Armenian history. He himself said: "Our beautiful Armenia which we lost and which I shall repossess in my art.... I shall resurrect Armenia with my brush for all the world to see." Egoyan, who named his child Arshile, seems to see Gorky as a creative soul-mate, or at least inspiration. The film focuses on mother-son relationships as a symbol of the passing down of history. It is no coincidence that Egoyan's parents were both painters.
The acting is strong and the casting true to the personal nature of the film. Atom Egoyan wished to portray the way in which the past has marked the present of Armenian descendents, something heightened by the casting of Armenian descendents in various lead roles: Charles Aznavour as the Film Director, Simon Abkarian as Arshile Gorky and Arsinée Khanjian as the mother. The film is so personal that Egoyan withdrew it from the Cannes selection process in order for the true meaning of the film not to be degraded by the competition caused by the awards. Egoyan’s personal involvement adds a layer to the film rather than detracting from it. He intelligently manipulates notions of circularity and self-referentiality, both conceptual and personal, and yet manages to maintain his integrity.
That said, Egoyan's film could have been more open to exploring the Turkish character whose views are over simplified and dismissed too easily. (The Turkish character is played by Elias Koteas, an actor of Greek descent, which I am sure many would not find in keeping with other more personally coherent casting choices.) And the film would have been stronger without any of the misplaced, and absolutely unnecessary, sex and drugs storyline.
Quick conclusion: This film is about how collective memory and denial continues to forge identities over generations. It is not really a film about revindication, nor about denouncing, it is about personal struggle and definition when one is caught under the weight of collective historical baggage. It is about trying to find out when one has to remember and when one needs to forget. It is about showing this struggle. It is a wonderfully rich and complex interweaving of stories and histories and, although deeply personal, has infinite universal value. I am sure it grows with every viewing.
(Note: I am not of Armenian descent, but yes Jewish, and admit the possibility that this film appeals more easily to those who have been brought up to carry some form of collective historical baggage.)