Atom Egoyan: family therapy with genocide in the background

Amanda Seyfried, Julianne Moore and Atom Egoyan on the set of Chloe, 2009. Photograph: StudioCanal.

family history of Atom Egoyan He has left a trace even in his name. His parents named him Atom to celebrate the arrival of atomic energy in Egypt.1, country where he was born. Shortly after, when she was two years old, the Yeghoyan they moved to Canada, but not before changing their last name to Egoyan, which is easier to pronounce. Soon their religion and his language also fell by the wayside. In the city where they settled (Victoria), nobody spoke Armenian and they didn’t have a church to pray either. Little Atom quickly sensed the risks involved in being different and chose not to be too different from others. The language gave it away, so he soon stopped using it. What’s more, if his parents spoke it at home, he would cover his ears so as not to hear it.

Thus, somewhat turning a deaf ear to its origins, the years passed. Everything changed suddenly when he went to college. In Toronto, who was going to tell him, he came face to face with Armenia again. In the Faculty of International Relations where he was studying (he was going to be a diplomat) there was a very active Armenian students’ association. This brought his family’s past, of which until then only a very distant echo had reached her, to come back to the fore. his father, Joseph (before Hovsep), lost both of his maternal grandparents in the Armenian Genocide perpetrated by the Turks. Egoyan not only began to feel concerned about the terrible events of 1915, but he decided to write a thesis on the subject. In addition, he relearned the language. At that time he also began to write film reviews. One of the films that impacted him the most was the midnight express (1978), which tells the odyssey of a young American who is arrested by the Turkish authorities while trying to get drugs out of the country. Seeing the well-known movie Allan Parker, the future director realized the fine line that separates art from propaganda and came to the conclusion that a film that offers a biased, partial view of reality would never fall “in the category of great cinema.”two.

calendar (1993) was his first foray, albeit tangential, into Armenian drama. In the feature film, Egoyan himself plays a photographer who travels to Armenia with a commission to photograph twelve churches for a calendar. The photographer returns to Canada with a handful of photos that tell him nothing. To top it off, he loses his wife (played by Arsinee Khanjian, his wife in real life), who ends up leaving him for the guide who accompanies them during the trip. The literal interpretation that many made of the film – they thought that the director had filmed his own divorce – made the “Armenian question” fade into the background. For the photographer who receives the assignment, Armenia is nothing more than the destination to which he has to go on a business trip. He tries to fulfill the assignment in the most professional way possible, but personally he can’t be more than a tourist, a mere spectator of what he sees there. This, by the way, contrasts with what happened in real life. Two years before shooting calendar, Egoyan traveled to Armenia for the first time. During the Soviet era his father had visited the Tsitsernakaberd, the monument to the victims of the Armenian genocide. As the director later recounted, he returned very changed: «Being in front of the eternal flame he broke down and began to cry. It was as if the pillars had crushed him. He still cries when he tells the story. It was not until my visit to Tsitsernakaberd that I understood the meaning and essence of the monument.”

The journey to the “holy places” is reenacted in Ararat (2002), the film where the director addresses the Armenian genocide more directly. On this occasion, your alter ego, Raffi, is not a photographer, although he is also an image collector. Raffi has participated in the filming of a film that an Armenian named Saroyan is making about the persecution of his people, more specifically, about the Van massacre. This film within a film is perhaps the one that many viewers would expect to see, since it recounts and shows the rapes, amputations and various atrocities that we usually associate with the extermination of a people. Raffi, however, is not completely convinced. He needs to find out for himself the truth about what happened, and for this he travels to Turkey, the country to which Mount Ararat or Akdamar Island currently belong. The conclusion of his trip is devastating: «We have not only lost the land, but the possibility of remembering. There is nothing left here to show what happened.” Despite this, he does not return empty, as we will see later.

Egoyan does not believe that a film can, or should, tell the “true story.” That is why he flees from exhaustive truths and tries to represent all possible points of view. Quite rightly, he includes the Turkish perspective through the character he plays. Elias Koteas. In Saroyán’s film, Koteas plays the ruthless Jevdet Bey, responsible for the Van massacre. At the end of the filming, when he returns to being a simple Canadian of Turkish origin – that is, the equivalent of Raffi, but from the opposite “side” -, he tells him that at school they did not teach him anything about that history that is shown in the film; that he has investigated on his own and it is certain that “something” happened, but it is difficult to know what, since there has been a lot of propaganda on both sides: “From what I have read, there were deportations and lots of people died. Armenians and Turks. It was the First World War.” Interestingly, this version of events is that of the current Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. As the journalist tells Andres Mourenza«since 2015, every April 24, the Turkish president extends a message of condolences to the Armenian patriarch of Istanbul for the massacres of 1915: “I commemorate with respect the Ottoman Armenians who lost their lives in the difficult conditions of the First World War And I extend my condolences to his grandchildren.”»3. The fact that Egoyan introduced this point of view did not quite satisfy the Turks: was it strictly necessary that the character played by Koteas, that is, a Muslim, be gay?

Raffi’s mother, an art historian in charge of ensuring the credibility of the film directed by Saroyán, also questions some specific aspects of that work. She does not understand why Saroyan has included a picture of Mount Ararat painted on a backdrop, if it is not actually possible to see it from the city of Van. The Armenian director, played by charles aznavour, comes to say that it is a poetic license. Mount Ararat is an emblem for its people and its inclusion in the film contains a kind of symbolic truth. The introduction of this critical figure did not please the Armenians very much. What was Egoyan doing? Is it that he intended to give arguments to the deniers? The director is aware of this risk, and in one scene of the film he explicitly questions himself. One of the characters in Saroyán’s film shows the historian the situation: we are surrounded by the Turks, we have no supplies left, that baby will bleed to death, that man’s sister was raped before being cut open, his father his eyes were gouged out and his mother’s breasts were torn off… “Who the hell are you?” he asks.

To understand what Egoyan is trying to do, one must take into account that the character she questions is an art historian, not a historian. More than history itself, what she is auditing is how a historical fact should be reflected in art. In this sense, the enemy is the kitsch. For Milan Kunderathe term designates the attitude of someone who wishes to please at any price and as many people as possible: «The kitsch it is the translation of the foolishness of preconceived ideas into the language of beauty and emotion». Herta Mullerwith the brilliance that characterizes her, explained the reasons for her success: «The kitsch offers ready-made sleeves and linings for one’s own sentiments; thus the individual does not have to go undressing». The vast majority of viewers would rather bundle up with that easy feeling they’ve concocted for themselves than strip down and “get too deep inside.” Egoyan does not want to be a wholesale manufacturer of prefabricated feelings, nor to participate in any kind of emotional blackmail, he prefers that everyone reach their own conclusions, their own feelings, even at the risk that their films will be considered failed for not being cathartic enough.

That attitude is seen within the film itself. Both the photographer calendar as Raffi in Ararat they need to give personal meaning to the images. In his visit to the places that were sacred to his ancestors, Raffi does not find the truth about the genocide, but he comes across something of more personal value: there he feels for the first time the “ghost” of his father (who was shot when attempted to attack a Turkish diplomat). He tells the customs officer who intercepts him on his way back to Canada. The agent, played by Christopher Plumber, he thinks that what the cans he has brought from Turkey contain are not film reels, but drugs. However, he agrees not to open them, since by doing so the light would veil the images. In this way, Raffi only has his story to convince him of the veracity of his story. It is possible to assume that there is a lot of Egoyan in Raffi, but it is also possible to think that he has turned to the rest of the characters, especially the one he plays Plummer. After all, what the director does in a good part of his films is objectively examine his personal belongings as if they were someone else’s belongings.

Egoyan’s position as a Canadian of Armenian origin is what to do with the legacy of his parents and grandparents, a suffering that, although he understands, is not quite his own. In this sense, it has been said that Ararat it is a kind of therapy with genocide in the background. It seems that Egoyan has always had in mind the idea of ​​healing wounds through images. In fact, the concept of “video therapy” or visual therapy literally appears in his debut film, Next of Kin (1984), which could be translated as “the closest relative”. In that film, Peter, a young Canadian—white, Anglo-Saxon, and Protestant, to be exact—goes to therapy with his parents because they are arguing all day. The therapist records the sessions on video. One day, Peter accidentally discovers the recorded sessions of another family (an Armenian family who gave up his son for adoption after arriving in Canada twenty years earlier). After watching the videos, he decides to visit them and pretend to be the lost son. In Egoyan’s words, in addition to occupying the role of son in a very archetypal sense, what attracts the protagonist is being or playing the therapist4.

This highly personal character of Egoyan’s cinema has led many to find his films —especially Ararat— disappointing. For much of the criticism, Ararat it was too cerebral and didn’t connect with viewers emotionally; for the public, it was not as vindictive as could be expected. Despite this, she contributed to making the Armenian genocide known internationally. More than a movie about genocide, Ararat is a film about his denial. As the director himself recounted in an article published in 2004, the denial of such flagrant facts was possible due to the collusion and complicity of the West. Almost two decades after the film’s premiere, in April 2021, a United States president, Joe Biden, officially recognized the Armenian genocide for the first time. Spain has not yet done so.


(1) Weinrichter, A., Atom’s Theorem. Cinema according to Egoyan, T&B Editores, 2010.

(2) Egoyan, A, “In Other Words: Poetic License and the Incarnation of History,” University of Toronto Quarterly, vol. 3, no. 73, 2004, p. 886-905.

(3) Mourenza, A., El País, April 25, 2021.

(4) Weinrichter, op. cit.

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