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Ararat shines with nine
by: Dec 19, 2002 Print

Ararat leads the 2003 Genie pack with nine nominations, but conspicuously absent among those noms is achievement in direction for Atom Egoyan. The introspective Toronto filmmaker can console himself, however, in being cited for best motion picture - he coproduced the Alliance Atlantis/Serendipity Point Films drama with Robert Lantos - and best original screenplay.

That Ararat would impress the Genie juries is hardly surprising considering the $15-million film is on a grander scale than any other Canadian film this year and that Egoyan has been a Genie fave since Next of Kin, his debut feature, garnered a nom for direction in 1985. He has been previously nominated 19 times, and has won for Exotica (picture, direction and original screenplay), The Sweet Hereafter (picture and direction) and Felicia's Journey (adapted screenplay).

Ararat is Egoyan's most ambitious film to date, both in terms of production and its screenplay's multilayered approach towards representing a historical event. The event in question is the not-widely known - and sometimes contested - Armenian Genocide of 1915 perpetrated by the Ottoman Turks. But Egoyan does not simply create a period epic; rather, the wounds of the World War I-era atrocity are opened on the occasion of a film about it being produced in modern-day Toronto. The film-within-a-film's director (Charles Aznavour) is of Armenian descent, as is Egoyan.

Ararat jumps from the reenactment of the tragedy in the film-within-a-film to the modern day to scenes of 1930s surrealist painter Arshile Gorky (Simon Abkarian) in his New York studio, agonizing over a portrait of himself and his mother, who perished in the Genocide.

Raffi, played by local newcomer David Alpay (nominated for best actor), is a PA on the film-within-a-film who happens to be Armenian, and he ends up in a philosophical debate about the Genocide with a Turkish actor played by Elias Koteas (nominated for best supporting actor). Raffi later leaves the country and upon his return is held for questioning by David, a Canadian customs officer (Christopher Plummer, also nominated for best actor) who is suspicious of the film canisters the young man is carrying.

The customs officer functions as a substitute for the audience, listening to Raffi explain what he's up to and what the film he is working on is about; Raffi even provides him with a crash course on the Genocide. Then it's up to David - and us - to choose what we want to believe.

Egoyan carefully weighed this indirect approach to the powerful subject matter.

"What's interesting dramatically about the Armenian Genocide is that it has no place in the popular imagination, so the idea of bringing it in is fascinating," he said prior to the film's Opening Night Gala presentation at the Toronto International Film Festival.

"But," he continues, "there are issues I would have with that type of film, which are, 'How relevant is that to our culture, in a world where we're overwhelmed with those types of images? What does it mean to just present that without contextualizing it in the current day?'"

As always, Egoyan's distinctly oblique approach has met with mixed reaction. The Globe and Mail and the National Post wrote, in middling reviews, respectively: "The metaphors are provocative, but too often, the viewer is left puzzled by the mechanics of the delivery," and, "Egoyan is almost crippled by a need to show all sides; just tell the damn story, already." But the film does have its champions, such as The Toronto Sun, which gives it the highest rating, maintaining that "Egoyan boldly inspires viewers to deal with issues of cultural memory and responsibility."

The project reportedly began as a challenge from Lantos (who has collaborated on Egoyan features since The Adjuster) when he introduced Egoyan at a get-together at Toronto's Armenian Community Centre. Lantos, then in production on Sunshine, a film that tells a multi-generational story of Hungarian Jews - "my people," as he said - stated that whenever Egoyan was ready to tell "the story that he really has to tell," Lantos would ensure the film got made.

Following favorable response at Cannes, Ararat opened first in Europe, being distributed worldwide by Alliance Atlantis, except in the U.S., where it is being handled by Miramax. It opened Nov. 15 in Los Angeles, New York and Toronto to a healthy $35,188 per screen average for the week. After 24 days in release, it had surpassed US$1.1 million at the North American box office, playing on 42 screens.

Ararat is also up for best actress for Arsinee Khanjian, who is married to Egoyan and who has been a staple in his films since Next of Kin; original musical score for Mychael Danna; art direction/production design for Phillip Barker; and costume design for Beth Pasternak.

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