Ararat (2003) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski) and Tuna

Scoop's comments in white:

"Who now remembers the Armenians"

 --- Adolph Hitler --- 1

Filmmaker Atom Egoyan is a genuine intellectual, a subtle man who views all situations thoughtfully, examining the nuances, admitting multiple viewpoints, viewing truth relatively.

There are times - many times - when those characteristics are precisely the right ones for a particular challenge. Nobody is better at Egoyan at looking at the depths and complexities of emotion in the human heart. He knows that situations are not always what the thoughtless first imagine them to be, and he knows that the differences between saints and sinners are merely differences of degree. His sensitivity and his elliptical narrative style have allowed him to create some of the great film masterpieces of the past decade. In The Sweet Hereafter, he resisted the temptation to demonize an ambulance-chasing lawyer, showing instead that the lawyer was a man of great depth who possessed a personal sorrow which made him not very different from the traumatized people he intended to exploit. In Exotica, Egoyan took great pains to pull off the layers of the onion slowly and subtly enough to allow us to be manipulated from an early incorrect assumption to a contradictory truth. In the hands of a schlocky director who would have pulled back the curtain too suddenly, the movie wouldn't have worked at all, but Egoyan is truly a master of subtlety, and he pulled it off.

There are also times when subtlety can be a liability. Making a film which gets into the heart of a great and important historical truth is one of them. This is an instance where subtlety is for scholars only. A filmmaker needs to paint with a broader brush. Egoyan wanted to make, and long promised to make, a film about the Armenian Holocaust, a horrible 1915 massacre of all the Turkish citizens of Armenian ethnicity. More than one million people, virtually the entire Armenian population of Eastern Turkey, including the non-combatant women and children, were eradicated. The Turkish government has never admitted its genocidal action, and most of the Western nations, who are now playing footsie with Turkey, have failed to issue any official condemnation. (France is an exception.)

Egoyan felt it was time for the world to know, and he resolved to tell the true story of a people he considers his own.

In my opinion, and this is the opinion of an Egoyan admirer, he used far too much indirection and post-modernism to allow the emotional impact to take hold.

First of all, instead of just making a movie about the holocaust, he made a movie about making a movie about the holocaust, in which many of the key issues were explored through people whose lives somehow touched that production. (In my opinion, there were too many connections between characters to be believable.)

Second, the movie within the movie uses its own distortive devices, so that we are left wondering if what Egoyan is telling us is true, or just more distortion. Indeed, the main character in the film is a young man who may be smuggling drugs into Canada, and who is also telling a related story to a customs inspector, and he too is distorting the facts to make his point. Are we to believe that all storytellers will distort the facts to make a point? Even Atom Egoyan? The emotional impact of the film would be far greater without hedging every bet. Just tell the damned story, Atom If you made up any details for literary purposes, simply tell us what they were in the extra features, but don't try to weave your own self-doubts into the film and thus dim all the emotional wattage.

Third, the film included way too many sub-plots and they were not thought through well enough. The young man who is going through customs may be carrying heroin or he may be carrying film. The customs inspector never asks him the most important question - "after you get these four cans into the country, who are you supposed to give them to?" The object of smuggling drugs is to get them TO someone, so that someone can make a profit. Even if the kid was just being used as a mule, he still had to get the drugs to someone, right? Yet the customs inspector does not seem to be aware of that fact. Not very likely, is it? There is another sub-plot about the customs inspector's relationship with his gay son, whose lover happens to be in the film-within-a-film. They two men are raising the customs man's grandson together, and grandpa obviously disapproves of the whole arrangement. There is yet another sub-plot about the main character's affair with his step-sister, and the prickly relationship between their mother/stepmother and their respective fathers. I can't see any good reason for those sub-plots to exist in such detail. The constant meandering between half-developed stories seemed to detract from the central theme. The step-sister and all the plot elements involving her could easily have been written out of the film entirely. The little kid could easily have been written out as well.

Fourth, Egoyan wanted to weave the story of the Armenian painter Arshille Gorky into the narrative, since Gorky made a painting after the holocaust which was based on a photograph of himself and his mother taken in the Armenian Quarter of Turkey before the holocaust. Gorky worked on that painting - agonized on that painting - for ten years, and it is now in the National Gallery in Washington. Unfortunately, Egoyan placed that story in the film-within-the-film, and weakened it by showing how much of that project's Gorky biography was completely fictional. Thank God Egoyan had the good sense to delete a scene which takes place in 2002 in which a modern character has a long conversation with the real Gorky (who died in 1948), in which the character complains about becoming a distorted fictional character in the film-within-a-film. Egoyan has never been one to be aware when his illusion/reality devices have become heavy-handed, so the fact that he removed this scene tells you a lot.

Fifth, Egoyan got so deep into the arguments and counter-arguments that he actually had a Turkish guy defending the actions, not denying them, but mitigating them by claiming that the Armenians within Turkey's borders were traitors who sided with Turkey's enemies. (Which may or may not have been true, but certainly didn't justify mass rape or murdering women and children ...)

Sixth, this film does WAY too much teaching by lecturing. Egoyan typically makes a point by having the customs inspector, for example, ask "oh, and then what happened?", thus allowing the young Armenian man to make a lengthy speech. This happens several times with different combinations of characters. One character is a professor, and her lectures are shown in some depth. That's clumsy exposition. In general, speeches are good for professors, but bad for filmmakers.

Atom is a great writer, a great director, and a brilliant man. The movie is an earnest, intelligent, and honest statement about matters close to his heart. Unfortunately, he used too little of that big heart, and too much of that big brain. It just doesn't really work. All the sub-plots, "on the other hand"s, and "not really"s eventually prove to be too much baggage to add to the heavy emotional load that the film hopes to carry. I came away thinking, "well, Atom says everyone lies in order to make their point. I suppose that means Atom is lying to make his point ... um,  except he says he's not. I think. But then everyone says that, don't they? Hmmm. Maybe I better read a historical account of the Armenian holocaust"

Obviously, Atom is an honest man, willing to show exactly how distortions can creep into a fictional narrative when history is transformed into art. That is a perfectly scholarly way to approach a subject.

So see his film if you want to encounter a work of scholarship.


1. Contradictory to my own point about not being too scholarly about emotional truths, I feel obligated to say that there is some debate about whether Hitler ever made this remark at all. This represents my own research:

On November 24, 1945, The New York Times printed excerpts from Hitler’s speeches on page 7. It reported, “These are excerpts from documents reporting the talks Hitler gave to Reichmarshal Hermann Goering and the commanding generals at Obersalzberg, August 22, 1939.”:

What the weak western European civilization thinks about me does not matter. Thus for the time being I have sent to the East only my “Death Head Units” with the order to kill without pity or mercy all men, women and children of the Polish race or language. Only in such a way will we win the vital space we need. Who still talks nowadays of the extermination of the Armenians? (Wer redet heute noch von der Vernichtung der Armenier?).

The statements are from a document that was transmitted to British diplomats in Berlin on August 25, 1939 by Louis Lochner, who was the head of the Berlin Bureau of The Associated Press. That document is a summary of what Hitler said to his military leaders in preparation for the impending invasion of Poland, which happened on September 1. Scholars have argued that Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, a leader of anti-Hitler conspiracies, took the notes, and Hans Oster, Canaris's fiercely anti-Nazi deputy, edited the notes and arranged for them to reach the West through General Ludwig Beck, former Socialist Youth leader Hermann Maass, and Lochner. See K.B. Bardakjian's Hitler and the Armenian Genocide (Cambridge, MA: Zoryan Institute, 1985).

Text of the this version of the speech, and additional references

Note this Turkish rebuttal. Their position is that the Nuremberg trials specifically admitted two other summaries of the Aug 22 speech as evidence. Lochner's was never submitted in evidence because the original source could not be verified at that time. (If it was originally written by Canaris, he was not alive to admit it, having been executed for his treason against Hitler.) There is also a fourth version found in the notes of General Franz Halder, who was present that day. Of the four versions, only Lochner's mentions any reference to Armenians. In addition, William L Shirer, author of The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, had said that Lochner's version appeared to be "embellished".

Embellished or not, there doesn't seem to be any logical reason why Lochner or his source would have inserted an obscure reference to Armenians. Remember, this was not something added long after the fact by Armenian apologists, but was the version transmitted by Lochner to England - fully translated into English - only three days after Hitler's words were actually spoken. Furthermore, Hitler spoke for many hours that day, before and after lunch, and the various summaries are not verbatim transcripts. It is not likely that every single summary, each containing a small percentage of what was said, would include the Armenian reference. Further still, it is not surprising that Admiral Canaris's version pictures Hitler more brutally that the versions written by Hitler's loyalists.

Whether Hitler made that particular remark or not, it appears that Hitler had also referred to the Armenian situation eight years earlier. In 1931 Hitler discussed with Richard Breiting, editor of a Leipzig newspaper, the need for massive resettlements. He said "We intend to introduce a resettlement policy ... Think of the biblical deportations and the massacres of the Middle Ages ... or remember the extermination of the Armenians. (Oder erinnern Sie sich doch an die Ausrottung Armeniens). One eventually reaches the conclusion that the masses of man are mere biological plasticine." (Unmasked, Edouard Calic, Chatto & Windus, London, 1971, pages 81-82)




Tuna's comments in yellow:

Ararat (2002) is the latest feature length film from Atom Egoyan. It received a luke-warm reception from the critics, and had a very small box office of $1.55M in the US, but is rated 7.2 at IMDB, with 76.8% of those voting giving a perfect 10. It is reasonable to assume that people who see this sort of film and vote are predisposed to like the film, but that is a whole lot of perfect 10s. The 7.2 is not unusual for Egoyan:

  • Ararat 2002 7.2
  • Felicia's Journey 1999 7.1
  • The Sweet Hereafter 1997 7.9
  • Exotica 1994 7.2
  • Calendar 1993 7.1
  • The Adjuster 1991 6.8
  • Speaking Parts 1989 7.0
  • Family Viewong 1987 7.0
  • Next of Kin 1984 6.4

There are a few directors with better scores, such as Stanley Kubrick, whose best movies are rated higher than Egoyan's, but saying that he was edged out by Kubrick is not exactly a criticism. The film captured all the major Genie awards in Canada. Egoyan, who is of Armenian descent (as is his wife, Arsinee Khanjian), decided to make a film about the Armenian holocaust of 1915, when the Turks slaughtered the Turkish Armenian community, a fact of history that the Turkish government still denies.

Egoyan did not, however, make a documentary film, or even an historical piece, but rather mixed several plots, themes and time frames making a very complex film. He was, of course, interested in educating people about the Armenian holocaust, but was also interested in exploring how and why people change history, memories, objects around them, and themselves.


Marie-Josee Croze is completely naked in a sex scene. Her pubic area and her bottom are shown subtly.

There is also a substantial amount of "atrocity nudity"

Here is my best shot at the major sub-plots. Charles Aznavour is a filmmaker making a historical epic about the Holocaust, and learns from Arsinee, an art history performer, about a famous Armenian painter, Arshile Gorky, who was there during the holocaust, and includes him in the film. Arsinee has a son, who is working on the production, and is in love with his step sister,  Marie-Josee Croze, who hates Arsinee, whom she believes caused her father's suicide. The son Raffi (David Alpay) goes to Turkey to take pictures, and to discover something authentic about his heritage. On his way back into Canada, he is held by customs, who are concerned with some film cans he refuses to open. The customs officer, Christopher Plummer, is reasonably certain that the cans contain heroin, but Raffi tells him the story of the holocaust, and he is predisposed to listen, as it is his last interrogation before retirement, and his gay son has just accused him of not trying to understand.

DVD info from Amazon

  • Two disks, one just for extra features about the film and the historical backdrop

  • Full length commentary from Atom Egoyan

  • widescreen anamorphic, 1.85:1

  • deleted scenes (with optional commentary)

That probably seems pretty disjointed, and you can include Egoyan's trademark switching among time frames at will, and it is indeed a very complex effort, but, for me at least, it worked. Croze shows breasts in a lengthy sex scene, then brief buns and possibly a little bush getting out of bed. The critics thought the project overly-ambitious, and felt that all of the layers and sub-plots diluted the message. I feel more like the holocaust was a message, but the sub-plots were the point of the film. Egoyan gives great commentary, and, in this case, he explains the film shot by shot, musical choice and transition by musical transition, and symbol by symbol. There is an entire second DVD with deleted scenes and interviews, making this a very nice package.

The Critics Vote

  • General consensus: two and a half stars. Ebert 2.5/4, Berardinelli 2.5/4, BBC 3/5

The People Vote ...

  • Atom has gone in a decade from art house hot-shot to an Oscar nomination for best director, and back again to art house hot-shot. This film never appeared on more than 42 screens in the USA, grossing between one and two million dollars.


Special Scoopy award for criticism to Mr Cranky for bluntly and humorously stating the truth about Emperor Egoyan's new clothes while the rest of us waffle around about whether his britches match his cravat:

Most filmmakers seem positively mystified by the notion that they're not able to accurately capture history, as if this weren't completely evident after Michael Bay took on "Pearl Harbor." Writer/Director Atom Egoyan attempts to explore the notion of the malleable nature of memory through one of cinema's least creative devices: the film within a film.

Really, isn't there some other way to do this? Pretty much every director who's finally making inroads into their philosophical nature comes up with the idea for some movie that has a movie being made within it so that they can say really profound things about the nature of filmmaking. You know what? I'm not interested in the nature of filmmaking and neither is anybody else.

The meaning of the IMDb score: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence equivalent to about three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, comparable to approximately two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, equivalent to about a two star rating from the critics, or a C- from our system. Films rated below five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film - this score is roughly equivalent to one and a half stars from the critics or a D on our scale. (Possibly even less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. (C+ means it has no crossover appeal, but will be considered excellent by genre fans, while C- indicates that it we found it to be a poor movie although genre addicts find it watchable). D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well. Any film rated C- or better is recommended for fans of that type of film. Any film rated B- or better is recommended for just about anyone. We don't score films below C- that often, because we like movies and we think that most of them have at least a solid niche audience. Now that you know that, you should have serious reservations about any movie below C-.

Based on this description, Scoop says, "this is a C+. It's a film worth seeing, but that is mainly because the themes are so powerful. The execution of the film is excessively complicated, and that mutes some of the passion it should have conveyed." Tuna says, " I am going to give this a very high C+. If it is your kind of film, it will be worth the investment of grey matter for you, as it was for most of the IMDB voters."

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