National Public Radio Weekend Edition Sunday
September 1, 2002
David D'Arcy - Reporting
Liane Hansen - Host
[For the audio version visit here
The Toronto International Film Festival opens this Thursday night with the
North American premiere of "Ararat" by Atom Egoyan. Egoyan is a Canadian
of Armenian descent and "Ararat" deals with the memory of the slaughter of
a million Armenians by Turkish forces during World War I. Turks dispute
that number and say some of those Armenians were collaborating with
Russian and British invaders. The Armenians and others call it genocide.
Even today, the Turkish government denies that there was any systematic
Armenian genocide, and Turkish groups have tried in vain to change
Egoyan's script. David D'Arcy reports that "Ararat" is not the first
attempt to make a movie on the subject.
DAVID D'ARCY reporting:
Atom Egoyan has thought about making a film on the Armenian genocide for
nearly 20 years. A question from Egoyan's young son moved the project
Mr. ATOM EGOYAN ("Ararat"): As we all know, young children are always so
lucid about these points, says, 'Well, did the Turks say they were sorry?
Did--you know, was there a resolution?' And, at that point, you come to
the frightening realization that there is no resolution, that it's still
an open question after 85 years. And I really feel that as a filmmaker, as
someone who, you know, makes images for a public and, you know, who is
trying to raise issues about our relationship to images, it was very, very
odd that we don't have any images of the genocide in our popular
D'ARCY: In one of the most quoted passages in "Mein Kampf," Adolf Hitler
asks, 'Who remembers the Armenians?' Yet, at the end of World War I,
governments around the world, including the US, condemned the slaughter.
For a brief time, there were even court-martials in Turkey. In 1919, there
was a silent film called "Ravished Armenia" by a protege of Cecile B.
DeMille. Only one reel of it survives, but Peter Balakian, author of
"Black Dog of Fate," an exploration of his Armenian heritage, says
"Ravished Armenia" was a sensation.
Mr. PETER BALAKIAN (Author, "Black Dog of Fate"): It was based on the
memoir of the survivor, Aurora Mardiganian, who had made it to the United
States as a young girl, having survived harems, rape, having witnessed the
mutilation, torture and rape of hundreds of young girls like herself.
D'ARCY: The genocide almost became a Hollywood epic in the 1930s when MGM
attempted to film "The Forty Days of Musa Dagh," a best-selling novel
about Armenian resistance by Franz Werfel, a Viennese Jew who later fled
the Nazis. The Turkish government and the US State Department pressured
the studio to halt the adaptation of a book that Peter Balakian says was a
blockbuster in 20 languages.
Mr. BALAKIAN: The Turkish ambassador, Munir Urtegan, who happens to be the
father of the Atlantic Records mogul Ahmet Ertegun, Mr. Ambassador Ertegun
went to Franklin Roosevelt's State Department and made it clear that if
MGM made a film, "The 40 Days of Musa Dagh," it would be regarded a
D'ARCY: MGM offered to make changes and to give the Turks final approval,
but shelved the project under pressure, says Richard Hovannisian, an
Armenian American and a history professor at UCLA.
Professor RICHARD HOVANNISIAN (UCLA): It didn't die entirely. There was
another attempt in 1938 to revive the film but once again the same
scenario was played out with protests by the Turkish embassy, intervention
by the State Department, intercession by the Motion Picture Producers and
Distributors of America and in 1938 MGM shelved it, and then World War II
began and it was a whole different issue.
D'ARCY: Sixty years later, Atom Egoyan planned his own film of the Musa
Dagh saga. He gave up the project in favor of another perspective on the
Mr. EGOYAN: The problem for me in that type of historic epoch is that it
really doesn't deal with the matter at hand, which is denial. What I
wanted to do was to find a way of showing the history but to show how the
drama continues today. You know, this is a film about the transmission of
trauma, which is something that--you know, any Holocaust survivor or
grandchild of a Holocaust survivor can understand, but it's a very
difficult state to express dramatically. It's a very complex issue. And
the structure of the film is, you know, necessarily complex as well in the
way it shifts between this historic epoch, this Musa Dagh-like story and
the present day.
D'ARCY: "Ararat," made for a less-than-epic $17 million, is a web of
stories that intersect in the making of a historical film in Toronto about
the siege of the Armenian-held city of Van in Eastern Turkey in 1915.
After the Turks captured the city, they killed or deported most of the
region's Armenians. In the film within a film, an actor of Turkish origin
is cast as the commander who orders the massacres.
(Soundbite of "Ararat") Unidentified Actor #1: Look, I never heard about
any of this stuff when I was growing up. You know? I did some research for
the part, from what I read there were deportations and--lots of people
died, Armenians and Turks. It was World War I.
Unidentified Actor #2: Turkey wasn't at war with the Armenians. I mean,
just like Germany wasn't at war with the Jews. They were citizens. They
were expecting to be protected. That scene you just shot was based on an
eyewitness account. Your character, Jevdet Bey--the only reason they put
him in Van was to carry out the complete elimination of the Armenian
population in Van. There were telegrams, there were communiques...
Unidentified Actor #1: I'm not saying that something didn't happen.
Unidentified Actor #2: Something.
D'ARCY: Even before filming began, Egoyan received e-mails attacking him
as a hate monger. To avoid any confrontation, he discussed the project
with the president of the Turkish Canadian Association. Talks chilled when
Egoyan said changes were out of the question. In the United States,
opposition to "Ararat" has come from the Assembly of Turkish American
Organizations, which represents groups formed by some 300,000 Turkish
Americans. Its executive director, Guler Koknar, says her group is
pressured for the removal of the term 'Armenian genocide' from schoolbooks
around the country. She hasn't seen "Ararat" but read the script and says
it's a one-sided depiction of an important US ally. She predicts it will
fuel hatred against Turks.
Ms. GULER KOKNAR (Executive Director, Assembly of Turkish American
Organizations): It's a depiction of the good guys vs. the bad guys that we
feel is just incorrect, it's un-American and we want to change that.
D'ARCY: But facts are facts, says historian Richard Hovannisian.
Prof. HOVANNISIAN: Those who have any doubts that the Armenian version is
stilted, etc., need only to look at the diplomatic correspondence of the
Americans in the field, and not only the Americans, but all of those
people who had diplomatic relations. The most telling, of course, is that
the Austrians and the Germans, who were allies of Turkey at the time,
their diplomatic correspondence made no doubt of the fact that what was
taking place was the destruction, as they would call it, the murder of a
nation, the destruction of a race, and so forth. So the facts of the
genocide are really so overwhelming that what we see taking place of
demands for viewing the other side, etc., these come down to being
political issues and economic issues and not really historical issues.
D'ARCY: Turkish groups also see religious bias in "Ararat." David Salzman
is counsel to the Assembly of Turkish American Associations. His firm also
represents the Turkish government.
Mr. DAVID SALZMAN (Counsel, Assembly of Turkish American Associations):
Turkey is a predominantly Muslim nation. And it has stood by the United
States as a NATO member for 50 years and even long before that. And the
film is based on the journals of a missionary in the eastern Ottoman
Empire in the early part of this century and throughout the script it
comes out that this is Christian vs. Muslim, Christian hero vs. Muslim
barbarian. And here we are treating one of our front-line states who was
instrumental in our policy in the Middle East and basically saying, 'Oh,
you can just wrap it in with the rest of the Muslim world.'
D'ARCY: In World War I, the Ottoman Empire was allied with Germany. The
film's US distributor, Miramax, which is part of Disney, refused to show
the script to Turkish groups which obtained a copy anyway. Miramax is
standing by the film. Film critics who championed Egoyan in the past are
not, at least not yet. After the film's premiere at Cannes, Variety's
reviewer called it earnest and didactic and predicted that "Ararat" would
leave audiences indifferent. The New York Film Festival, which has shown
Egoyan's films in the past, turned it down. Egoyan was dismayed.
Mr. EGOYAN: There was a critical response which was incredibly positive
and was able to understand the language of the film, and then there are
people who I really think need to see the film again, who have to assess
it in terms of what they might have been expecting. I think when you tell
people that it's a film about the Armenian genocide, that sets up all
sorts of, you know, images, which are wrong, you know? It's about the
denial of that genocide. It's about the present day.
D'ARCY: "Ararat" opens in theaters in the US and Canada in mid-November.
An Armenian Genocide Museum and Memorial is planned for downtown
Washington, DC, even though a resolution to recognize the genocide was
withdrawn under pressure before the US Congress could vote on it two years
For NPR News, I'm David D'Arcy in New York.