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Interview: Book takes a closer look at Egoyan's Ararat

Review of ARMENIAN STUDIES, Number 1, Volume 1 - 2002

 .‰à€?ğ="justify">‘It is hard for members of the diaspora to feel like Armenians if they do not hate Turkey. The same thing is true for Egoyan. He even did not accept that he was an Arme¬nian. He became an Armenian when he started to hate Turks’

Talented Armenian - Canadian director Atom Egoyan’s Ararat, which its promoters said is a ‘film on the Armenian genocide,’ was shown at the Cannes Film Festival earlier this week, intensifying further an already ongoing controversy. Many are concerned that Ararat will be a second ‘Midnight Express,’ leaving irremediable traces on the image of Turks and Turkey. But the point is that this may not even be all, because in addition to the image, the film tackles a highly political and inflammatory issue, the alleged genocide. Ankara - based Institute for Armenian Research senior researchers ?enol Kantarc? and Assist Prof. Dr. Sedat Laçiner perhaps have been the first to react and draw attention to what the film may do to Turkey. Their book, ‘Ararat: Artistic Armenian Propaganda’ is set to reach bookstores next week. Our lengthy interview with the two authors revolved around ‘Ararat’, which they described as ‘artistic propaganda.’ At one point, Assist. Prof. Dr. Laçiner suggested legal action against the film, saying it contained racism. The authors also explained how the film was linked to an ‘identity problem’ of the Armenian diaspora and the appeal of the film’s promoters to the arguments of an ‘Islamic - Christian confrontation’ that intensified after the Sept. 11 attacks.

- Ararat is not the first film that tackles the alleged Armenian genocide. You say in your book that there have been around 50 such films long before Arm-at. Then what makes it so special? Why is it so heavily on the agenda?

LAÇINER: First of all, its director, Atom Egoyan, is a very well-known figure. he is the ‘national pride’ of Canada. One other factor is its timing. It closely followed efforts in the parliaments of different countries to have resolutions passed that recognize the alleged Armenian genocide. Third, it was put on display after an extensive promotion campaign. A serious propaganda campaign was underway throughout the 2.5 years that elapsed since Egoyan and his team started to shoot the film. He invited journalists to the film set and told them that he was working on a film that would uncover the ‘genocide.’ This was quite unusual in a peaceful and quiet country like Canada. Egoyan’s fame in Canada and his and his wife’s close ties to France were also effective. The great fuss about the film in Turkey is also understandable because this film was the latest and most unbearable of Armenian efforts against Turkey, and as such it was the last drop to pour into the glass.

- You refer to Ararat as an ‘artistic propaganda’ in your book. Why did you prefer to opt for such a description?

LAÇINER: Art has been frequently used for political purposes. Turkey, however, is not aware that it may face psychological warfare through such means as sports, literature, art and it is still preoccupied with classical warfare, such as actual war or terrorist attacks. Armenian politics frequently resort to art as a way of achieving its goals. There are dozens of films, books, and plays that concentrate on the alleged genocide, yet Turkey is hardly aware of their existence. Ararat is indeed a perfect example in this regard. Our book is not really on Ararat or Egoyan. It is meant to open Turkey’s eyes to this fact.

- You haven’t watched the film but had time to extensively examine the scenario. What is your impression about the film? What is the image of Turks as represented in the film for instance?

KANTARCI: This is the conclusion we reached after reading the script: It smells of propaganda. It attempts to give the image that Ararat and Lake Van belong to the Armenians; it ponders on the question whether ASALA was a terrorist organization or a group of heroic men, and concentrates on the political message that Turkey should recognize the alleged genocide. In short, all the themes of Armenian propaganda that have crystallized especially in the post-1960 era were used in the film.

- To what extent do you think, the film is a piece of art and to what extent is it a tool for propaganda?

LAÇINER: That was indeed a question that kept my mind busy for a long time. Only reading the scenario would not be sufficient to get the answer. One has to have a familiarity with Egoyan, characteristics of Armenian movies and how these movies are used for propaganda purposes. Some clichés are used in all propaganda films, not only in Armenian ones. For instance, the ‘bad guys’ are inhumane characters, whose sole job is to perpetrate atrocities and kill. They are ugly, they have no family, they are depicted as sort of ‘creatures’ or ‘monsters.’ There are more specific clichés about Turks; they are barbarians and the ‘scourge of God.’ We examined Ararat to find out whether it used these clichés. We saw that both kinds of clichés, both the ones that are general to all propaganda films and the ones about Turks, have been used in Ararat. Turkish soldiers in Ararat are coarsely big, they have dirty faces, they have no families, their sole activity is to kill and torture Armenians. Armenians, on the other hand, are people with families, children, problems of different kinds, etc., that is, they are people like us. The film classifies the world as a civilized one and a non-civilized one. The latter is populated by Turks, the former comprises of Armenians, flanked by Americans, the French, etc. The film repeats usual propaganda theses and cIichés, whose main feature is that they lack a documented basis, and which have been used in a number of visual or literary works in the past. A number of unsubstantiated theses and slogans, used by Armenians in every platform, are incorporated by the intellectual director into the film.

- You were not impressed artistically then?

LAÇINER-KANTARCI: We do not believe the film makes any artistic contribution. We predicted that the film would be the worst film by Egoyan and this prediction has now been proved.

- In your book, you link ‘Ararat’ to an identity problem of the Armenian diaspora. How did you get this interesting linkage?

LAÇINER: Our book extensively touches on the life of Egoyan. From the years of his childhood, Egoyan was exposed to the impact of three different cultures: Armenian culture, Arabic culture.

- Egoyan was born in Egypt and his family migrated to Canada when he was four - and Canadian culture, in which he grew up. lie was to incline towards the most powerful of them. Armenian culture is weak in terms of major cultural components, such as the spoken language and the common history. Egoyan is a good example for all members of the Armenian diaspora indeed. Faced with the serious threat of assimilation in countries in which they live, most of which have a national culture much stronger than that of the Armenians, these people have to find a factor that would define and strengthen the notion of Armenian culture, and they opted to do it with the help of ‘the other.’ Turkey and Turks represent the ‘other’ against which Armenian national identity and culture acquire a meaning. There is one factor that unites them all and it is the ideal of a ‘Greater Armenia’ that would be established in parts of Turkish territory. By turning the events of 1915 into a legend that is passed from one generation to the next, Armenians form a national culture, which is fed by enmity against Turkey and Turks. Therefore, it is hard for the members of the diaspora to feel like Armenians if they do not hate Turkey. The same thing is true for Egoyan. He even did not accept that he was an Armenian. He became an Armenian when he started to hate Turks.

- There is one point that sounded very interesting for me. In Turkey, we are used to being worried, angry, furious about the Armenian lobby’s efforts to convince Western parliaments to recognize the alleged genocide through legislative resolutions. You say in the book that Armenians are very active in the vast Central Asian geography and Russia as well. Does this mean Turkey may soon face an ‘Armenian genocide’ wave this time from Central Asia, the land of Turkic republics?

LAÇINER: Such a wave already exists. But Turkey unfortunately has a bad habit; its radars are directed only to the West. However, the Armenian lobby is active in all parts of the world, ranging from the Far East to Africa. The prevailing belief in the Turkic republics of Central Asia is that the events of 1915 amounted to an Armenian genocide. This is so because even the text books in state schools incorporate Armenian theses. What is terrifying is that Turkey is not even aware of that, and as such it cannot explain its own theses even to these sister states. This is because of this excessive preoccupation with what happens in the West. My personal view is that Turkey should give priority to its region i.e. the Caucasus, Russia, Central Asia, Iran. Then it should move onto making itself clear to the West.

- Perhaps Turkey is not very much cognizant of this, but Armenian propaganda in the West has heavily made use of the theme of a Muslim-Christian confrontation. You mention that Arm-at appeals to the same notion and cites a comment on the film, which says to Americans ‘you lost 4,000 of your beloved ones and we lost 1.5 million.’ Could you elaborate on this aspect of the film?

LAÇINER: Armenians are trying to appeal to as many people as possible. In this regard, they attempted to use the post-Sept. 11 political conjuncture. They accepted as truth the faulty argument that Islamic and Christian worlds are in a conflict and tried to use such a wrong perception in the service of their objectives. Ararat’s promoters took the same line. What made us sorry is that a highly-enlightened person like Egoyan took up such an oversimplified attitude and took the easy way to success and prestige.

- So how was the initial reaction following its showing in Cannes? Was the film up to Egoyan’s expectations?

LAÇINER: We argued that the film was a bad film and film commentators agreed that the film was not a good one. A good product requires effort, pain and meticulousness. Prejudice and rough classifications of good and evil would not help improve the artistic quality of a film. I do not think Egoyan is doing it with bad intentions. The point is that he is acting like a believer and as such does not question what is true and what is not. Yet, this does not justify what he did, because he, as an intellectual, has a responsibility to question. lie did not question and acted like a layman, as an ordinary Armenian.

It was not up to film makers’ expectations because they hoped for an intense period of discussion on the alleged genocide. But there is no indication in comments on the film to that effect so far.

The film does not contribute to peace and dialogue between Turkey and Armenia at all. And there is one important point as well. Armenian propaganda is an ‘economic sector.’ People talk about a $50-60 million budget for Ararat. Given that Egoyan’s most expensive film cost $5 million and that the budget of an average Hollywood film is about $5 - 6 million, one can get a glimpse of the size of the financial dimension of the film. Now that the film is a failure in artistic terms, I think the Armenian lobby, which made great financial contributions to the film, will have some questions on how their money was used. Egoyan may have difficulties in explaining to the Armenian diaspora how he spent that amount of money on such a low-quality film.

- Is there anything special about the timing of the flkm? Not a long time ago, there were resolutions calling for the recognition of the alleged genocide. They followed one another Such as in the United States. France the European Parliament etc. Now all eyes are on Arm-at. How should one interpret this sequence?

KANTARCI: I do not know for sure, but I doubt that the film may be setting the stage for some future developments, such as the recognition of the alleged genocide in the United States or somewhere else.

- First there was the ASALA terror and killings of Turkish diplomats in Western countries. Somewhere in the mid -1980s, Armenians relinquished terror and a new stage in which these legal efforts, to get the alleged genocide recognized, came onto the scene. Does Ararat signify passage to a new stage?

LAÇINER: Instead of passing from one stage to another, I guess, there is a continuation. Egoyan’s start in shooting the film coincided with an important time period. At that time, resolutions were being presented to national parliaments and international organizations one after another. The Armenian lobby calculated that these resolutions would be passed and then Ararat would come to complete their efforts and shape world opinion to accept that there really was an Armenian genocide in 1915. But there was one very important and uncalculated development, the Sept. 11 attacks. It was hard to convince the world to support anti-Turkey theses in the political conjuncture of the post-Sept. 11 era, where Turkey’s importance came to be appreciated more and more deeply. Therefore, Ararat could not catch the wind and was a little bit late in this sense.

- A group of people in Turkey have been rather optimistic. They said the film may contribute to Turkish - Armenian dialogue or some others opted to disregard the film, saying Turkey should not bother because there are such negative films about every other country. How do you evaluate this optimist reaction?

KANTARCI: There were examples of such reaction in the press before the film was shown in Cannes. But over the last few days that elapsed since the showing of the film, optimism was replaced by a negative reaction against the film.

We tend to make a certain mistake often; we mix things up. Yes, Turkey is a country which makes grave mistakes in several fields, especially in the field of freedoms. However, there is nothing to defend in Ararat in the name of liberalism. One should be very careful on this point: We may be angry with bur government for its mistakes, but this does not mean we have to automatically accept charges on such critical issues, where indeed we have very powerful arguments. I request everyone to speak on the Armenian issue to read something and have some minimal historical information before commenting.

- How should Turkey react? Some argue that Turkey’s tough reaction would have no effect but to promote the film. Should Turkey keep silent?

LAÇINER: Turkey’s reaction to a challenge from abroad has been ‘either all or none.’ It is either entirely silent or reacts excessively and acts like a ‘bull in a china shop.’ Now it should be moderate. It is one thing to use art as a means to advance political objectives but it is another thing to insult a person. Thanks to Turkey’s inability to take effective measures, everyone in every country of the world just goes ahead with insulting Turkey and Turks. Turkey did not do what it was supposed to do in response to the film ‘Midnight Express’ and had to suffer its consequences for two decades. Ararat has a criminal content. It insults the Van governor of the time, accuses him of torturing Armenians. It is the duty of his family to sue the film on charges of insult. Turkish soldiers come under unjust attacks, their families could apply to courts. What is more, the film has a racist content. That should be tackled.

Turkey should react in the similar way, through films, books, documentaries. Egoyan says he has ‘poetic license’ when he faces criticisms about the film. lie is right. Politicians cannot tackle a film, only artists can do so. I personally think that politicians should keep away from the Ararat controversy. Turkish NGOs and the Turkish cinema sector have the duty to handle the issue.

- You looked into the historical side of the controversy in your book as well. What did you see? To what extent is Arm-at in line with your findings?

KANTARCI: Egoyan says he totally based his film on a book written by an American missionary, Clarence Ussher, who was in Van then. I conducted my studies along two lines: first to find out whether Ararat was really based on this book, and second what really happened in 1915. Egoyan’s argument is very convincing for the audience because in this way they think that the film is objective. Yet, a comparison between Ararat’s scenario and Ussher’s book reveals many discrepancies. Ussher’s book made no reference at all to the terrifying massacre and torture scenes of the film. Ussher’s book contains pictures of Armenians producing bullets, Armenian soldiers in uniform shooting at Turkish soldiers from trenches, a clear indicative of the fact that the Turkish army and Armenians engaged in a war at that time. These were simply lacking in Ararat.

Egoyan focused on the Van revolt by Armenians in 1915, but does not say that the revolt ended with the victory of Armenians, when the Van governor was forced to flee and was replaced by an Armenian at the end of a joint attack by the Russian army, which entered the city at that time, arid local Armenian forces. This attack resulted in the killing of more than 20,000 Van residents, this is what the historical sources report.

- Review of ARMENIAN STUDIES, Number 1, Volume 1 - 2002
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