The common perception of a film festival opening night is that the brightest stars come out to shine. Last night, that was only true in one sense. Because it was a clear night, Vega was glimmering high overhead in Lyra, capable of being seen even in the light polluted atmosphere of a big city like Toronto. Farther below, however, the wattage was less dazzling. That's not because the 2002 TIFF Opening Night film was a bust, but because the festival organizers chose substance over glitz. So, instead of having big name International stars walk the red carpet - actors like Denzel Washington, Adam Sandler, Robert Duvall, Sophia Loren, James Caan, Kevin Kline, Pierce Brosnan, Antonio Banderas, Nick Nolte, Sigourney Weaver, Juliette Binoche, Dustin Hoffman, Susan Sarandon, Holly Hunter, Ralph Fiennes, and Michael Caine (all of whom will be here at one time or another this year) - there were Arsinee Khanjian, Bruce Greenwood, Eilias Koteas, and Eric Bogosian.
The reason is simple. These are the stars of Ararat, this year's Opening Night film. And, without question, Ararat is the highest-profile Canadian-made feature to arrive in theaters this year. (Note that "highest profile" does not necessary equate to "best".) The reason has more to do with the director than with his cast. From a cinematic perspective, Atom Egoyan is Canada's beloved son - a director of astounding ability and tremendous instincts whose previous three films have been top-level cinematic experiences. (Exotica and The Sweet Hereafter were masterpieces; Felicia's Journey was only a step below.) Egoyan's latest had its World Premiere at this year's Cannes Film Festival, but the director would not allow it to screen in competition, claiming that the subject matter was too important to him.
Ararat sold out both screenings (the lavish Gala at the 3000-seat Roy Thompson Pavilion and the more modestly priced showing at the smaller Uptown 1) within hours of tickets going on sale - not unusual for a rock concert, but nearly unprecedented for Toronto's Opening Night film, which usually has enough seats that anyone who really wants one can get it. Not this year.
The lines were long and the crowds jubilant. For cinema-lovers, the premiere of Ararat represented not only one of Canada's finest hours of 2002, but the beginning of a 10-day orgy of motion picture excellence. Lines at film festivals are communal experiences (I stand in a few every year, although, as an accredited critic, I could bypass most of them) - people who have never before met animatedly discuss the merits of films they have both seen and swap titles of movies that must not be missed. During six years of festival-going, I have seen a couple arrange a first date after meeting in a line, watched two men almost come to blows as a result of differing opinions regarding David Lynch's Mulholland Drive, and been approached by several readers who inexplicably recognized me from a grainy photo on my website. In a place like Disneyworld, lines are a bane. At film festivals, they can be one of the highlights (as long as it's not rainy). After all, a good line experience is better than a bad movie.
When all was said and done, however, the night was about Ararat. The politicians and socialites lapped up the pageantry, but many of the 4000 people attending the joint screenings (including everyone at the Uptown) were there to see, not to be seen.
Ararat (the title comes from Mt. Ararat) is easily Egoyan's most ambitious picture to date. The film's scope is massive, attempting to relate an historical event, put it in context for those living today, and tell several entwined modern stories. And, while it's unfair to say that the material defeats Egoyan, the movie lacks the power of his recent features. Perhaps it's a case of him being too close to the subject matter. Whatever the reason, the characters often seem only half-formed and there's a strange artificiality about the entire endeavor. Egoyan has never been a realist, and his style has contributed to his ability to deliver a knockout punch. Here, that punch is missing.
The event that forms Ararat's fulcrum is the 1915 attempted genocide of the Armenian people by the Turks of the Ottoman Empire. Approximately 2/3 of the Armenian population - more than 1 million individuals - were killed during one of the bloodiest reigns of terror. To this day, despite the assertions of scholars and the records of eyewitnesses, the Turkish government denies that the atrocities occurred. On more than one occasion, Egoyan draws a parallel between what transpired in 1915 Armenia and what happened during the Holocaust. His most chilling link - that Hitler defended his elimination of the Jews by stating, "Who remembers the extermination of the Armenians?" One of Egoyan's points is that no one does. The reason why this film is so important to the director is that he is an Armenian-Canadian. In telling this story, he is relating his heritage.
The events of 1915 are only the film's background. This is neither a period piece nor a documentary (although one could argue that Egoyan might have been more successful had he used either approach). Instead, it takes place in modern day Canada, where a filmmaker, Edward Saroyan (Charles Aznavour), has decided to make a motion picture about the Armenian genocide. Along with his producer (Eric Bogosian), he recruits an historian, Ani (Arsinee Khanjian), to advise on the film. Ani is an expert on the painter Arshile Gorky, who left Armenia for New York at the time of the extermination. Her son, 18-year old Raffi (David Alpay), decides that he must visit Armenia to understand the legacy of his people. Meanwhile, his step-sister, Celia (Marie-Josee Croze), with whom he is having a sexual affair, has escalated a feud with his mother to dangerous levels. On his way back from his trip abroad, Raffi is stopped by a customs inspector, David (Christopher Plummer), who believes that film cans in Raffi's possession are being used for drug transportation.
Part of the problem with Ararat is that about half the film feels like a history lesson. While this isn't bad, especially for those (myself included) who are unaware of what happened in 1915 Armenia, it lacks an emotional component. We watch and learn, much as we do in a classroom. We are not transported there. Egoyan shows what happened second-hand, by means of re-creations of history being done for the film-within-the-film. Consequently, we never feel anything for the historical characters or their circumstances (beyond a certain detached horror). In his defense, I don't think Egoyan intended for us to have a visceral reaction - he wanted to show how filming those scenes impacted the characters working on the movie.
The sequences with the customs inspector don't really work, probably because we're not given much background on the man. We see a couple of scenes with him at home, learn that he is having trouble coping with his son's homosexuality, and are told that he's approaching retirement, but we never delve beneath the surface, and his importance to the film necessitates that we see him as more than a stern authority figure. The best-developed individual in the film is Raffi, but his motivations for going to Armenia are a little murky. He has unanswered questions about the death of his father, who was shot 15 years ago while attempting to assassinate a Turkish diplomat. (This gives Egoyan the opportunity to address the thorny issue of when a "freedom fighter" becomes a "terrorist", but he largely sidesteps the question.) We are supposed to take it on faith that Raffi cannot move forward in life until he has explored his past. It's a nice conceit, but is it there, on the screen? Not really.
One aspect of Ararat that works is Raffi's relationship with Celia. She is a genuine character, driven by great passion and guilt. She believes that Ani was in some way responsible for her father's death, and she will not let go of the idea. Actress Marie-Josee Croze brings this character to volcanic life with a fiery performance that lights up the screen. Unfortunately, after a key scene that occurs mid-way through the movie, she is largely absent for the remainder of the running time.
Egoyan's successes within Ararat outweigh his failures, and there are individual moments of rare power. Take, for example, the scene in which a half-Turkish actor (Elias Koteas) argues against the importance of putting too much reliance upon the past. Or when Celia publicly pushes Ani to admit culpability. ("What she needs is to destroy me the way she thinks I destroyed her father," admits Ani.) Or when David describes watching heroin "mules" sitting on a toilet releasing their illicit baggage. There's a lot of substance in Ararat, and its willingness to deal with the effects of a near-genocide is laudable, but this is not one of Egoyan's top efforts. Did the film inform and educate me? Yes. Did it move me to care about what happened in 1915 Armenia? No. And that is where Ararat went astray.
© 2002 James Berardinelli