Ararat: A Movie Review

Written and directed by Atom Egoyan, the movie Ararat tells the story of a young man whose life was changed while making a film about the Armenian genocide in Turkey during 1915. Over one million Armenians were brutally slaughtered by the Turks on the pretense that they were a threat to national security. The film recounts these events as a the young man Raffi (David Alpay) is being interrogated by a customs officer (Christopher Plummer) on his return from Turkey were he has just visited his ancestral homeland.

I really want to like this film (I have now seen it three times), but I can only give it a fair rating (6 out of 10). I can’t place my finger on exactly what I think is wrong with the movie. Overall the acting is good (the film also stars Eric Bogosian, Bruce Greenwood, Arsinee Khanjian and Elias Koteas). Alpay and Plummer stand out in their roles, and I particularly liked Plummer’s more understated acting in this film as opposed to some of his other recent work. I guess I have to agree with a view more professional reviewers quoted below.

One reviewer (Harvey S. Karten, Compuserve) has stated that Ararat is “A difficult but worthy film that bites off more than it can chew by linking the massacre of Armenians in 1915 with some difficult relationships in the present.” Jonathan Foreman of the New York Post wrote, “The Armenian genocide deserves a more engaged and honest treatment,” and Kirk Honeycutt of the Hollywood Reporter added, “Canada’s Atom Egoyan gets in touch with his Armenian roots in the highly ambitious “Ararat,” an intricately scripted, beautifully photographed meditation on redemption and reconciliation. But while obviously an extremely personal work, it remains inextricably stuck in an emotionally unavailable rut.”

There is one great scene in the film however that deserves further mention. In it Raffi confronts Ali (Elias Koteas), a half-Turkish actor who has just completed playing his role as Jevdet Bey, a rather heinous character in the Turkish army (the following quote is courtesy of the Internet Movie Database:

Raffi: Were you serious about what you told him?
Ali: What?
Raffi: That you don’t think it happened?
Ali: What, the genocide?
Raffi: Yeah.
Ali: Are you gonna shoot me or something? 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 1.
Raffi: But 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 extermination of the Armenian population in Van. There were telegrams, there were communicators…
Ali: Look I’m not saying that something didn’t happen.
Raffi: Something…
Ali: Look, I was born here. So were you right?
Raffi: Yeah.
Ali: This is a new country. So let’s just drop the f**king history and get on with it. No one’s gonna wreck your home. No one’s gonna destroy you family. Hmm? So let’s go inside and uncork this thing and celebrate. Hmm?
Raffi: Do you know what Adolf Hitler told his military commanders to convince them that his plan would work? “Who remembers the extermination of the Armenians?”
Ali: And nobody did. Nobody does.

It is a shame that more people are not aware of this sad chapter in human history. In fact, the Turkish government still denies after more than 90 years that the genocide ever took place. Perhaps the best reason to view this film is to acquaint one’s self with these events.

The film is rated R for violence, sexuality/nudity and language and is probably inappropriate for children under 15 given the graphic violence that is both shown and implied.

Listening

Yesterday I posted a blog entry that featured a quote from Frederick Buechner, and at the risk of having too much Buechner in too short a time (is that possible?), I open this post with another quote from him.

“Listen to your life. See it for the fathomless mystery that it is. In the boredom and pain of it no less than in the excitement and gladness: touch, taste, smell your way to the holy and hidden heart of it because in the last analysis all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace.” – Frederick Buechner

I often use the quote above in the signature line of my emails.  It encapsulates how I would like to approach living.  I truly believe that, as the cliche states, “the unexamined life is not worth living,” and that, as Buechner says elsewhere, if we are ever going to experience God or hear God speak, it will be in our own lives.  I have found this to be true in my own life, or at least I did when I was younger.

When I was young, the presence of God was often a palpable thing.  I knew God was real because I felt him in my life, in my body even.  God was with me, and if I felt particularly down or depressed, his presence was just a prayer away.  From the time my Dad became a Christian (when I was in the first grade or so) throughout High School and beyond, the Church was my life.  It was everything, and maybe because of that, knowing and feeling God in my life seemed easy.  Between worship services and Bible studies and prayer meetings, I was in church at least 10-12 hours a week.  And I prayed, not some brief bedtime bidding, but for hours at a time . . . weeping and laughing, pleading and thanking, praising and lamenting.  Perhaps I see all of this through the misty vision of nostalgia, and everything I remember should be taken with a grain of salt, but doubt was virtually non-existent.  And I could not have imagined not being in the presence of God.  I believed that, and lived as though, God’s Spirit was always with me.  This is what I remember.

Naturally, part of this probably had to do with the faith that children and youth often have – a faith that is untried and untested, a faith that has not seen much sorrow or pain, a faith, in other words, that has not lived enough life.  I am sure that this is true, at least for me.  And though any pain or suffering I may have experienced in my 52 years is nothing compared to what many have endured, I have experienced more than a few losses.  I saw my dad leave the ministry he had worked so hard to build up because of an extra-marital affair, and with this my own faith was rocked.  I have lost all of my grandparents to death, including my beloved Ma Nellie, who was like a second mother to me.  My own marriage collapsed and, even after 13 years, I feel that loss intensely.  And, as a pastor, I have become intimately acquainted with death and loss and suffering and how these things affect people I love and serve.

Now don’t misunderstand me, I have also had many blessings in my life.  I have a beautiful 21 year old daughter who loves her father.  I have over 10 years of quality higher education and the three degrees earned during that time.  I have been privileged to meet some amazing and wonderful people in the churches I have served these past 28 years, and my life has been blessed by several mentors along the way who helped me and kept me pointed in the right direction.  I am blessed far beyond what I could ever deserve.

And yet, I long for more: for a deeper connection with people, stronger friendships and relationships with others, and a deeper sense of God’s presence in my life.  So I am trying to listen, again.  I want to reconnect with people, with life, and I want to know God’s presence and Spirit as fully as I did when I was younger.

Not long ago I stumbled upon a blog that looks promising to me.  It’s called “A Place for the God Hungry.”  In one of its posts the author writes about Frederick Buechner, and quotes from his latest book, The Yellow Leaves, which is a collection of essays, short stories, and poems.  In the introduction, Buechner says,

“I can still write sentences and paragraphs, but for some five or six years now I haven’t been able to write books.   Maybe after more than thirty of them the well has at last run dry.  Maybe, age eighty, I no longer have the right kind of energy.  Maybe the time has come to simply stop.  Whatever the reason, at least for the moment, the sweet birds no longer sing.” (p. ix)

I was greatly saddened when I read these words.  Buechner has been one of my mentors (though I have never met him or even spoken with him) through his writing, and so I grieved the loss that he must feel.  But, in addition, I recognized something of myself in his words, and after further contemplation, I came to the conclusion that I do not want the sweet birds to stop their singing in my life.  And I think the best way, perhaps the only way,  to prevent this from happening is to do what I mentioned above:  to listen . . . and to try my best to keep the connections with people, life and God alive within my heart.