Last week, renowned Canadian film director Atom Egoyan was in Turkey for the first time. Although he had received many invitations from film festivals before, he had preferred not to come. He had legitimate reasons, fears and concerns. ‘Ararat’, the film he shot 13 years ago, had faced intense reaction and repression in Turkey; and could not be screened.
There was a special reason for Egoyan’s visit: He had been asked to be best man at Sera Dink and Eric Nazarian’s wedding. His concerns accompanied his curiosity as he set out towards Turkey. He returned as a host to the country his ancestors had been exiled from. He was surprised, happy and full of emotion. History was being written: “History is not always made by large public statements, but by the conversation between individuals.” We spoke to Egoyan, and discussed the Diaspora and Turkey, and also ‘Ararat’.
This is the first question I have in mind: Why didn’t you come to Turkey before?
I received many invitations from the Istanbul Film Festival. I always asked that the festival send me a letter saying that I can speak freely about the Armenian Genocide and I never got this letter. So I never came. But when I think deeper than that, many Armenians had a resistance to come. I felt that there was a lot of issues that are unresolved in our own minds, which continue to be unresolved. My wife Arsinée Khanjian has been making this trip for many years. I have been incredibly impressed with her openness and yet it was still difficult to understand what she was observing from afar. When the invitation came from Sera Dink and Eric Nazarian’s wedding for us to be best man and maid of honour, I couldn’t say no. I felt this was the perfect opportunity to come. Because I was coming for a family matter, a personal matter. There wasn’t an agenda except celebrating the love of these two extraordinary people. I am very thankful for that. In the days that I spent here, the whole world has opened up. I had heard about it from Arsinée, I was aware that there was a dialogue happening here. But I didn’t understand the nature of it until I arrived.
What is the difference between observing from afar and observing from close-up?
I think for many Armenians who are in the Diaspora, we forget that we have relationships with Turks at all. We forget that because history has cut us off from this culture, and we are frozen in a moment. In a way, we need to be frozen in that moment, because that has become our identity. However, when you are here you understand that there are huge changes and shifts in society. You understand that there are Armenians who have been living with Turks for the past century. There is an organic process occurring where there is a development in this relationship. In the Diaspora, as I said, we are frozen in a moment, and we are also frozen within an agenda. It is part of our formation in the Diaspora that we have to have our host countries acknowledge the history of what happened. But what we saw now, in 2015, is that after the Pope made this strong statement, and after Germany, Austria and Belgium recognized the Genocide, that this pressure is not enough. We have seen that with the Pope statement, Erdoğan has basically said, “It doesn’t matter, I don’t need to listen”. And you realize that this idea of pressuring Turkey from the outside can only go so far. There is now work to be done within the country. As Diasporans, we cannot be involved in that process unless we have a relationship with the community here.
Was there a deeper reason for you to prefer not to come until now?
I did not want to feel small. I have spent so much of my life trying to build an identity, and trying to find a place within my own country. I tried so much to assert who I am. I didn’t want to come back here and feel insignificant. I did not want to come here and feel that all the work we have done in Canada, in the USA, or in France and in Argentina is somehow going to be demolished. In Turkey, I would suddenly be back in a place that I would feel fear; a fear that history has moved on, a fear that everything that I have tried to claim is completely insignificant. But here I saw change, and I met some incredible people.
"When we saw the images in the streets after the Hrant Dink assassination of these large groups of people saying, “We are Hrant! We are Armenians!” In Diaspora, we all understood this to mean that these crowds were saying, “We recognize the Genocide”. We did not understand that these crowds were saying, “We are Hrant, because we want freedom of expression,” and “We are Hrant, because we want to be able to ask questions”.
How could you feel the change in Turkey in such a short period of time you were here?
Because a few things happened to me. I came to this building of the Hrant Dink Foundation and Agos. I saw that we have been here for a really long time. I didn’t feel alien. With Arsinée, we were in a restaurant, we heard a conversation between a Kurdish student and his teacher, and at one point the teacher used the word genocide. It was the first time I heard that word used in Turkey by someone else. I turned around and I said, “I am sorry, I don’t know you, but I have to get involved in this conversation.” And we had this amazing afternoon. He was Kurdish, he was from Diyarbakır, he used the word Diyarbekir, and he said Dikranagerdzi. He was talking about this incredible journey that he had made as a Kurd. He told me when he had found out about the Armenian Genocide. And I understood the fact that until the 1990s the Kurds didn’t even hear about this question. I understood for the first time that there was this process where there was a whole movement towards the civil society that we in the Diaspora don’t understand. I’ll give you a good example. When we saw the images in the streets after the Hrant Dink assassination of these large groups of people saying, “We are Hrant! We are Armenians!” In Diaspora, we all understood this to mean that these crowds were saying, “We recognize the Genocide”. We did not understand that these crowds were saying, “We are Hrant, because we want freedom of expression,” and “We are Hrant, because we want to be able to ask questions”. We are very focused on one issue. But now, 100 years later, we can understand that we also have to focus on the community, where there is still the fear that if the mentality of society does not change, this can happen again. There is still ongoing pressure. We don’t feel this in the Diaspora. But it is dialogue that will change this country, and the truth will be known.
Based on your experience, how do you see the Kurds’ process of facing the Armenian Genocide?
There has been an incredible openness. This young man’s, this Kurdish intellectual’s sincerity was so clear. He was saying that Kurds began to ask questions about the Armenian Genocide after what they experienced in the 80s and 90s. It was extraordinary that he also mentioned their role as accomplices. This is something that they carry as well. He was telling me that sometimes he has talked to people who feel they were punished for being accomplices. It was very open. I was suspicious to be honest. Were they using the issue to gain credit before the international community by using the Armenian issue? It takes a single conversation with somebody who is sincere to erase that suspicion. Why did I meet this person? That can only happen here. If I made a film of it, no one would believe me, but it happened.
Did you come across anything in Turkey that caused disappointment?
I went to an exhibition of Ottoman photography. I was looking for traces of Armenian life. But there was hardly any mention of minorities, and only one mention of Armenians, and that was the 1905 assassination attempt on Sultan Abdul Hamid II. In other words, it was a continuation of the official narrative that portrayed Armenians as terrorists. I then went to a cinema museum. There I saw a statute of a person who was a hero, because he was the first Turk, the first non-ethnic, to have opened a cinema, because everyone before him was a member of an ethnic minority. I thought to myself, ‘What a strange reason to celebrate’. I saw something else there, a poster of a film that was made in 1922. Half the cast is Armenian with Armenian names. This was incredible; you realize how important the Armenian presence was even after 1915. Armenians were still involved in every aspect of the society. The life in Istanbul was very different from the life in provinces, where we were completely eradicated. But they were like public ghosts. I, too, was afraid for many years to come here and become a public ghost.
What is the main difference between the commemoration of the Genocide in the USA and European countries, and its commemoration in Turkey?
In the Diaspora we don’t trust other people to remember for us. We feel we have to remember ourselves; no one can remember us in the way we want to be remembered. This means the process of remembering for us has become more ideological than organic. The process here is perhaps more organic because it is in relationship to the perpetrator also coming to terms. What happens in the West? Politicians remember, they make wonderful speeches, but it is not part of their emotional construction. The Genocide is not part of their narrative. They don’t ask themselves big questions. For instance, in Canada there has been a question raised about Genocide against the First Nations. At no point, do we think the Native Indian leaders would align themselves with Armenians. It’s a separate issue in our minds. We are not building this social construct together, which you could do here.
“We expect that suddenly, at the centennial of the Genocide, to have a film on the Genocide that can define everything. But we forget that the destruction continues.”
How has the Centennial of the Genocide been in terms of artistic production?
It is an amazing year; we won Best National Pavilion at the Venice Biennale. It’s amazing that we are able to have an artist like Sarkis showing at the Pavilion of Turkey. We are culturally on track of reconstructing ourselves after this devastation that took place 100 years ago. On the other hand, art isn’t created as part of a program. It is created because individuals feel a certain thing at a certain point in their life at a certain stage in their development as an artist. We expect that suddenly, at the centennial of the Genocide, to have a film on the Genocide that can define everything. But we forget that the destruction continues. And no depiction of catastrophe will ever make up for a 100 years of denial. There is a long history of holocaust films. Some of them are really strong, some of them are terrible. Armenians don’t have access to that tradition. We are still doing what we need to do, but we are still coming to terms with the fact that denial is a defining aspect of our experience. When people say it is a difficult subject to deal with, it is because we need to do so much.
Would you consider making a film about the Genocide?
No. It is interesting that my next film, ‘Remember’ deals with some of these issues through the Holocaust. The protagonist is a Holocaust survivor who has Alzheimer’s. He finds out that a Nazi is responsible for killing his family at Auschwitz. He goes on a mission to kill this person, but he keeps forgetting why. Sometimes he finds himself in hotel room with a gun, but he doesn’t know why.
Which moment you had in Istanbul will be the most unforgettable?
The strongest impression is being best man, and shaking hands with members of the Armenian community. To me it was so emotional. Not only being at the wedding, but also to be in this extraordinary position where I was welcoming everybody in their home, in their church. I looked at every single face, they lived in this community and they managed to exist together. Sharing this moment of joy and union, that was monumental for me.
“History is sometimes made by the conversation between individuals.”
‘Ararat’, my own film, is not about the Genocide, but about denial. It is about the transmission of trauma from one generation to the next through denial. Maybe at the time the most confusing aspect of ‘Ararat’ for the Armenian community was that for 40 minutes they did not see any historical scene at all. They saw the story of two families, a story of exile. They saw a story of an Armenian family, an internal problem between mother and son; and they are wondering, “Why am I watching this film? What does it have to do with the genocide?” But by the end of the film we have shown them four generations. The whole film concentrates on this moment between two families, two singular figures who recreate a piece of history through their own intimacy. History is not always made by large public statements, but by the conversation between individuals. In particular, between parents and their children, that is where the central transmission happens. But it can also happen in a conversation like the one I had with that Kurdish stranger. Often the sense of history changes with such small moments. If art can be used to create a consciousness at some level, then it has served its purpose. This is not an ideological purpose. ‘Ararat’ is the opposite of propaganda. 13 years later, the question posed in the film is still relevant: “How can we reconcile with the history when there is no recognition?” So what has changed? 13 years ago, in my own country, Canada, the Genocide had not been recognized. It was recognized the year after the film came out. The work of art will seal the issue.