Some nights ago, I watched Ararat at the local student theatre. Outside the screening, the Turkish Students Association had put a huge poster saying "This Movie is Not the Historical Truth". They were also passing out flyers that "disputed" the movie's claims and sought to "balance" the picture. For those in the dark, the movie deals with the genocide/holocaust of Armenian population at the hands of the Ottoman Turks during WWI.
Atom Egoyan, of Armenian descent, chose to use his trademark screw-narrative-and-continuity-by-postmodernism-101 to tell this story. There are tangents enough to fill Euclid's nightmares. We get a movie-within-a-movie, characters appear in both memory and reality as both characters and individuals. The author on whose work the movie is partially based appears as the author on whose work the movie-within-the movie is partially based (charlie kaufman is obviously a hack) - all that is good and well and I expected as much.
More interesting to me was how he would treat the material. He allows one half-Turkish character to raise doubts about the overall scheme, "The genocide never happened. This was a war and population get shifted during wars. The Armenians were allying with the Russians against the Ottomans and they had to be moved." He is also the only character who says to the Armenian boy-toy,"I was born here(canada) and so were you. This is a new country. Let's forget what happened so long ago and come have a drink". To which the Armenian boy-toy replies, "You know what Hitler told his commanders to convince them to carry out the Holocaust? He said 'Who remembers the Armenian Genocide?'".
And that was the crux on which the movie rotates: memory. Specifically the demands of the Dead on the memory of the Living. What to remember? How to remember? and can one ever forget? The Armenians complained, in the movie and outside, that the Turkish government has never owned up to the genocide. That the Turks claim it never happened. Considering the fact that the present-day Turkish government has little to do with the Ottoman Empire, that accusation is ultimately directed at the Turkish people. They do not remember what they did to us. We were persecuted because of our religion (Christianity as opposed to Islam) and our society (Armenians were the traditional business class in Ottoman Empire).
The Turkish students outside the theater had a different memory. They claimed that the Holocaust claimed Kurds, local Muslims as well as Armenians. Let's remember all the people that died in that war and not the selected ones who desire to make their memories into political gameplay. Plus, Turks themselves have been victim of Armenian terrorism throughout the 20th century (numerous assasination of Turkish diplomats were carried out by Armenians in the 50s-80s).
Obviously, these are not the only silenced memories. The Gypsy Holocaust at Auschwitz, the Partition of India, Civil Wars in Srilanka, Rwanda, Congo, Hiroshima, Nagasaki etc. etc. are all silent memories plaguing humanity. We chose not to pay attention because no one is asking us to remember!
W.G.Sebald wrote recently on the absence of any memory of the destruction of German cities by Allied bombers at the end of the WWII. 600,000 lives, he said, have left no memory or trace on the inner life of the nation. When his book, On the Natural history of Destruction, was published earlier this year, there was a chorus of critiques that asked either, 1) what about the bombings the Germans did of London or the Holocaust? or 2) it was war and that was expected Allied reaction. These may be valid points but are hardly sympathetic to the civilians lost. According to Sebald, though, even the Germans want to forget. They quickly build over and the episode was relegated to some "proto-history".
The memory of destruction, hence, becomes the memory of the present. Whether the Turkish govt., or the Holocaust deniers, must bear witness and admit to the memory. The memory of lives lost is subsumed under the politics of guilt and suppression.
The question I left the theater with was simple: Is it possible to remember a trauma of such immense proportion as a collective, social memory? i.e. Not counting those who lost family and friends to massacres, what memories do others who share ethnicity, religion or nationality with the destroyed have?
I was raised in Pakistan with a very particular national memory of the Partition. Lives lost, rapes, mass-migration were part of a narrative that shared no culpability with the Hindus. But his memory was mine through the memory of the Nation. I read the accounts left by those who were migrating away from Lahore. Only then it dawned on me that my collective memory had forgotten the one element around which this whole facade is built: the peasants who actually died. As a nation, we remembered what was convenient and permissible. The atrocities on that side of that blood-soaked border and not this.
The G.O.P is holding the Republican Convention in New York as close to Sep 11 as possible. It is being held so late that many states will have to amend election laws to allow Pres. Bush to appear on the slates. Only 2 years after, we are coming against the well of collective memory being used in political pulleys. Some who have said/written things contrary to this memory have already been silenced .
In the end, I think that there is little Atom Egoyan has to answer for. He is only trying his best to remember for his people. Could he have told the story of even one of those who lost their lives? Sure. But then it would not be the poitical statement that Ararat is. Who cares about people when memories live forever?