Arsinée Khandjian at Bay Area ANC “Hai Tad Evening”

Armenian National Committee
San Francisco – Bay Area
51 Commonwealth Avenue
San Francisco, CA 94118
Tel: (415) 387-3433
Fax: (415) 751-0617
E-mail: [email protected]

Saturday, March 6, 2004

When I was first invited for an opportunity to speak tonight, I wasn’t sure
what it was that the organizers were hoping to hear me say. The response
came back to me very quickly in the form of a self-evident suggestion which
was to address the topic of “the role of the artist in Hay Tad (the Armenian
cause)”. When I say self-evident, I mean, from the perspective of the
organization’s mandate and history which is to keep the subject of and the
work towards the recognition of the Armenian Genocide alive and continuous.

As we know, both politics and the arts have been driving forces for social
change throughout history. Cultures that have rejected the influences and
challenges presented by artists have remained poorer and weaker as a society
and a civilization.

When artistic activities have been embraced by societies, the artists have
often found themselves inscribed in the history of that culture. Not only
in its art history, but also in the larger collective history. Over time,
the process of the creative endeavor as well as its outcome have come to be
identified with the personal beliefs and views of the artist himself.
Undoubtedly, his personal experiences and morals influence his inspiration;
but if the resulting expression runs counter to the dominant, accepted
ideology of a particular society, – sadly, we’ve seen time after time, – the
most common reaction is to label the work as “propaganda”.

Over the years, as Atom Egoyan and I discussed the question of the Armenian
Genocide, the history’s effects on us as survivors, and the burden on the
Diaspora to face the denial of this inconceivable pain, one question kept
coming back unfailingly. It was a question in two parts: “Why and how to

As long as we were not directly exploring this very history through our
work, the challenge for us remained in understanding it on a personal level
– in understanding its effects on our identity. However, when we decided to
address these issues in a film work that would explore our Armenian identity
and expose the effects of the Genocide on it, not only did the two-part
question resurface – more than that – what became clear was that there was
an inherent danger in the simple fact of raising the topic. In the face of
an unsettled historical event, it was difficult to just follow the natural
law of the creative process which normally allows artists to speak from what
they know and what they believe in, what inspires their work and what
substantiates their imagination. The infamous question of `why to remember’
started putting us in a defensive position. Explaining and contextualizing
our work were not unusual to us. Artists’ views and observations are often
challenged for their meaning, their accuracy, and their pertinence in light
of established conventional values. But the position we found ourselves in
this time was atypical because as our responses ran the risk of being
perceived as political stances. For some, the initiative of the film was
further evidence of our engagement in a political act. They felt that not
only had we decided to remember the Genocide, but we were also suggesting
“how to remember” it – which brings me to the heart of the subject.

“Ararat” was designed to be first and foremost a work of art inspired by
humanistic and creative concerns previously present in the filmmaker’s body
of work. Atom Egoyan says in his introduction to the screenplay: “The
problem with any film that deals with the “Armenian issue” is that there are
so many issues to deal with… From the moment I began to write this
script, I was drawn to the idea of what it means to tell a story of horror.
In this case, the horror isn’t only about the historical events that took
place in Turkey over eighty-five years ago, but also the enduring horror of
living with something so cataclystic that has been systematically denied.
Without getting into the mechanics of that denial (there are a number of
books and articles on that issue), it is important to note that the role of
the director in my film-within-the-film is monumental. Edward Saroyan, and
his screenwriter, Rouben, are faced with an awesome task. They will be the
first filmmakers to present these images to a wide public. If their film
seems raw and blunt in its depictions, it’s because they are the first
people to cinematically present these “unspeakable horrors.” (later he adds)
most of the conflicts that occur in the contemporary story are related to
the unresolved nature of not only the Genocide, but also the difficulties
and compromises faced by the representation of this atrocity. How does an
artist speak the unspeakable? What does it mean to listen? What happens when
it is denied? (and finally) thus the screenplay had to tell the story of
what happened, why it happened, why it’s denied, why it continues to happen,
and what happens when you continue to deny. Ararat is a story about the
transmission of trauma. It is cross-cultural and inter-generational. The
grammar of the screenplay uses every possible tense available, from the
past, present, and future, to the subjective and the conditional.”

These incessant questions, – either in preparation for the production, or as
voiced by the character of Saroyan in the film, and again raised by the
filmmaker after the completion of Ararat, – are a clear indication that at
no point was there a desire to prove that the history was true. Instead,
the only concern was to find a way to give voice to a true history, to
retrieve it from oblivion and make the viewers ask themselves why they have
never heard of it. These were the obligations felt by the filmmaker.

Nevertheless, in the last two and a half years, we were to be confronted by
many politically charged situations and accusations. There is no doubt that
in the case of Ararat, the artifact itself, the film as an object, has
become in many cases a political instrument. As you may well know, opinions
are expressed regularly from various Turkish sources that adamantly reject
what the film represents, despite the fact that only a few of the respective
parties have actually even seen it. And, perhaps, there are Armenians who
may have not fully appreciated the thematic treatment of the movie and yet
they will unconditionally support it because it is “about the Armenian
Genocide”. These reactions and developments may be considered inevitable
given the political contrapositions on the subject. They do, however,
suggest that as artists we, nonetheless, have to be prepared to enter into
political discourse and sometimes directly so.

I will take a moment to describe one recent incident that not only caught
Atom and me by surprise but once again made us wonder to what extent the
artist is to be involved in the realm of political action even if that is
not his objective or choice.

It was end of December last year, just before the holidays, when we heard
that Erkan Mumcu, the Turkish minister of culture and tourism, had announced
that “Ararat” will finally be shown in Turkey. This came as a big surprise
mixed with excitement and suspicion. After all, we had already heard when
the film was screened publicly that festival organizers would invite it to
the Istanbul film fest. We had heard encouraging words from Turkish
journalists and critics that the film should be shown to Turkish audiences.
We were even approached by the head of a distribution company called Belge
film, who would take it upon himself to open the movie in Turkey. But all
these expressions of interest and curiosity had amounted to very little.
The individual initiatives were either not sincere enough or strong enough
to change a government policy shunning all discussion about anything
directly related to the subject of the Armenian Genocide. The more
organized campaigns were to refute the validity of the film both from a
historical and artistic perspective. Just before the opening of the film in
the states, over two thousand e-mails had inundated Disney’s and Miramax’s
head offices, claiming historical distortion and propaganda. One may
imagine, therefore, our amazement at this latest news where the minister was
announcing, through one of the most important press agencies in the world,
associated press, that “Ararat” was to be screened to Turkish audiences.
This was to show that the country was a serious proponent of democratic
ideals and that the release of the film was an example of Turkey’s tolerance
and openness as a society. The message appeared to be that Turkish citizens
should be entitled to their own opinion after having a chance to see the
film. These statements were commendable but they indicated a drastic shift
in the government’s position. Why now, we asked ourselves? After all, most
of the initial buzz, impact, concerns and accusations had already had their
run and the subject of the controversy around the film was slowly fading away.

Atom, in his magnanimously generous and optimistic outlook was happy about
this news. It was his hope that Turkish society would have a chance to see
this work along with previous ones, as part of his ongoing fascination with
human tragedy.

I, on the other hand, was much more skeptical. The news was too good to be
true. The vociferous articles that had been published over the past two
years in so many Turkish papers did not give me a sense that this
announcement could be anything other than rhetorical. I decided not to get
my hopes too high and naively be seduced by an intangible gesture. In a
strange way, I was even uneasy that “Ararat” would finally be released in
Turkey. I felt a sense of manipulation and opportunism guiding this highly
volatile announcement. As if, someone was walking into my garden, picking
up my golden apple, and walking out into the world to show the discovery. I
was determined to follow the turn of events as closely as possible until I
heard that the film was actually running in Turkish theatres.

Unfortunately, my instincts were well founded. It didn’t take us long to
find out that not only was the decision of the government challenged by the
nationalist action party, but also that any individual choosing to attend
screenings would suffer the consequences of the decision to shame Turkey by
paying dearly with his or her life.

Of course, this time no international media was to report these latest
developments. We found out about it through individuals who read Turkish
newspapers and who took it upon themselves to inform us of the way the
situation was unfolding.

As one may guess, Turkey needed to persuade the European Union through a
grandiose gesture of her ongoing efforts to establish democratic values as
an enduring principle of social and political course. “Ararat” with its
international profile was a perfect “golden apple” to show off at this
occasion. This strategy would not, however, survive the precarious
democratic structures on which this recently elected government was trying
to hold itself up.

My feeling was that something had to be done before this development would
go unnoticed and the world would remain with an initial false impression.
“Ararat” was not to see “the light of projector” in Turkey, and this,
everyone had the right to know without ambiguity. This was, yet again,
another example of deception, not only for us the filmmakers, but also for
every righteous citizen in the international community. Often our
politicians, for political expediency and alliances, fail to keep us from
knowing what is true and what is not. But this sort of knowledge is not a
privilege, it’s a public right.

I started to talk about it with friends, with community leaders, with
activists. To my surprise, I was to be given predictable generic responses
such as: “Oh well! It’s hardly surprising! But what can be done?” Or “there
are so many other issues to deal with when it comes to denial; this is more
or less one other small example of it”. Or “Armenian organizations have
more important ongoing concerns and this situation is only another
“velveloug”, rumor, not worth prioritizing it necessarily”. When I called
an American/Armenian organization to exchange ideas about a possible way to
address the situation, my phone call was not to be returned. Amazed by this
dismissal, I complained to someone in private, at which point I heard
something that amazed me even more: “What! Just because you’re a movie star
you think the person would have to take your call? Don’t you realize how
busy they are handling major Armenian issues?” I didn’t need insult from my
own people over injury from Turkish politicians.

I informed Atom that this case was not to be abandoned. We needed to
publicize the incident in a media-wide splash. After all, the Turkish
government has had the “presence d’esprit” to use the press in the first
place. Why stop them in their own device?

That’s when the ANC chapter in Toronto was contacted. I will personally
name Aris Babikian because he was the one person, who listened carefully to
what I was proposing as an opportunity and as an approach to turn the
situation around in our interest. I am thankful and humbled by his
generosity to commit the time and effort to this cause. He did it single
handedly by calling upon every Toronto newspaper editor. Soon, the
journalists were calling in to speak with Atom and find out what sources in
Turkey had to be contacted to substantiate the story. They managed to get
hold of the distributor who had rejected the offer of the minister of
culture to provide police force in protection for audiences attending the
public screenings. How could one take on, after all, the responsibility of
threatened lives? The Turkish ambassador in Ottawa was asked for an opinion.
He responded that this situation was not an example of a failing democracy
in Turkey… Finally, the same minister of culture gave in. Pressured by
demands for answers from Canadian journalists, he claimed that it was all a
ploy by the Canadian distributor of “Ararat” who had forced Turkey to
purchase the film, in order, to show later that Turkey was not an open,
tolerant society.

Yes. All this was reported in the Canadian press, nationally.

But the major success of this media campaign was marked when the editor of
the globe and mail, one of our most influential national papers, gave a most
unprecedented editorial write up, firmly establishing an explicit editorial
policy by calling the events of 1915 a genocide, and venturing even further.
Under the title, blocking Ararat, read the following passages: “If only
stories were as powerful as Ulku Ocaklari, the youth wing of a Turkish
nationalist group, seems to think they are! Threats of violence from the
group this month caused a film distributor in Turkey to withdraw Atom
Egoyan’s movie Ararat, about the 1915 genocide of an estimated 1.5 million
Armenians, before its debut on Turkey’s movie screens. Ulku Ocaklari must
be among the last believers in the power of art to change the world. (He
continues) the movie provides a test of the country’s political maturity at
a time when Turkey is pressing to join the European Union… Turkey is
failing the test. (later, he asks) What do the nationalists fear would
happen if Turks sat down to watch Mr. Egoyan’s complicated tale, much of
which is about the effects of the Genocide on Canadian Armenians today? The
stirrings of empathy, the desire for reconciliation? A wish to know more, to
seek the truth about their country’s history?… Despite the efforts of
countless writers to bear witness – genocidal campaigns still flourished in
Cambodia, Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia. Even so, the artists and others
will continue to come forward, because they must. (and he concludes) in the
end, the Turkish people are the poorer for this violent threat against their
freedom to think.”(1)

Soon, ANC Washington and Los Angeles chapters were contacted and took it
upon themselves to alert the American press. What started up as being one
more affront in the ocean of assaults and deceptions regularly obstructing
the recognition of the Armenian Genocide, turned into a premise to serve the
truth. This time, both the New York Times and the Los Angeles times
reported on the blocking of the film, not with such a unequivocal sense of
outrage as their Canadian counterpart, but then again, it is consistent with
the differences that mark the Canadian and American ways of contemplating
the world!

So, what is the role of the artist in Hay Tad?

Anatole Baja, a French theorist of the decadence movement, asks the
following question regarding the poet’s pursuit : “Isn’t their (the poets)
aim to seek the quintessence of things, to extract from them the most
intense perfume, in order to produce, in a few instants, a saraband of
striking visions giving the sensations of the manner of facts?”(2)

If this is the blessing, the power, the talent, and the vocation of the
artist and of the poet, then let me answer that question with another
question. What is the role of hay institutions, of hay politicians and
lobbyists, of hay culture and hay nation towards the artist? How do we
ensure that we acknowledge each other’s presence and we validate, as a
worldwide community, the differences among us? How do we bridge the gaps,
the lack of communication, and the ignorance that often plague the ever so
crucial bond linking a society to the voice of the artists?

I firmly believe that the role of the artist is to make art. But more
importantly, I consider it indispensable that societies appreciate closely
artistic processes and legitimize the endeavor of their artists; that they
come to understand there are several ways to accomplish goals towards a
promising future and that, in this respect, the artist is a major asset,
influence, and contributor.

Atom Egoyan and I never dreamt of writing a manifesto or a work of
propaganda with Ararat. All we wished for was to explore with rigor and
critical honesty the very essence of what we have to carry on as an identity
in our lives. That Armenians and hundreds of thousands of other citizens in
the world heard what “Ararat” had to tell is nothing other than a
celebration of the power of art to reach the heart and the mind of humanity.

If we played a role in Hay Tad, it was only because we first and foremost
believed in the need to tell our story as we know it. Thank you.


(1) “Blocking Ararat”, in The Globe and Mail, Monday, Jan. 26, 2004.
(2) Legitimizing The Artist, Manifesto Writing and European Modernism,
1885-1915, Luca Somigli, University of Toronto Press, Toronto, Buffalo,
London, 2003, p. 85.