By James Slaymaker.

In its intricate tapestry of storytelling modes and its profound engagement with the ethics of representation, “Aurora’s Sunrise” stands as a cinematic work that dares to confront the complexities of historical memory. It forces us to re-examine the role of cinema in shaping and distorting the past….”

How does a filmmaker go about representing a tragedy on the scale of the Armenian genocide on screen without lapsing into tastelessness or exploitation? This is the question which lies at the core of Aurora’s Sunrise, the latest film by Inna Sahakyan, which takes as its subject the extraordinary life of Arshaluys ‘Aurora’ Mardiganian, an Armenian genocide survivor whose memoir about her harrowing experience was the basis for a Hollywood narrative film starring herself in the lead role. The film is constructed as a collage, consisting of animated sequences, segments of a lengthy interview conducted with Mardiganian towards the end of her life, still photos, passages from Mardiganian’s memoir read by a different actress, and archival fragments from Auction of Souls, the 1919 film in which Mardiganian starred (the film was once believed to be lost to history, until 18 minutes were recovered and restored in 2009, many years after  Mardiganian’s death). Throughout the feature, we hear of the many criticisms Mardiganian had of Auction of Souls, primarily that the film overly aestheticized the violence and whitewashed some of the more gruesome facts in an attempt to package the tragedy for widespread consumption. As the film gained popularity across the US, Mardiganian increasingly took issue with the fact that most people conflated what they’d seen in the movie theatre with her actual experiences, and this disjunct between the depth of the horrors she witnessed first-hand and the sanitised narrative produced for commercial gain. Working in a vein directly opposed to the grand linear narrative of Auction of Souls, Aurora’s Sunrise adopts a non-linear palimpsest style which places varied forms of representation side-by-side, creating striking points of juxtaposition and contrast. This aesthetic choice is not merely an eye-catching gimmick, but one informed by significant philosophical, ethical, and political concerns: Aurora’s Sunrise constantly reminds us that cinema does not only record the events of the past, it actively shapes and distorts historical reality.

In the film’s opening moments, we see documentary footage of an elderly Mardiganian, sorting through original theatrical posters of Auction of Souls. She poignantly points to one of the illustrated images, and tells the documentary crew, ‘That’s me, Aurora’. The camera zeroes in of the face of the young woman in the illustration, and the sequence transitions to an animated image of the same poster, reproduced near-perfectly with digital imaging tools. The virtual camera-eye pulls back and we see that the poster is hanging outside of a movie theatre in an animated street, a crowd of excited spectators eagerly lining up in front of it to attend the New York the premiere of Auction of Souls. Sahakyan then cuts to the interior of the animated theatre, as a young Mardiganian walks down the aisle to great applause. ‘I became a Hollywood star when I was just 17’, a voice-over artist recites. As Mardiganian takes her seat and sees the lights dim, however, her expression turns from one of excitement to one of deep concern and apprehension. There is, after all, something profoundly abhorrent about the spectacle of a crowd of wealthy socialites gathering in a luxurious auditorium to watch the horrendous suffering occurring overseas. ‘But I wasn’t an actress’, the voice-over continues, ‘I was not acting, I was reliving’. The film then cuts to a reverse angle: actual scenes from the recently restored Auction of Souls are shown, framed within the space of the animated auditorium. Images from Auction of Souls then take up the whole of the screen: Mardiganian jumping off a cliff into a body of water; soldiers of the Ottoman Empire scouring a deserted landscape on horseback; a church bell ringing. The footage of the church bell then transitions into an animated reconstruction of the same shot, followed by a series of animated images of the Armenian countryside in the years leading up to the genocide. From the outset, then, Sahakyan foregrounds her preoccupation with perspective, personal and collective memory, the role of cinema in mediating the past, and the commodification of history for financial gain. These multimedia fragments do not blend together seamlessly; we are encouraged to notice the striking gulf between the voice of the actual Mardiganian and the voice-over actress, the differences between the reconstructions of pre-war Armenia produced by Hollywood in 1919 and the simulacra of the same landscape conjured through modern digital animation, and the contrast between the various visual depictions of Mardiganian.

The act of recounting history through art, the film suggests, is absolutely vital, but just as vital to remember that there can be no single, objective, totalising account of any historical event. This idea is powerfully communicated in Aurora’s Sunrise on the levels of form and content. Although the film plays around with chronology, it is primarily organised into two sections. The first part focuses on Aurora’s life during the genocide. Born in 1901 in an Armenian community in Eastern Anatolia, she witnessed the devastating effects of the Ottoman Empire’s systematic campaign to eliminate the Armenian population. The Armenian Genocide was an orchestrated campaign of mass killings, deportations, and forced displacement carried out by the Ottoman Empire during World War I. By the early 20th century, the Ottoman Empire was grappling with internal strife, economic challenges, and ethnic tensions as various ethnic and religious groups sought greater autonomy and recognition. Amid this backdrop, the rise of nationalism across Europe and the Middle East fueled desires for self-determination among ethnic minorities, including the Armenian population. When World War I erupted in 1914, the Ottoman Empire aligned itself with the Central Powers, resulting in conflict with the Allied Powers. As the empire struggled on multiple fronts and faced economic difficulties, the ruling Ottoman government accused the Armenian minority of collaborating with the enemy and initiated a series of deportations, which served as a cover for a systematic campaign of mass killings, forced marches, and forced labour camps.

The act of recounting history through art, the film suggests, is absolutely vital, but just as vital to remember that there can be no single, objective, totalising account of any historical event.”

After refusing to leave the family home on the advice of a Kurdish shepherd that Turks were targeting Armenians across the Empire, Aurora’s father was killed by Ottoman soldiers. Mardiganian and her siblings were sent on a death march into exile across the desert in what is now Syria, enduring beatings from the troops and witnessing unimaginable bloodshed. Mardiganian was eventually sold into the slave market, before escaping to New York City via a boat transporting refugees from Oslo. By the end of her ordeal, Mardiganian would be the only member of her family left alive, aside from her brother who moved to America years previously and who Mardiganian spent the rest of her life searching for to no avail. The use of different forms of media to recreate Mardiganian’s early life, the film draws attention to the lack of tangible material records of the genocide. The scarcity of material records of the Armenian Genocide can be attributed to deliberate attempts by Ottoman authorities to destroy evidence, the displacement and deaths of victims, the rewriting of history by the Turkish government, and the limited international awareness during World War I. In the absence of images of the actual events, Aurora’s Sunrise must fill in the gaps, primarily through the use of images from Auction of Souls (which Mardiganian openly describes as being insufficient to capture the true terror of the genocide) and animated imagery (itself based on second-hand sources and constructed through a gaping historical distance). The fact that these recreations are used to provide a visual representation of an event for which few official records exist lends them an intense sense of melancholy; the animation style is minimalistic, with backgrounds largely remaining static, facial expressions often remaining still for long stretches of time, and bodily movement regularly appears unnaturally smooth. Yet these self-imposed limitations, coupled with the animation’s vibrant, hyper-real colour palette, creates a hallucinatory atmosphere which fits the feature’s reflexive quality.

The second part of Aurora’s Sunrise focuses on Mardiganian’s life after she makes it to the United States. Although the film briefly seems as though it will take on a more optimistic tone in this section, the initial sense of hope is quickly undercut by the harsh realities Mardiganian faced when she was contacted by journalist Henry Leyford Gates, who tells her of his desire to collaborate on a book based on her experiences – which would be published under the title Ravished Armenia – and it was subsequently chosen picked up by a Hollywood studio to be adapted. Although both the book and the film helped to raise awareness of the atrocities, Mardiganian felt deeply uncomfortable about the exploitation of the genocide for financial gain. As her personal fame and popularity amplifies, she experiences a profound sense of guilt over allowing her story to be sold for profit, and questions whether she has contributed to the true depth of her people’s suffering being minimized by partaking in the production of a film which manipulates a historical narrative for easy marketability. Adding to her internal conflict is the eagerness on the part of the film’s producers to make Mardiganian a movie star – her personal suffering and her bravery in unveiling it to the world is at the centre of Auction of Soul’s publicity campaign, and she is forced to go on an endless promotional tour. Gates even goes so far as to take on Mardiganian’s legal guardianship so that he can more effortlessly control her. When the pressure grows too intense for Mardiganian to bear, she collapses during a film screening. Instead of taking the proper steps to ensure her wellbeing, Gates sends her to a convent and has several impersonators attend various events around the country in her place. Mardiganian’s attempts to overcome the overwhelming trauma of the genocide is, thus, denied by the Hollywood machine which forces her to relive this trauma on a daily basis – first within the film shoot itself, and then through the relentless PR events in which she has to verbally recount the horrors to ravenous crowds which consider them a perverse form of entertainment.

At one point, Mardiganian, seen in her late-career interview footage, expresses her ire at a sequence in Auction of Souls which depicts a group of Armenian women being crucified in the desert. Sahakyan cuts to a shot of the scene being described: the women are caked in heavy make-up- not a hair out of place – hanging from giant wooden crosses placed along a photogenic stretch of the Californian desert. Mardiganian’s words are placed over these images on the soundscape: “The Turks didn’t make their crosses like that. The Turks made little pointed crosses. They took the clothes off the girls.” Mardiganian adds that the women weren’t actually tied up on large crosses as depicted in the film, they were impaled with the crosses and left to die on the ground. Mardiganian sardonically comments that the Americans have sanitized the acts of torture and violence to make it appear more ‘civilized’, in other words, make the content more readily digestible for the tastes of paying customers. Sahakyan then cuts to an animated image of the same event, but depicted more closely in line with the way Mardiganian has described it. However, the very nature of this animation doesn’t correspond to any traditional model of the indexical ‘real’. Not only has the image been created ex nihilo, without a real-world referent, but also the colour scheme and the composition are clearly expressionistic. The sequence, like everything else in Aurora’s Sunrise, doesn’t merely set up a dichotomy between a ‘false’ representation with a ‘true’ one, it actively places different forms of representation into contrapuntal dialogue to highlight how all reconstructions influence the spectator’s perception of the real. By highlighting the cinema’s limitations as an artform capable of accurately reproducing reality, Sahakyan actively interrogates filmic truth claims and expands the parameters of what is considered ‘authentic’ and ‘inauthentic’ in cinematic discourse. In other words, Aurora’s Sunrise rejects the notion that film holds the potential to depict an authoritative and objective ‘truth’, but, in doing so, crafts a unique visual essay which reveals much about the way the Armenian genocide has been remembered, depicted, discussed and debated throughout history.

In its intricate tapestry of storytelling modes and its profound engagement with the ethics of representation, “Aurora’s Sunrise” stands as a cinematic work that dares to confront the complexities of historical memory. It forces us to re-examine the role of cinema in shaping and distorting the past, urging us to remain vigilant against the pitfalls of exploitation and reductionism. Through its layered approach, Sahakyan’s film resonates as a powerful meditation on the ways in which art can grapple with the enormity of historical tragedy while acknowledging the limitations of representation.

James Slaymaker is a journalist and filmmaker. His articles have been published in Senses of Cinema, Bright Lights Film Journal, MUBI Notebook, Little White Lies, McSweeney’s, Kinoscope, Film Comment, and others. His first book Time is Luck: The Life and Cinema of Michael Mann (Telos Publishing). His films have been featured on Fandor, MUBI, and The Film Stage, as well as screening at the London DIY Film Festival, the Concrete Dream Film Festival, the InShort Film Festival and The Straight Jacket Film Festival. He is currently a doctoral student at The University of Southampton, where his research focuses on the late work of Jean-Luc Godard, post-cinema, and collective memory.

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