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Sparring on Mt. Ararat – Christopher Null Faces JoBlo on Egoyan’s Latest

The filmcritic.com mailbag never goes for wanting of material to fill it. Usually people jot off a fan letter or some hate mail and disappear into the shadows. But when the venerable JoBlo, of JoBlo’s Movie Emporium, took me to task for my recent review of Atom Egoyan’s Ararat, things got a little heated. In the end, a peace was brokered: We would basically hash out the issue in a cross-site debate.

The resulting conversation ensues. As expected, by the end nothing is wholly resolved, but I think both sides leave the debate somewhat enlightened. –Christopher Null, Editor in Chief

JoBlo: I don’t usually have time to read many other online film critics’ reviews or get political about anything in my life (I go by the online moniker of JoBlo, for God’s sake!), but most recently a film was released which included a very personal and vital chapter in the history of my people called Ararat. (I’m Armenian, although I was born in Holland and raised in Canada.)

The film was directed by a very well-respected Armenian-Canadian director named Atom Egoyan (The Sweet Hereafter, Exotica) and stars Christopher Plummer, Charles Aznavour (who himself is also Armenian), Elias Koteas, Arsinée Khanjian (Egoyan’s wife, also Armenian) and many others. I didn’t particularly love the film myself, which had more to do with ‘modern-day’ characters who weren’t all that interesting to me, but was extremely proud to finally see a movie which at the very least-made mention of the 1915 Armenian genocide by the Turks.

For those who don’t know, the Turkish government systematically massacred over 1.5 million Armenians during that year, and continues to deny the atrocity to this day. The genocide is also not publicly recognized by many in the world community (because of the obvious strain that it would put on their foreign relations with Turkey — which is a greater power than Armenia nowadays), but was known to at least one other asshole named Adolf Hitler, who was quoted as saying, ‘Who remembers the extermination of the Armenians?’ during his own unconscionable holocaust of the Jewish people during the second World War.

The recognition of the 1915 Armenian genocide by the world community is extremely significant to all Armenians and is taught to them in school, reminded to them at home and in church, and given even more resonance via the few remaining surviving people from that period, who share their inhumane stories with others, so that no one ever forgets.

Reading through most Ararat reviews, I noticed varied opinions about the film (some loved it, some disliked it, some were ‘so-so’ on it), but I was glad to see that most everyone showed an unquestionable respect for the unacknowledged massacre itself and for the film ever being made in the first place. That is… until I read fellow OFCS member Christopher Null’s review (whose opinions I always respect and enjoy), which on the whole, was well-thought out but offended me deeply (as an Armenian) with insensitive remarks about the director’s obvious passion to remind others about this very sad and shamefully ignored segment of the world’s history.

The two specific parts of his review which insulted me were the ones below:

Atom Egoyan, the avant-garde Canadian filmmaker born in Egypt to Armenian parents, has a chip on his shoulder the size of the Great White North. And that chip is Armenia. Obviously harboring a deep guilt for his living high on the hog in the West while his ancestors were massacred in the motherland, Egoyan never misses a chance to revisit Armenia as a theme in his films — even if, say, it’s a movie about a strip club and a dead girl (Exotica). And invariably Egoyan casts his wife Khanjian as an Armenian of some sort, always taking the time to let us know she’s Armenian with the subtext that she should be pitied.

Well, at last Egoyan has gone and made an entire film about Armenia… So now he has the chance to set the record straight — and hopefully put Armenia behind him as a filmmaker.

Chris, don’t you think that you are being extremely insensitive to the Armenian experience by suggesting that a well-known Armenian director ‘put Armenia behind him’ now that he’s, according to you, had the chance to ‘set the record straight’? I personally don’t see this movie as being even close to what could be a much more insightful and well-developed story about the actual genocide.

This film’s greater accomplishment is that it finally brings the mere mention of the Armenian genocide to the big screen (even you must concede that the genocide is really more of a backstory here than anything, right?). Why would you suggest that one of the only well-established Armenian directors stop mentioning it in his future artistic renderings? Isn’t that what makes any great artist great? His own personal experience? Don’t you think that you are being extremely insensitive to the whole Armenian community who reveres Egoyan because he’s one of the few Armenians who has enough ‘clout’ to educate the world further on this unrecognized tragedy? If he doesn’t speak of it further, who will…Michael Bay? (God helps us all.)

By the way, I would never suggest that you have no right to say whatever you want (this is what rocks about America, freedom, and all that jazz); my only beef is your insensitivity.

Null: But you’re Canadian! Anyway, hey, without Michael Bay legions of middle-schoolers may never have known Pearl Harbor existed. If dark magic can keep the man alive for a few more decades, I’m sure his 9/11 will be a seminal film.

As you can probably tell, sarcasm doesn’t exactly go for wanting in my life or in my movie reviews. After seven years of running filmcritic.com, I would have thought people would be hip to the tongue-in-cheek and shoot-from-the-hip nature of the reviews that appear on our site, but sure enough, some people get offended by what I perceive as a little harmless fun-poking.

In the case of Egoyan — whose body of work I respect immensely — I felt that after a half-dozen films in which the tragic history of Armenia is obliquely referenced it was time to let him know that ‘we get it’ that he’s Armenian. I certainly don’t begrudge him the opportunity to make a film about his past, but I do hope that with Ararat he’ll put the issue behind him — as a filmmaker, of course, not as an individual.

That said, I think my comments are flip and sarcastic (as they were intended), but as they are directed at Egoyan — not at Armenians — there’s no reason anyone but he should be offended. He has yet to weigh in on the matter.

JoBlo: I certainly do understand that your site is prone to some tongue-and-cheeking (a tongue in the cheek is a proud motto of my site as well), but when it comes down to serious issues, I myself, find it quite insensitive (there’s that word again) to ‘poke fun’ at something that is so very serious and hurtful to millions of other people around the world. But maybe that’s just me… 🙂

Null: I hear you, but that’s dangerous territory that can make you self-censor yourself into the type of bland crap-babble usually reserved only for AOL. Let me give you another example: Most people (filmcritic.com included) wouldn’t blink twice about wholly mocking ultra-religious-right garbage like Left Behind, which has all non-Christians living in a post-Armageddon hell-on-earth. Certainly this kind of talk is offensive to millions — if not hundreds of millions — of ‘born again’ types, right? Yet everyone writ
es these scathing, dismissive reviews. They’re far more insulting (as they are intended to be) than my Ararat comments. Yet I have to admit, we’ve never received a single negative letter to this effect.

JoBlo: Nobody’s saying that you should self-censor yourself, but surely you are sensible enough to recognize that there are limits to ‘making fun’ of certain things? I haven’t seen the film that you mentioned, but I assume that it doesn’t necessarily take itself all that seriously either (unlike Ararat) and that it has more to do with ‘fictionalized’ events than actual forgotten memories of millions of people who were murdered, right? I mean, if anyone jokes around in their reviews, it’s gotta be me! I don’t think there’s one review of an Angelina Jolie movie in which I haven’t mentioned her ‘giant boobs’ and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with having fun in your reviews, poking fun, etc. But don’t you think that you should draw the line somewhere?

As for Egoyan including Armenian characters in his movies, which according to you are referenced because he wants us to know that he’s Armenian (?), I guess the same should be said to Martin Scorsese and the Italians that he likes to include in most of his films, or Spike Lee and his African-American characters, or Woody Allen and his Jewish counterparts. Should they stop that darn habit as well? Don’t you think that most artists, including Egoyan, reference their own people because — here’s a shocker — that’s who they know best!? That’s not to say that Egoyan shouldn’t try and direct a goofy comedy about morons going back to school in their early 40s some day, but otherwise, I believe your supposition is misguided, to say the least.

Null: I’d actually argue that all of those directors — Scorsese, Lee, and Allen — have been in ruts for years, relying too much on their heritage for the inspiration of movie after movie. You might even argue that they have finally come to realize it: All of them are starting to venture far and wide from their neuroses (Bringing Out the Dead, Sweet and Lowdown) to keep things fresh and audiences interested. Spike Lee’s upcoming movie 25th Hour has Edward Norton as its star — and he’s even whiter than me!

JoBlo: I would agree that any director rehashing the same characters and themes might get ‘old’ after a while, but I would never go as far as to suggest that they remove their own personal cultural connections from the remainder of their stories, since many of their greatest films happened to include an obviously detailed insight into their own particular heritage as well (GoodFellas, Do the Right Thing, Annie Hall, etc.).

As for your comments being ‘directed’ at Mr. Egoyan only and not all Armenians, no offense, but chances are that Mr. Egoyan does not read your reviews in the first place (mine either, of course) and for two, you don’t seriously believe that any Armenian (or any other person) who reads your comments is going to brush them away simply because your ‘intent’ was that Egoyan himself be the only one to whom it was intended? Words are powerful. Every word and every sentence that you put out there does make (at least) one person think twice about something every now and again. To ‘joke’ or belittle Mr. Egoyan for finally bringing something as grave and important like this into the forefront (actually, the back) of his picture, is to ignore the historical relevance of what came before it and to dismiss the importance of keeping the memory of those who were slaughtered back in 1915 alive. At least, in my opinion.

Incidentally, you said in your review, and repeated in your reply, that he should ‘put the Armenian issue’ in the past, but do you really believe that Ararat‘s story was all that insightful about the Armenian genocide itself? Don’t you think that he can make an even better film about this very important subject matter?

Null: I do feel educated by Ararat about the history of Armenia and the atrocities in the 1910s. I think the reason he didn’t tell more of the story is that Egoyan couldn’t get a whole film out of it. That’s why he focuses on Gorky, the Turkish general, and Ussher — and even tries to combine them all into one movie. These are three stories about the genocide that were worth telling; I personally feel enlightened having heard them all. While the genocide is, as you’ve said, a backdrop, at least a third of the film takes place in flashback there. Egoyan makes it clear by his ‘the events in this movie are true’ credit that his intent, at least in large part, is to tell us the story of the Armenian genocide.

JoBlo: I’m not sure what you mean by ‘getting a whole film out of it’, but if you mean that the Armenian genocide, and the systematic massacre of millions of Armenians, unacknowledged to this day isn’t enough ‘story’ to make for a two-hour film, I would have to respectfully (and whole-heartedly) disagree. The reason it wasn’t made only about the genocide, is because nobody wants to sit and watch a movie about just that topic for two hours (or finance it), so you need to make it more ‘interesting’ for audiences. I’ve written two screenplays with the genocide included in them as well, and those are just from the personal stories that I’ve been told myself (by family). I also know of various other people who have hundreds of tales of courage, love, sacrifice, etc… to tell from those times. Why do you think there are so many movies about the Holocaust (which, as opposed to the Armenian genocide, has been acknowledged by most of the world community)?

Null: Egoyan did such a slipshod job with Ararat that I probably wouldn’t go to see another movie from him on the same material. I also can’t imagine what movie studio would fund Ararat II, but that’s another issue. In the end, the whole genesis of the intro to my review was not that I was ribbing Egoyan for making Ararat, it’s that I’m hoping he won’t make an Ararat II! I’m sure this will sound insensitive as well, but it’s honest: How many more World War II movies do you want to see? How about Vietnam movies? I’m to the point where I can’t stand these subjects any more. I’m not there yet with Armenia, but let’s give another director a shot at it next time.

JoBlo: I think that you are failing to grasp the very essential difference between seeing movies about World War II, Vietnam, the Holocaust, the Civil War, etc., and any film with a theme touching upon the Armenian genocide: The Armenian genocide is unacknowledged by the world! Nobody is admitting that it ever happened. Don’t you think it’s worthy of any Armenian, and certainly any non-Armenians who might be interested, to spread the word and remind everyone about their forgotten ancestors?

Most of the Vietnam movies aren’t even so much about the war itself anymore, but more personal stories (and even though I too usually wince whenever I see yet another trailer from that period, the more personal stories also tend to ultimately draw me in –We Were Soldiers, is a great example of that). Don’t you think that there are over a thousand personal stories that can be told with the Armenian genocide as a backdrop? I do. And I look forward to seeing more from Egoyan and from anyone else who believes that it’s important to remind others of an atrocity of such a large scale, so that it hopefully never happens again (and that two schmucks as ourselves have to
debate it again… 🙂

Null: Maybe I’m just burned out on history. I thought We Were Soldiers was nearly unwatchable. But fictional stories with historical events as ‘backdrops’ rarely interest me, Titanic being the exception, and even that had its problems. I think based-on-reality stories like Schindler’s List are generally far more successful. Think Born on the Fourth of July vs. The War at Home.

As I final point I’m not entirely certain who’s doing all this denial of the Armenian genocide but I presume it is mostly Turks. (A search for ‘Armenian genocide‘ on Google nets over 38,000 hits, while ‘Jewish Holocaust‘ only gets you 15,900. Virtually none of these pages lead to revisionist sites in either example.) In the West, the genocide isn’t so much denied as it is unheard-of (as I confess in my review), and I’m not alone in my ignorance of the facts. But I’ve never heard anyone actively deny it happened. I expect the ‘denial’ issue is more important in Europe, where Turkish politicians campaign against its recognition, but in the U.S. it all comes off as confusing, for lack of a better word.

With all that said, if I had it to do over again, I’ll definitely be more sensitive to the issues at hand. Boy, it’s hard to be sarcastic and sensitive at the same time.

JoBlo: Do you think that perhaps one of the reasons that it’s ‘unheard of’ is precisely because countries aren’t recognizing it? (i.e. educating their countrymen about the atrocity) I think so. France actually passed an Armenian genocide resolution in January 2001, only to have Turkey cancel many contracts with French companies in return. That’s why most people aren’t hearing about it…there is tremendous pressure from the other side. (I’d rather actual countries acknowledged the atrocity than have a million sites about it; website results do not make for a better human understanding — formal policies and education do.)

But it’s nice to hear that you’d be more sensitive the next time around… I guess that’s all one could ask for in regards to any serious issue. Now I’m off to my review Adam Sandler’s Eight Crazy Nights? Whoop-de-fuckin’-doo. I also want to thank you for coming up with the idea of a debate and for remaining civil throughout (not that I expected anything less from you, of course). Maybe the next time we go head to head, we can debate who has the bigger boobies: Angelina Jolie, Christina Ricci, or Vin Diesel?

Null: No way. Too controversial. Thanks for the opportunity to chat.

JoBlo: For anyone interested in further education about the Armenian genocide, here are some related websites: one two three four

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