Wednesday 1 November 2023

Raindance 2023: Aurora's Sunrise

Inna Sahakyan's latest documentary deals with the Armenian genocide, and while it's certainly not the first film to do so—previous notable efforts on the topic include Atom Egoyan's Ararat and the Taviani brothers' The Lark Farm—it does take a novel approach to the subject.  For Aurora's Sunrise mixes animation with interview footage of its title character, a genocide survivor who starred in a 1919 silent movie which also features prominently here; as is sadly the case for around three quarters of original silent-era films, the movie was lost to the sands of time, although fragments of it were recovered shortly after Aurora's death in 1994.  Having already played at several film festivals including Tallinn Black Nights and the Netherlands' Movies that Matter Festival—where it won the Audience Award and received a special mention in the Camera Justitia competition—Aurora's Sunrise continues its festival run with a screening tomorrow at London's Raindance Film Festival, where the film will be followed by a Q&A session with producer Vardan Hovhannisyan.

Aurora's Sunrise comes hot on the heels of Sahakyan's previous documentary, the Dutch co-production Mel, which followed a record-breaking Armenian weightlifter who hastily left his home country after being publicly outed as transgender.  There's an obvious parallel between the stories of Mel Daluzyan—who sought asylum in the Netherlands—and Aurora Mardiganian: in both cases, extreme persecution led to a desperate need to flee Armenia.  Yet while the vendetta against Mel was of a highly personal nature, Aurora was one of countless civilians facing the Ottoman Empire's systematic annihilation of its ethnic Armenian population.  Estimates vary, but it is generally accepted that roughly half of all Armenian Christians were killed in the Constantinople-ordered slaughter—yet the genocide has consistently struggled to be recognised as such.  While there is no denying that the catastrophe was obscured by the fog of the Great War, the world has since had over a century to acknowledge what happened in eastern Anatolia.

The film picks up the story of the 14-year-old Aurora as she attempts to outwit the Ottoman troops.  Having been forced on a death march towards Syria, Aurora—who has lost her entire family—is subsequently kidnapped and put into slavery, but she engineers an unlikely escape and eventually edges her way to Norway, from where she boards a ship bound for New York.  On arriving in the US, Aurora lodges with an Armenian family, and it isn't long before her incredible story is told through the newspapers, which in turn leads to an offer from Hollywood.  While a movie studio's interest in this miraculous journey to freedom isn't too surprising—after all, cinema's enthusiasm for a ripped-from-the-headlines drama is by no means a recent phenomenon—a more outlandish development occurs when the filmmakers propose that Aurora stars as herself.  Thus this survivor of a massacre, who is now aged 16, has to relive her nightmares for the sake of the movie cameras; while the atrocities Aurora both experienced and witnessed are diluted for the screen adaptation, there's still something very troubling about this arrangement.

The resulting film, Auction of Souls (AKA Ravished Armenia), proved to be a runaway success on its release in early 1919, so much so that some cinemas were able to charge a whopping $10 for a ticket at a time when admission generally cost a quarter.  The surviving footage, which adds up to roughly the equivalent of two reels of silent film, was carefully restored and edited into a cohesive piece of work, and clips from this are judiciously spliced into Aurora's Sunrise.  Despite its age and sanitised representation of the genocide, Auction of Souls is surprisingly strong meat, with an all-female mass crucifixion scene proving sufficiently disturbing even before you learn, via an interview with Aurora, what really happened to these women.  Despite the trauma that Aurora Mardiganian would likely have suffered while making Auction of Souls, the film did at least bring the story of the Armenian genocide to a wide audience.  More than a century on, Sahakyan's harrowing, moving documentary serves the same much-needed purpose.     

Darren Arnold

Images: CAT&Docs