By Angela Doland, Associated Press Writer
CANNES, France (AP) - In a new film at Cannes, Charles Aznavour's character eats the seeds of a pomegranate - one a day - to remind him of his mother's flight from Ottoman Turkey when that was all she had to survive.
In real life, the 77-year-old singer and actor's parents fled Turkey for France to escape the killings of Armenians during World War I. Aznavour - whose real name is Chahnour Varinag Aznavourian - has waited his whole life for a compelling movie about the history of his people.
"Ararat," which opened in Cannes on Monday, is that story, he says. The movie, by Atom Egoyan, best known for "The Sweet Hereafter," jumps between fact and fiction,
and past and present.
Armenians say 1.5 million people died, from starvation, disease, brutality and massacre, during a 1915 to 1923 genocidal campaign to force Armenians out of eastern Turkey.
Turkey rejects the accusation of genocide and says Armenians were killed during civil unrest. The movie's inclusion in Cannes has caused an outcry in Turkey, and several groups have petitioned and threatened to boycott Miramax, which released the film, and its parent company, the Walt Disney Co.
For Egoyan, a Canadian of Armenian origin, the movie was a labor of love. It also had special meaning for many of its stars, including actors Eric Bogosian and Arsinee Khanjian, who are of Armenian origin. Few outside the Armenian community know the details of the killings, and Egoyan hopes the movie will change that. One character in the film points out that Adolf Hitler saw the slaughter as proof he could carry off the Final Solution, because "nobody remembered the extermination of the Armenians."
The movie leaps between 1915 Turkey and present-day Canada, and has a complex web of characters whose interrelations aren't apparent as the movie starts. Aznavour plays a director who's making a movie about the genocide. The film within a film is the starting point for telling that story, and for showing how history affects two
Canadian families. Most of the characters are struggling to come to terms with the loss of loved ones and are looking to the past for answers.
Khanjian, Egoyan's partner in life, plays Ani, an art historian who has lived through the death of two husbands and is struggling in her relationship with her teen-age son. She's written a book about a 20th century Armenian painter, Arshile Gorky. In beautiful, emotional flashbacks, we see Gorky as he paints a portrait of his mother, who died of starvation during forced marches.
Ani's son, Raffi, is helping out on the movie set and goes to Turkey to film the deserted, ruined villages and churches of his ancestors. David Alpay, a tousle-haired 20-year-old Canadian pre-med student with no acting experience, gives an impressive and soulful performance as Raffi.
Then there's Christopher Plummer, who plays a customs agent at the airport who intercepts Raffi on his way home from Turkey, suspicious that he might be smuggling drugs. Other characters include a Turkish-Canadian actor who struggles with his conscience to play the movie role of an evil Turkish official; a pushy, fast-talking screenwriter (Bogosian); and a deeply troubled teen-age girl who attacks a museum painting with a knife.
If it sounds complicated, it is, and Egoyan knows that he's "expecting a ton of the viewer." The connections between the characters - and between the past in Turkey and the present in Canada - pay off in the end.