Stories of genocide: how filmmakers have commemorated Armenia’s national tragedy

American publicity poster for the first “genocide film“, Ravished Armenia (Auction of Souls) (dir. Harvey Gates, 1919)

For Armenians, the Genocide of 1915 – Medz Yeghern in our language – became an unavoidable part of national identity, turning into an omnipresent topic for all media of art, including literature and cinema. Reoccurring narratives of a lost homeland, families torn apart, grief and revenge were widespread in the literature of the diaspora; narratives that would soon find their way to stages and screens. Meanwhile, in Soviet Armenia the topic was banned – as was discussion of any “national” issue or conflict throughout the Soviet Union.

This policy changed towards the end of the Second World War, when Stalin was preparing an invasion of Turkey. In parallel to a concurrent grand repatriation campaign for diaspora Armenians – the main theme of Hamo Bek-Nazaryan’s unfinished Second Caravan – references to the Genocide started to appear in official speeches, newspapers, and films. The first film openly to talk about Medz Yeghern was called Native Country (1945-46), a documentary dedicated to the 25th anniversary of the establishment of Soviet rule in Armenia. Propagandistic in nature and consisting mostly of chronicle footage, the film praised the Soviet regime that hosted and saved immigrants and orphans of the Genocide. In the end, the mooted Turkish invasion did not happen, and the topic was silenced again until the Armenian cultural awakening of the 1960s.

In the US, the first “Genocide film” was made much earlier, in 1919. Called Ravished Armenia (Auction of Souls), the film was written and directed by Harvey Gates and depicted the mass deportation of Ottoman Armenians into the Syrian Desert. The film was based on the memories of a Genocide survivor, Aurora (Arshaluys) Mardiganian, who also played the main character in the film. Currently, Ravished Armenia is considered lost, with only a 15-minute fragment surviving, which pictures scenes of deportation. Reportedly, this fragment was cut from the film, and later erroneously used as archival footage from the First World War.

Reoccurring narratives of a lost homeland, families torn apart, grief and revenge were widespread in the literature of the diaspora; narratives that would soon find their way to stages and screens. Meanwhile, in Soviet Armenia the topic was banned

Starting in the 1960s, the topic of the Genocide reentered the social, cultural, and political narratives of Soviet Armenia. The construction in Yerevan in 1967 of Tsitsernakaberd, the Armenian Genocide Memorial Complex, was the first step in opening up discussions within society. A cinematic response followed shortly: Nahapet (1977) by Henrik Malyan, which premiered in the Un Certain Regard section of the Cannes Film Festival in 1978. Since then, and especially as the centenary of the Genocide approached in 2015, the subject has become one of the most commonly represented in Armenian cinema. In addition, a few foreign filmmakers have also made their own cinematic attempts to tell stories of the Genocide, such as The Lark Farm (2007) by the Taviani brothers, Terry George’s The Promise (2016), and others.

When we look at the similarities and differences between these films, two distinctive narrative approaches emerge. One group of films retells the actual events of 1915, depicting mass killings and massacres, while a second group explores the later impact of the Genocide, telling stories of the generations of survivors who guard this memory, and thus bear the trauma. Interestingly, almost all the films in the first group were made by non-Armenian filmmakers, the second group – by Armenians. The narratives in the first group usually revolve around a thriving Armenian family that becomes a victim of the atrocities. More successful examples include The Lark Farm (2007) by Paolo and Vittorio Taviani, The Promise (2016) by Terry George and The Cut (2014) by Fatih Akin. In Akin’s film, Nazareth Manoogian goes through many horrifying events to reunite with his daughters on the other side of the world. In The Lark Farm, the Avakian family is at the centre of events, their beautiful daughter falling in love with a Turkish soldier. Impossible love or friendship is another common theme for these films: in The Promise the two main Turkish and Armenian characters are friends, which complicates an already difficult situation.

Nahapet (dir. Henrik Malyan, 1977)

The concept of family, lost or present, is also at the heart of those films that centre on survivors of the Genocide or their descendants, who often go through a personal journey to learn about and overcome the haunting past. These films, which are conversely usually directed by Armenians, are notable for their shared symbolic language: destroyed gardens and blossoming trees, as well as fruits such as apples, pomegranates, and apricots are repeated motifs. One of the first examples of such films is Nahapet, directed by Henrik Malyan, a Soviet-Armenian filmmaker. The film follows a man who has lost his family during the massacres and who tries to rebuild his life in a new place. French-Armenian director Henri Verneuil’s Mayrig (1991) is told from the perspective of Azad, the young son of a family that has to migrate to France during the Genocide. While depicting the daily struggle of the family, ready to sacrifice everything for the future of their son, the film highlights the unity and dedication of the Armenian family.

The plot is much more complex in Ararat (2002) by the Canadian-Armenian filmmaker Atom Egoyan, which premiered out of competition in the 2002 Cannes Film Festival. Here, the Genocide is the red thread that runs through the lives of all the characters: one makes a film about it; another lectures about Arshile Gorky, an Armenian-American painter who survived the massacres of 1915; another is a talented Turkish actor who struggles to play a soldier who participates in the atrocities. The ghosts of the past likewise haunt the characters of Garin Hovannisian’s 1915, a psychological thriller that tells the story of a theatre director who tries to stage a play about Medz Yeghern.

in Aurora’s Sunrise, animation becomes an alternative tool to overcome the difficulty – almost impossibility – of restaging Genocide scenes, a challenge for most Armenian directors

Centering the plot around a famous historic figure, as Egoyan does with Arshile Gorky, is another way of telling the story of Genocide. Komitas, an Armenian priest, composer, and musicologist who has become one of the main symbols of the Armenian Genocide, is a recurring character: recent examples include Vigen Chaldranyan’s Alter Ego (2015) and Arman Nshanyan’s Songs of Solomon (2019).

Inna Sahakyan’s Aurora’s Sunrise (2022) presents an interesting combination of all of the above tendencies. The film focuses on the story of Aurora Mardiganian, born Arshaluys, a Genocide survivor who managed to escape to the United States and became a film star thanks to Ravished Armenia, which was inspired by her own memories and in which she herself starred. Sahakyan’s film depicts Aurora’s journey, spanning from her peaceful years in a village of the Ottoman Empire until her old age in the USA – but the focus is on the years when Ravished Armenia premiered. The film was used to raise awareness of the massacre as well as money for the orphans of the Genocide, and screenings were accompanied by a special campaign including live presentations of the film by Mardiganian in different states. Thus, the actress was required continually to retell everything she had witnessed and experienced, to go through her incurable trauma again and again. In parallel to this “stardom” storyline, the film also explores Aurora’s relations with her family members, her search for her brother, and her miraculous reunion with her younger sister.

Aurora’s Sunrise (dir. Inna Sahakyan, 2022)

Aurora’s Sunrise is an animated documentary that blends animation with archival footage of interviews with Mardiganian in her old age. Animation is mostly used to illustrate her early years, as well as her experiences of deportation. Thus, it becomes an alternative tool for Sahakyan to overcome the difficulty – almost impossibility – of restaging Genocide scenes, a challenge for most Armenian directors. At the same time, animation allows the director to use a diverse colour palette to highlight different phases of Aurora’s life: the early years in Ottoman Turkey are pictured in mild, pastel tones, while the “stardom” era uses glowing, bright colours. In addition, Aurora’s Sunrise also deploys the symbolic language so familiar from other Genocide films: the family house, the blossoming trees, the desolate garden.

Making films about a nation’s most painful wound – one which has not stopped bleeding – requires courage, and also some audacity. It becomes even more challenging when one is a part of that nation and has to relate something that happened to one’s own family as well. At times, it seems to be pointless: an attempt to describe something indescribable, which can never be enough. But at the same time, films like Aurora’s Sunrise and characters like Mardiganian prove that these agonising stories have to be told: so they will never be forgotten, so it will never happen again.

Aurora’s Sunrise is available on Klassiki from 29 February – 21 March. Explore our collection of Armenian films here.

Sona Karapoghosyan is a programmer and film critic based in Yerevan, Armenia. Since 2018, she has curated the Regional Competition program of the Golden Apricot International Film Festival, focusing on films from Western Asia. She is a member of the International Federation of Film Critics and contributes to several local and international publications. She is an alumni of Critics Academies at Locarno FF (Switzerland) and Film at Lincoln Center (US) and a voting member of the Golden Globes.