One of the best films ever made about the Armenian Genocide tells the story of one of the first survivors to make it to America. It’s titled “Aurora’s Sunrise,” and it uses different media, bending film genres to relate one of the great tragedies of the 20th century through one woman’s plight.
Arshaluys Mardiginian, renamed “Aurora” when she came to America in 1918, met an American newspaperman who helped publicize her ordeal and the mass murder being carried out by the Ottoman Turks under the cover of World War I. Reporter Henry Gates ghost-wrote a serialized memoir from her accounts, got the interest of Hollywood, and put Mardiginian in a William Selig-produced film epic, “Auction of Souls, (Ravished Armenia)” that traveled America, raising money for Armenian orphans and a hoped-for independent Armenian state.
Here’s what Armenian director Inna Sahakyan and her crew of filmmakers and animators drew from to tell Mardiginian’s tale. Sahakyan includes snippets of the 20 surviving minutes of the 80 minute 1919 biographical thriller sometimes called “Ravished Armenia.” As little of that film survives, a crew went out and recreated silent black and white scenes from it with an actress (Anzehelika Hakobyan) portraying Aurora, who played herself in the movie of her odyssey back in 1919.
There’s also documentary footage of the late Arshaluys Mardiginian, from a long oral history interview she sat for in 1984.
And there’s gorgeous animation — what appears to be rotoscoped actors under-animated in front of lush, water-colorish backgrounds of 1910s Armenia, present day Syria, and America. It is narrated by actress Arpi Petrossian, who speaks in Aurora’s voice in monologues from her memoir about her ordeal.
Take the animated documentary “Waltz with Bashir,” throw in some of the multi-media technique of “Nuts!” and add a few more degrees of difficulty and you have an idea of what Sahakyan and her team have attempted and pulled off.
“Aurora’s Sunrise” is an often gorgeous and always extraordinary film relating one woman’s extraordinary ordeal.
In 1915, from the very start of the Ottoman Empire’s WWI alliance with Germany and Austro-Hungary, 13 year-old Arshaluys notes her family being warned by a Kurdish shepherd that the Turks were rounding up Armenians all over the empire.
Her family — she had seven siblings — lived in a small town (Chmshkadzag), provided for by a father who kept silkworms and made, dyed and sold silk. The kids put on plays and had happy lives, right up to the moment the round-up of conscripts began. Armenian men, including her father and brother, were forced into the army, en masse. In her telling, that set the stage for the mass evictions, “death march” and mass murders carried out shortly afterward by the Ottoman army. The men were dead or a gone. Women and children were easy evicted by the Ottoman Army, which was challenged all over the Middle East by Arabs and the British, crushed by the Russians to the north, an army in which discipline and the chain of command broke down.
At night, Arshaluys recalled (in Armenian with English subtitles), the soldiers marching these women and children to their deaths “got drunk and laid hands of the girls,” scenes recreated with black and white silent footage more graphic than might have been filmed in 1919.
Arshaluys and her siblings were hounded, robbed and raped by bandits and repeatedly assaulted and robbed by by Turkish troops, who tossed children overboard as they barge-shipped refugees down the corpse-littered Euphrates River.
Turks kidnapped and sold Arshaluys, and she was exploited even by Kurds who took her in after she escaped a harem. But eventually, she found sanctuary and passage (via revolutionary St. Petersburg) to America to “tell our story.”
She had a brother who had immigrated here earlier. But once in America, in addition to telling her story, she found herself exploited in different ways by that unscrupulous reporter.
It all makes for a moving and utterly fascinating narrative that folds in a war, grim accounts of what one refugee endures to survive it, and American media and early motion picture history into a horrific genocide, which the Turks refuse to acknowledge committing to this very day.
It’s a bit difficult to tell what’s archival footage from the recreations here. The mix of media makes “Aurora’s Sunrise” more challenging than your typical Best International Feature Oscar entry. But let’s hope the Academy embraces that challenge and recognizes this brilliant achievement with a nomination.
Rating: unrated, violence, nudity
Cast: Arshaluys Mardiganian, Anzhelika Hakobyan, with the voices of Arpi Petrossian, Ervin Amiryan, Sara Anjargolian and others.
Credits: Directed by Inna Sahakyan, scripted by Peter Liakhov, Kerstin Meyer-Beetz and Inna Sahakyan. A Cineuropa release.
Running time: 1:36