Reliving as proof of heroism
Very few animated documentaries were shown at this year’s DocLisboa festival. One of them was the Armenian film Aurora’s Sunrise (2022) by director Inna Sahakyan, which is also Armenia’s submission to the Oscars for best foreign language film. The work tells the true story of a young Armenian girl, Aurora Mardiganian, who along with her family had to endure the genocide that took place between 1915 and 1918 at the hands of the Turks. However, the dominant theme of the film becomes Mardiganian’s reliving of the traumas she had to go through.
Documentary filmmaker Inna Sahakyan turned to the medium of animation for the first time in Aurora’s Sunrise for one simple reason: Animation, she says, provides a much broader range of ways to portray the story and themes to the audience. However, the film is not only animated; Sahakyan also supplements it with historical footage of Aurora Mardiganian herself, in which she recalls more than just the Armenian genocide. These shots are essential to the discussion of the subject, but the animation complements them with other modes of representation, making the film more three-dimensional from this perspective. Animation manages to temper the cruel scenes of the genocide, which we experience along with Mardiganian in the film, while reconstructing it in its own way.
Period footage and animation thus reconstruct the story of the genocide from which Mardiganian fled to America, where she also wanted to track down her cousin. In the United States, people were intrigued by her story, and so Mardiganian, together with journalist Henry Leyford Gates, subsequently published it as the book Ravished Armenia, which was the basis for the 1919 film Auction of Souls,1) in which Mardiganian played herself and which became a big hit in the US. Mardiganian even became a star in her time. However, only a fragment of the film survives today, parts of which appear in Aurora’s Sunrise. Mardiganian constantly travelled with the film for various screenings to talk about the atrocities committed against the Armenian people by the Turks. She thus relived her traumas over and over again in her memories, be it through her storytelling, while watching the film, or during the making of it, all of which contributed to her having a breakdown while she was travelling with the film. In his text on the reconstruction of violent historical events in relation to documentary film, Joram ten Brink points out that the past and the present overlap in this act.2)
Mardiganian must therefore always think about her past traumas, and the past is constantly made present for her. We can also see the intertwining of past and present in the way the film works with various motifs, for example the motif of red cotton, which Mardiganian’s father produced before the beginning of the genocide. Every time Mardiganian learns that a member of her family has died, the red cotton appears, connecting shots from the present with images of her memories of the dead. Gradually, the initially innocent thread of red cotton becomes a symbol of bloodshed which at the same time evokes happy memories, and this contrast creates a strong emotional impact on the audience.
Like the red cotton, the cyclical reconstruction of the Armenian Genocide carries with it symbolic meanings and an emotional effect. Since Mardiganian guides the audience through the genocide with her, the past with its traumatic experiences is made present to us through her recollection, which can powerfully evoke an uncomfortable feeling of anxiety. At the same time, by constantly making the past present and evoking unpleasant feelings, the film forces the viewer to think about current conflicts, whether it’s the war in Ukraine or the conflicts between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Or rather, it reminds us that the past should not be forgotten and that the trauma it brings with it truly should not be made present. Mardiganian herself highlights this fact in her archival interviews with historians and researchers, and it was also the main reason she sought to make her past known to others. Inna Sahakyan effectively continues this intention with her film.
1) In some cases, the film Auction of Souls is named after the book Ravished Armenia.
2) BRINK, Joram ten. Re-enactment, the History of Violence and Documentary Film. In: Joram ten Brink and Joshua Oppenheimer (eds.). Killer Images: Documentary Film, Memory and the Performance of Violence. New York: Wallflower Press, 2012, p. 177.
This article is a result of the project Media and documentary 2.0, supported by EEA and Norway Grants 2014–2021.