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Ghosts of the Missing Dead

ANYONE WHO HAS FOUND HIMSELF AT THE corner of Hollywood and Normandie on April 24 -- Armenian Genocide Day -- knows how important recognition of that historical violation is to Armenian communities here and, by extension, around the world. In his 1991 essay "Ev'ry Time We Say Goodbye," published in the British film journal Sight and Sound, John Berger calls the 20th century "our century of disappearances." He was talking not only about the systematic arrest and execution of Latin American political dissenters, or even about the vast labor migrations of the modern era, but about the elimination of whole populations by way of forced displacement and/or genocide. The near-obliteration, in 1915, of the Armenian people from the Anatolian peninsula was the first and among the least acknowledged of these large-scale "disappearances." Forced from their ancestral cities by the Turkish military, the Armenian refugees dispersed to South America, France, Lebanon and, later, the United States. The majority of those who did not escape -- 1.5 million of them, by some accounts -- were massacred by the Ottoman troops. To this day, only a handful of governments, least of all Turkey's, have officially recognized the genocide.

Atom Egoyan's Ararat seeks to tell two separate but related stories -- that of the genocide of 1915, and that of an Armenian diaspora still haunted by its unacknowledged history -- as a film within a film. In the historical present, director Edward Saroyan (Charles Aznavour) arrives in Toronto, with its sizable Armenian population, to set up production of a fictional account of the genocide. In the course of researching the project, Saroyan and his screenwriter, Rouben (Eric Bogosian), discover that the real-world Abstract Expressionist painter Arshile Gorky (1904-1948) had been, in fact, a child in Armenia at the time of the mass dispersion. The filmmakers promptly enlist a local art historian, Ani (played by Egoyan regular Arsinee Khanjian), to provide the biographical details that will enable them to turn the child Gorky into a key character in the film -- a shoehorning of personal and social histories that worries the already skeptical Ani.

Egoyan uses an actual Gorky painting, The Artist and His Mother, as the first of a series of metaphors for the experience of the Armenian diaspora. In a sequence created for Saroyan's film, we see Gorky in New York in the 1930s, painting from a photograph of himself taken with his mother, who was killed during the genocide. When the artist has almost completed the portrait, he goes back and smears the detail of his mother's hands, leaving the picture unfinished. Haunted and alone with his memories, Gorky cannot allow closure on the brutality of the past.

Meanwhile, in the bracketing story, Ani's son Raffi (a fiery performance by newcomer David Alpay) has his own ghosts to reckon with. As he picks up odd jobs around the film production, he recalls the death of his own father, killed in an attempt to assassinate a Turkish diplomat. If he is to understand his father's death as more than a futile gesture, Raffi needs those around him to acknowledge the genocide. To further complicate the narrative, Raffi is sleeping with his stepsister Celia (Marie-Josee Croze), Ani's daughter by another father. Celia's father, moreover, is also dead, a possible suicide following his rejection by Ani.

If all this sounds impossibly turgid, it is. And there's more. In a parallel plot, David (Christopher Plummer), a Canadian customs officer facing retirement, must deal with his own spiritual crisis as his career -- the central value in his life -- comes to a close. The two families are linked in several overly convenient ways: The lover of David's gay son, Philip, plays a Turk in Saroyan's film, while Philip himself works at the gallery where Ani lectures on Gorky.

Egoyan has always constructed dense ensemble films, and here again the writer-director hopes to reinforce his themes by piling layer upon layer of character. Unfortunately, the layers end up cluttering the story. With a judicious paring away of subplots, Egoyan might have better focused our attention on the human encounter that is the film's emotional center: David's interrogation of Raffi at the Toronto airport upon the young man's return from Turkey, following a pilgrimage to the sites of the old Armenia.

Plummer plays the customs officer David as a kind of entomologist, beneath whose magnifying glass travelers and migrants pass like bugs. Suspecting Raffi of smuggling something in sealed canisters of film, he escorts him through the innards of the airport to an interrogation room, letting Raffi work himself into a sweat as he tells his increasingly complicated story. At one point, David gestures toward an adjoining room, empty except for a stainless-steel toilet. "It all comes out in there," he says, and Raffi simply stares as he begins to understand where the interrogation is heading.

The film's final sequences cut back and forth between David and Raffi -- each engaged, in his own way, in an excavation of the other's truths -- and the film's premiere, where Ani and the filmmakers watch the re-created scenes of the atrocities in Armenia (based, we're told in a postscript, on eyewitness accounts). Verified or not, these scenes are so stylistically over the top -- leering, mustachioed Turks rape mothers as they cling to their children, or force naked women to dance at the end of a bullwhip -- that Ararat takes a giant step toward parody.

Egoyan seems to want it both ways: to show us the horror, and to show us how the world's denial of the horror has driven Saroyan and Raffi to making their case in the most extreme form possible, divorced from any recognizable human reality. As David tells his son in Ararat's denouement, describing the ferocity with which Raffi clung to his story at the airport, "He wanted so much to believe."

INTERVIEW WITH THE ASSASSIN ALSO FEEDS ON gaps in history, in this case that most iconic of unresolved American histories, the Kennedy assassination. Directing and writing his first feature after a career in commercials, Neil Burger has created a mock documentary, following unemployed reporter Ron Kobeleski (Dylan Haggerty) as he uncovers the fabled "second gunman," now living across the street from Kobeleski in a nondescript San Bernardino neighborhood. Burger at first toys with his unlikely premise, panning through the streets of this stuccoed suburbia as if meditating on the banality of evil, and indeed, our first few encounters with the assassin, Walter Ohlinger (Raymond J. Barry), bear this out: He's about as threatening as your Uncle Dan. In a later, surreally comical moment, Ohlinger is corralled by a tourist couple in Dealey Plaza into taking their picture as they look out onto the street where, moments before, he has described shooting Kennedy.

Burger's film is lighter, more flippant, more informed by pop culture than Egoyan's, but in the end, both films pull apart and examine the links between the political and the personal. Kobeleski's life is falling apart when he finds Ohlinger -- he needs to believe Ohlinger because he needs, at some level, to forge a human connection with this stranger.

From here, Burger's film veers into the realm of the political thriller, as Kobeleski follows Ohlinger to Dallas and Washington, D.C., searching for the final proof that will verify Ohlinger's story. As each lead proves a dead end, Kobeleski and Ohlinger begin to write their own versions of history, skirting the edge of madness and thus bringing them closer to the skewed, desperate vision of Ararat's filmmakers. In Dallas and Washington, as on the haunted plains of Anatolia, unresolved personal and political histories lead to a vivid rewriting of the present.

ARARAT | Written and directed by ATOM EGOYAN | Produced by EGOYAN and ROBERT LANTOS | Released by Miramax Films | At ArcLight, Laemmle's Music Hall, Mann Exchange

INTERVIEW WITH THE ASSASSIN | Written and directed by NEIL BURGER | Produced by BRIAN KOPPELMAN and DAVID LEVIEN | Released by Magnolia Pictures | At Laemmle's Fairfax, Laemmle's Playhouse 7

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