Canadian Armenian filmmaker Atom Egoyan newest work, Remember, was presented at Festival du Nouveau Cinéma last week and attempts to bring a material reality to the unfathomable tragedy of genocide, The Link Newspaper reports.
After success at the Venice Film Festival, the Oscar nominee presents a tale that revolves around Zev Guttman (Christopher Plummer), a Holocaust survivor struggling with dementia. He tries to track down and kill the Nazi leader of his block at Auschwitz, who killed Zev’s family before escaping to North America under an assumed name.
Due to his failing memory, Zev must constantly be reminded of his mission through a letter written by Max (Martin Landau), a fellow Auschwitz survivor and the organizer for Zev’s journey.
“It focuses on the questions of memory and justice and how to deal with unresolved history. It’s fuelled by the notion of trauma. The two characters are both survivors,” said Egoyan.
Anti-Semitism and the formation of hate play a central role in Remember, exemplified in a powerful scene where Zev visits the home of a neo-Nazi (Breaking Bad’s Dean Norris). At first, the man believes Zev is a Nazi as well. After Zev is forced to admit that he’s Jewish, the man becomes furious, forcefully screaming threatening anti-Semitic profanities.
“It’s horrifying in that moment; we understand the mechanics,” Egoyan said. “We see what triggers hate. When the trust is betrayed, he has to find a reason for his sense of pain and it converts into this extraordinarily violent anti-Semitism.”
This is Egoyan’s second film with Plummer. Their first collaboration, Ararat, also focused on themes of genocide, specifically the Armenian massacre during World War I.
From 1915 to 1918, the former Ottoman Empire was responsible for the deaths of an estimated 1.5 million Armenians in what is now the Republic of Turkey. Many of the persecuted were burned alive, drowned or given poisonous drugs. Others were subjected to death marches, where they were forced to wander toward the Syrian Desert, deprived of food and water. Raphael Lemkin used these events as a reference when he first coined the word genocide in 1943.
Egoyan said that as an Armenian, he can relate to Remember’s theme of mass murders left unresolved, especially since the institutional perpetrators have never admitted guilt, and the Turkish government still hasn’t recognized the methodical mass murders as genocide.
“I’m bringing my own sort of history, but I’m also understanding the persistence of what fuelled the Holocaust,” he said.
The Ottomans committed the Armenian genocide with the oversight of the German government. During his reign, many of Hitler’s key friends and policy makers could be directly connected to perpetrators in World War I. Evidence suggests that Hitler used tactics gleaned from the Armenian genocide as a template when executing his Final Solution.
More and more institutions are recognizing the Armenian genocide. Within the past year, Pope Francis acknowledged the genocide at his service in Rome, going as far as to say: “Concealing or denying evil is like allowing a wound to keep bleeding without bandaging it.”
Egoyan is proud that the Catholic Church supports the plight of the Armenians, though he’s more pleased to hear that the German and Austrian governments have acknowledged their roles. He feels that their admission of responsibility has opened a new constructive dialogue.
“Some extraordinary things happened this year,” he said. “People are beginning to understand [the genocide] as a template for things that happened afterwards.”
“I used to always boycott Turkey,” said Egoyan.
As a young man, the Canadian director was passionately involved in a political Armenian student group at the University of Toronto, dedicated to bring awareness to issues of genocide and a destructively selective state memory. This year, however, Egoyan attended a wedding in Turkey for the daughter of Hrant Dink, the Armenian journalist assassinated by a Turkish nationalist in 2007.
When the director entered Turkey for the first time, he discovered a community of Armenians that were never driven out, a people on the frontline of forming a new dialogue around the genocide. At the time, these groups gave Egoyan hope for a new dynamic in the conversation between the Turkish government and Armenians.
“When I went in the summer all this seemed very possible. Literally three weeks after I got back it all went to hell. It’s very scary what’s happening in Turkey right now.”
Though the dialogue process may have broken down as political tensions in Turkey increased, Egoyan believes that there are enough progressive forces to shift the discussion, just as he has witnessed in the 28 countries who acknowledge the genocide around the world.
“Since I was a student, Canada has recognized the genocide,” he said. “That was an extraordinary moment. There’s a huge shift in contagiousness.”