- Something to Declare:History in Atom Egoyan's Ararat
Ararat is first and foremost a meditation on history - how it is made and how it affects individuals. Although conceived initially as a Hollywood-style historical film, Ararat tests the efficacy and the limits of such historical accounts through a rigorous interrogation of both historical fact and interpretation. The complexity of the film derives from the nuance of Egoyan's position.1 While admitting the subjectivity of the evidence in any historical account, as well as the fabular basis of history, Egoyan displays neither complete skepticism nor reductive pragmatism.2 Like his protagonist Raffi, at once prepared by his own past for his encounter with history and suspicious of tendentious accounts of history, Egoyan maintains a certain wariness of historical representation even as he asserts the claims of history on the individual. Ultimately both Egoyan's film and his protagonist propose aesthetic solutions to the historical dilemmas they face. [End Page 1040]
The narrative form of Ararat brilliantly recapitulates the problems of contemporary historical representation. The film includes multiple plot lines set in contemporary Toronto, prominent among them the production and release of a historical film on the Armenian genocide. Egoyan intercuts scenes from the completed film-within-the-film among the contemporary scenes, sometimes without obvious indication that the material is from that particular artefact. Some scenes negotiate a passage between different filmic worlds. While they appear initially to be a part of the completed historical epic (or possibly a conventional historical past), viewers discover, as the camera pulls back to reveal a director and crew, that they are on a production set. Such ambiguities and shifts between frames of reference give Ararat an insistently reflexive quality. In order to clarify Egoyan's position, I wish to call on two professional accounts of historical practice: Edward Hallett Carr's 1961 series of lectures What Is History? and several of the essays collected in Hayden White's Tropics of Discourse. I choose these accounts for two reasons. First, each provides a theoretical model and a vocabulary useful to my undertaking. But second, these articles provide exemplary accounts of the difficulties of historical representation - accounts that raise problems that still plague historians.3 To examine Ararat in these terms allow us to see how Egoyan, working historically if not as a historian, seeks to answer some of the problems endemic to modern historical thought. The point here is not to show how Ararat relates to a particular theoretical solution to the problematics of history but to examine how the film addresses such methodological puzzles.
Carr begins his critique by noting three 'neglected truths' of historical writing: 'The facts of history . . . are always refracted through the mind of the recorder' (22), that the historian has 'need of imaginative understanding for the minds of the people with whom he is dealing,' and that 'we can view the past . . . only through the eyes of the present' (24 ). He also lists two dangers that attend on such knowledge: a skepticism so profound as to 'rule out any objective history at all' (26) and a pragmatism that looks only to the effects of history. On the one hand, 'history is what the historian makes' (26); on the other, 'the validity of [End Page 1041] the knowledge depends on the validity of the purpose' (27). Ararat exemplifies and extends these points. In each case Egoyan creates a productive tension between more and less professional historical thinking.
The selectivity and bias of source material is a constant theme in the film. Saroyan (Charles Aznavour), who directs the film within the film, calls attention to the detail of his sets, in which everything is rendered exactly as his grandmother, a survivor of the Armenian genocide, told it. Yet the basis for this recreation is a single source, and Saroyan seems fired more by outrage and a desire for remembrance than historical accuracy. Rouben (Eric Bogosian), his scriptwriter, also narrows the available documentary evidence to one source, Clarence Ussher's diary. As he tells Martin Harcourt (Bruce Greenwood), the actor who plays Ussher in Saroyan's film, 'This book is the key to your character. It's the...