When faced with an unspeakable tragedy, one of the only things we can do — whether as survivors or spectators — is to document and testify to it. We want to catch and hold on to what happened so that it will never happen again. If the horrors of reality fade from memory, we lose our ability to prevent history from repeating itself. However, countless stories of heroism, devastation, grief and perseverance are inevitably lost to history. Such was the life of Aurora Mardiganian, a young survivor of the Armenian genocide under the Ottoman Empire, until director Inna Sahakyan (“The Last Tightrope Dancer in Armenia”) reincarnated her story in the spectacular, harrowing film “Aurora’s Sunrise.”
The film follows Aurora Mardiganian’s life from the beginning. Named Arshaluys Mardiganian in her native Armenian, she was born in 1901 in the small village of Chmshgatsak in the Ottoman Empire. She had a happy childhood as the daughter of a wealthy silk manufacturer and spent her time playing with her siblings and learning under her father. When a compassionate Kurdish shepherd came to her family home one night warning of an impending Ottoman invasion, Aurora’s father chose to stay rather than escape to the mountains. Within a week, the soldiers came. Aurora’s father and older brother were immediately executed. She, her mother and her younger siblings were forced on a death march to the Syrian desert that only Aurora survived.
Sold into sexual slavery, escaping, finding refuge at a sympathetic family’s house, leaving only to be captured again, escaping again and eventually making her way to America, Aurora demonstrated an unwavering will to live that simultaneously inspired me and made my heart ache. When she finally reached the United States, she was taken under the wing of a journalist who wanted to expose the horrors of the genocide to the American public. Aurora dictated what turned into the book “Ravished Armenia,” later used as the backbone of the silent movie “Auction of Souls.” She quickly became a minor celebrity, but the journalist’s ambitions soon overshadowed their charitable work. An exhausted Aurora was pushed to the sidelines of her own story, held captive by Hollywood greed and forced to relive her trauma day after day.
Sahakyan’s movie is not just about pain. It is also about the ways a nation refuses to die. Despite her unbelievable trial of suffering, Aurora never went quietly. She continued to tell her story at great personal cost, even fainting on stage after months on a strenuous promotional tour. She demanded respect and fair treatment even though, as an Armenian girl, she was humiliated and abused for years during and after the genocide of her people. This is a young woman who witnessed the murder of her family, escaped sexual slavery twice, found work in a foreign country and still had the resolve to ask for a raise.
By placing Aurora’s fierce personality as the centerpiece of the movie, Sahakyan humanizes an atrocity in such a touching way that it brought me to tears. Speaking as a 20-year-old girl myself, just a few years older than Aurora would have been when the Armenian genocide began, I felt a profound sense of human connection. I wanted to reach through the screen and tell Aurora that she would survive this ordeal, that her story of sadness would ease and that her life would be reincarnated 122 years after her birth. Most people do not get the chance to have their stories told, but if anyone’s is, I’m glad it was hers.
To bring Aurora’s story to life, Sahakyan patchworks together three different forms of media: clips from “Auction of Souls,” old interviews with Aurora herself and an animated reproduction of Aurora’s life. The use of animation here is a clever and moving choice. In a story about a genocide from more than 100 years ago, animation retells the story and places it firmly within the realm of the modern world. Lacking actual footage from the Armenian genocide, the animation is laced with emotion without feeling exploitative; it gives space for artistic freedom without succumbing to a spectacle of violence. After all, the people in “Aurora’s Sunrise” aren’t movie characters.
If only one poignant film could stand up to the world’s ever-present violence and remind us of each other’s humanity, there would be no more conflict. As it is, the screening of “Aurora’s Sunrise” at the State Theater was marred by Azerbaijan’s declaration that it had regained full control over Nagorno-Karabakh, a disputed region that thousands of Armenians call home. Over the past several weeks, over 100,000 Armenian refugees have fled into Armenia proper, refusing to live under a regime that would presumably suppress their language, religion and culture. Photos of Armenian families escaping Nagorno-Karabakh in waves are grimly parallel to photos of the Ottoman’s forced expulsion of Armenians in the early 20th century. The recent events in the Caucasus are a reminder and a warning: If we let the stories of history slip from our fingers, they are doomed to repeat themselves. Armenians are still an oppressed people. Their story of ethnic cleansing has not ended.
For this reason, Sahakyan’s “Aurora’s Sunrise” is a gem. While most of the original footage from “Auction of Souls” has disappeared — lost to history, or perhaps to deliberate censorship — “Aurora’s Sunrise” replaces what has been lost like rays of light breaking through a cloud. Through the eyes of one powerful young woman, we see not only the undiluted suffering of the Armenian people at the hands of a genocidal state but also their resistance. The film itself is an act of resistance. The images shown in animation — Aurora’s mother wiping mud on her daughter’s face to make her look ugly, girls impaled on crosses pierced through their groins, small children tossed into the Euphrates river to drown, an endless desert dotted with red corpses — are not quickly forgotten. We can watch the news and not only say that it’s happening, but that it’s happening again.
Daily Arts Writer Abigail Goodman can be reached at email@example.com.