May 11, 2009

INTERVIEW: In "Adoration" of Atom Egoyan

Atom Egoyan, ADORATIONThe New York Times' Stephen Holden certainly adored Adoration: "A profound and provocative exploration of cultural inheritance, communications technology and the roots and morality of terrorism, the Canadian filmmaker Atom Egoyan nimbly wades into an ideological minefield without detonating an explosion." Here's a synopsis from the official site:
High school French teacher Sabine (Egoyan's wife and frequent collaborator Arsinée Khanjian) gives her class a translation exercise based on a real news story about a terrorist who plants a bomb in the airline luggage of his pregnant girlfriend. The assignment has a profound effect on one student, Simon (Devon Bostwick), who lives with his uncle. In the course of translating, Simon re-imagines that the news item is his own family's story, with the terrorist standing in for his father. Years ago, Simon's father crashed the family car, killing both himself and his wife, making Simon an orphan. Simon has always feared that the accident was intentional. Simon reads his version to the class and then takes it to the Internet. In essence, he has created a false identity which allows him to probe his family secret. As Simon uses his new persona to journey deeper into his past, the public reaction is swift and strong. Then an exotic woman reveals her true identity. The truth about Simon's family emerges. The mystery is solved and a new family is formed.

John Esther chatted with Egoyan on April 24, to some known as "Recognize the Armenian Genocide Day," an annual event protesting the continued denial of the 1915-1916 massacre of an estimated 1.5 million Armenians at the hands of the Turkish government, a theme explored in Egoyan's 2002 film Ararat.

Why did you want to make this film? Is your son telling stories about his parents in school?

[laughs.] Actually, it started because I wanted to tell stories when I was in school. I started writing plays when I was pretty young, and I've been thinking a lot about that impulse—how, at that time, it was about telling stories to friends, parents, and now [there's] the opportunity for a kid to create any sort of persona he wants. If he finds the audience, it's global. In a lot of my earlier films, I was dealing with ideas of there being something oppressive and malevolent about the way media and technology can suppress and filter emotion, but the reality now is that it's completely unfiltered and open. There is a freedom and exchange, which is very exciting. Yet there's a velocity and acceleration, which is troubling because people don't have time to consider. It becomes really easy to abstract identities. It almost lends itself to degrees of confabulation. I wanted to have a character emerge from the world, diverted by the excitement of a response, but realizing that's not going to lead to any sort of personal revelation. In some ways, the technology isn't designed to be cathartic. It sets up a number of possibilities but it's open-ended, by its nature. You still need a journey in the physical world. So those were some of the ambitions of the story.

Arsinee Khanjian, ADORATIONYou do allow Simon's mythical narrative to go on for a considerable time without verification. It takes some time before someone comes out and says, "Hey, this isn't the kid of those terrorists/ parents." We knew the banal backstories of "Octo-Mom" and "Joe the Plumber" within hours of their notoriety. Why did you hold off on verifying an act of terrorism?

The kids are so excited by the possibilities. In the workshops I did at various high schools, I said, "Suppose one of your friends did this?" For them, it wasn't really about ascertaining whether it was true or not. All the stuff the kids were saying in the film was actually what those kids were saying. None of it was scripted. They're smart kids and some of the ideas in the film came up in the workshops. They were probably more consumed with the way they were appropriating, to express their own story.

Then the narrative trickles into the adult world.

The adults know, but Tom doesn't know Simon was doing this. Sabine knows right off, and she probably knows why he's so attracted to that narrative. Then Principal Robert says, "Well, the other kids have to know that it's not true." Tom is not really in touch with what's going on until it gets out of hand.

What does Arsinée think of her role in this film?

It's a problematic role for any actor because she or he doesn't get the satisfaction, at any point, that someone's going to identify with the character. It's a risky role. The more distance I've had from it, the more the perverse it is. She's a traumatized victim, but she doesn't invite any empathy. She's irresponsible, very obsessive. She was probably stalking her former husband, but seeing Tom reawakens all these feelings. When she dresses up in the chador, she's not teaching the kid about tolerance.

Her character plays into a lot of Occidental fears. She is a smart, Muslim woman. And she teaches French, another threat to many Americans.

[laughs.] That's really interesting. So it's not a gratifying role for Arsinée. It's true to what that character would be, but it's not conventionally structured.

You typically do not have Arsinée play empathetic characters.

Why is that? We've been talking about that. One exception is Calendar, maybe?

Except her Translator leaves Photographer, played by you.

Generally, it's a big question in the relationship. I trust her to play those roles that are more challenging. Yeah, you're absolutely right. I can't really explain it, other than that I cherish the relationship and it's a course we took from very early on.

Scott Speedman and Devon Bostick, ADORATION Her Zoe in Exotica was empathetic, yet I remember reading how you said the shoot was hard for her because she was pregnant at the time and surrounded by beautiful professional strippers.

Yeah, yeah, yeah. I see her in other people's films and I see this whole other possibility. There's a lightness, something really charming and winning about her. When we met, we had this idea we would make these films, like the cool little films we saw on the Left Bank. We wanted to do stuff that would challenge. That's just been part of the pact. I can't really explain it. It's interesting you bring it up.

This film also explores another central theme in your work: family grief. Why are you always going back to these elements? When I look into your own history it seems like you had a pretty good childhood. You rebelled a bit.

Yeah, well, I had a really complex relationship with my grandmother and that was something I was exploring in Family Viewing. Like any Armenian, it only goes back so far.

Yeah, why are you not at the rallies today?

Maybe I should have been. My grandparents on my father's side were survivors. It's funny, whenever I read books where people can trace generations of their family, I am reminded I can't. It just stops at a certain point. You don't really know… [gasps] …who they were. For me, it's your worldview.

But your grief is more immediate, often about the loss of a child—Next of Kin, Exotica, The Sweet Hereafter. Of course, it was Simon's parents who died, but they were young.

It's imagining what those people were dealing with a lot of time. It's just something you absorb, and the idea of loss is something you're grappling with. In Los Angeles, it's understood: people know what [the Armenian Genocide of 1915] is about. But often people say, "What are you?" You say, "Armenian." And they say, "What's that?" Then you wind up talking about this story over and over again. It's always there. The family history is not as simple as it may seem. Every family has a certain mythology, and they live and die by those mythologies. There are orthodoxies we are supposed to believe. Once you begin to question them, all sorts of things emerge, and you have to reformat who you think people are.

Speaking of mythologies, another theme in this film, and generally rare in your work, is religion. And it's a rather scathing perspective.

In religion and orthodoxy, there are people who sustain positions of power. The grandmother, who is an absent figure in Adoration, obviously believed in this very much. She signed this very beautiful scroll. God knows why she left or why she left the grandfather, this malicious character who now claims his heritage. He now becomes the figurehead and owner of this mythology, and he's using it in a very cynical and violent way. Most of our major religions are based on reinterpretations of original texts by people who had reason to distort and reinterpret, based on needs they had to sustain their own power. That's a given. We all know that.

Rachel Blanchard, ADORATION It is not so much an attack on people who interpret religion but religion itself. You use XTC's "Dear God" in the film.

Belief systems are only viable if they work for individuals. Simon takes these objects that are supposed to be venerated, like his mother's violin. What is valuable about them? He reformats them. You can see how quickly generated intolerance and hatreds are. There's the rage of this guy, ["Third Passenger," played by Maury Chaykin], who could have been a victim on a plane that would have been shot down because he's Jewish. Suddenly, he takes it upon himself to absorb this whole history and becomes demonic. Every religion is culpable for having inflicted horrors in the name of God. It's all the same God, yet it's based on these various interpretations and it gets down to these fights about the children's crusade. There is such a litany of things that can be brought up against them and for, but ultimately the only thing that has any relevance is whether or not these things lead to a sense of personal dignity and value. I'm suspicious of any collective use of religion because it seems to systematically, at some level, oppress people. [laughs.] It's not because of the way the individual has treated it, but rather, the people who control the orthodoxy.

Retreating to what you touched upon earlier, a lot of your characters go through these storytelling rituals—the videotapes in Family Viewing, the reworking of a brother's death to fit commercially cinematic needs in Speaking Parts, the personal history and professional partnership between a stripper and the club DJ in Exotica; a serial killer playing videotapes of his mother's cooking show in Felicia's Journey, the retelling of the Armenian Genocide in Ararat, or the journalistic search in Where the Truth Lies—in order to get to the truth.

In those situations, the characters have been denied the truth, yet the pursuit is so important. There's a sense of using art, or some process they can create, as a way of claiming justice, vindicating or playing out a game where a concept of truth is explored, so there is some taste of resolution.

Do you feel you have been denied the truth?

I don't mean to use the national identity as a convenience, but it's a huge issue. It's a huge issue when something on that scale has been denied, and you spend most of your life talking about that. That's certainly the easy explanation.

You have certainly talked about it more since making Ararat. There are allusions in Next of Kin, but your "Armenian identity" did not really come about until Ararat. You made it your international identity as a filmmaker.

Yeah. That's something I was not expecting to do, but I realized on the scale of that film and the response to it, it warranted I take a clear position. Interestingly enough, Arsinée had to take a more ambiguous position than what she's normally used to as well.


She was raised in a more nationalist context where those issues were very black and white. I was raised in a place where I wasn't really taught it. I came to it later on in life. So there was a lot of hope I sustained about it, and the possibilities of things evolving and there being communication where there isn't. In the course of making Ararat, I had to become a bit more strident, maybe, and Arsinée less so.

[Adoration is currently playing in limited release.]

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Posted by ahillis at May 11, 2009 5:55 PM


I am curious as to how the pregnant girlfriend was released by El Al (presumably), and, then allowed to marry the terrorist? Did I miss something? She wasn't detained, allowed to marry, etc?

Posted by: Lynne Davis at October 20, 2009 4:19 PM
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