Given the word “genocide” is being flung every which way these days, it’s worth revisiting the atrocities that helped prompt the coinage of the term – although of course the practice itself has happened throughout history. This harrowing but utterly fascinating and formally inventive film – a hybrid of animation and archive footage – recounts the biography of a young Armenian woman, Arshaluys Mardiganian, later renamed Aurora, who experienced firsthand the Armenian genocide which unfolded during the first world war. She not only miraculously survived but went on to play herself in a 1919 silent film called Auction of Souls about her own terrifying experience. This may make her the first subject of a biopic to play themself in a movie, but that’s only one small factoid in a story which is full of wonder, tragedy, copious horrors and – finally – hope and wisdom.
There are effectively three Aurora/Arshaluys in this film. The first is the real Aurora Mardiganian, whom we first meet as an elderly lady who loves to wear coquettish hair bows. In archive footage shot not long before she died in 1994, Aurora tells interlocutors the story of her life, sometimes in Armenian and sometimes in English. This footage is edited together with animation made using paper cutouts and semi-rotoscoped characters who act out Aurora’s story. Via painterly watercolour imagery that stylises and mercifully dampens the worst of the atrocities, we see how Aurora went from a happy young teenage girl in a large wealthy family who put on plays in their backyard to an orphaned refugee on a death march, raped and sold into slavery but capable of escaping several times. Eventually she emigrates to America where her story becomes the basis at first of sensationalist newspaper reports and later a memoir which is then turned into Auction of Souls in Hollywood, and the few surviving fragments of this film provide a third avatar of Aurora.
Armenian director Inna Sahakyan glides between registers to create one seamless narrative full of texture and strange details, such as the time Aurora met Charlie Chaplin at a party. The film is frank about how Aurora was exploited by journalists and a film industry keen to titillate audiences with the story of her ravishment. But humanitarians also used revenue from the film and the memoir to help Armenian orphans and refugees around the world. Perhaps the most remarkable moment comes at the end when the elderly Aurora reflects that she doesn’t want revenge, she just wants those connected to the genocide to be made accountable for it: “sat in the chair” of justice.
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