Atom Egoyan

“My father visited Armenia during the Soviet era; he went to Tsitsernakaberd and returned a changed man. He broke down and cried while standing next to the eternal flame. It was as if the pillars had crushed him. He still cries when he tells the story. I only understood the essence and significance of Tsitsernakaberd when I visited the memorial,” says filmmaker Atom Egoyan.
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“My father visited Armenia during the Soviet era; he went to Tsitsernakaberd and returned a changed man. He broke down and cried while standing next to the eternal flame. It was as if the pillars had crushed him. He still cries when he tells the story. I only understood the essence and significance of Tsitsernakaberd when I visited the memorial,” says filmmaker Atom Egoyan.

Egoyan first visited Armenia in 1991 when his film “The Adjuster” was screened at the Moscow Film Festival. He and his wife – actress, producer and playwright Arsinée Khanjian – took the opportunity to travel from Moscow to Yerevan.


                                               Atom Egoyan and Arsinée Khanjian

“I had come to a place where everyone knew our history and there wasn’t a need to explain what it means to be Armenian. It was home from a point of view of identity and a miracle of persistence that we were – are still – there. I experienced the euphoria of being in a place that was not an oasis of culture, but an entire country of vibrant, dynamic expression. And to see how it spread from Yerevan to smaller towns, villages – different levels of what I call identity – was remarkable. It was a very rare tapestry and there was a tremendous sense of homecoming,” says Atom.
A take on justice
Atom Egoyan was born in Cairo and resides in Canada. He is recognized as a unique representative of Canadian culture and is a recepient of the Governor General’s Performing Arts Award (2015) and of “A Companion of the Order of Canada” (2016), the order’s highest level. 

Egoyan has won numerous accolades for his films, including at film festivals in Toronto and Cannes. His latest film, “Remember,” was released in Canada in October 2015. It approaches the Holocaust from a unique perspective: set in the present, the main protagonist, a survivor of Auschwitz, is convinced that the person who killed his family is alive and living under an assumed identity. He makes it his mission to seek out this murderer and kill him.
“Raising questions of justice is important for me. 
We frequently think that with time, wounds will heal. But wounds remain open – both for survivors and perpetrators. 
‘Remember’ is about the surviving eyewitnesses and about the criminals. It is provocative. The film is contemporary and has an urgency about it, given the age of the survivors. The act of murder, especially mass murder, does not have a statute of limitations, and if one remains indifferent, one becomes an accessory to the crime,” says Egoyan.
Egoyan and Khanjian are probably best known to Armenians for “Ararat” (2002), a film dealing with the 1915 Genocide. “I decided to make a film to portray how denial was passed from generation to generation and how it impacted people. It is a complex film,” notes Egoyan.

                             “Ararat” film cast with Atom Egoyan (third on the left)

A long way from home
Egoyan traces his roots back to Western Armenia. His paternal grandfather, Yeghia, was born in Arapgir. At the urging of his father, Yeghia fled to Egypt in 1914. “In Arapgir they probably had vineyards because my father remembers his father telling him the story of how Turks came to the vineyards, and how the Turks followed them and planned the attacks; so my grandfather left for Egypt. His family stayed in Arapgir and was wiped out,” recounts Egoyan.
Afterward, Yeghia made his way to Aleppo. There, he met his future wife at one of the orphanages. Egoyan’s grandmother Arshalouys had survived the Genocide, but the family doesn’t know where she was born. Yeghia and Arshalouys had four children. Joseph (Hovsep), the youngest, is Atom’s father.

               Atom’s paternal grandparents and family, including Atom’s father Joseph (right)

“The song ‘Yeraz’ (‘Dream’) is heard in the film ‘Ararat.’ It’s the only thing my grandmother remembered from her childhood. It was so emotional to include these fragments of my story in the film,” notes Egoyan. 
Misag Devletian, Egoyan’s maternal grandfather, was born in Kesaria and was a carpet maker. Misag died when Atom’s mother Shushan was just one-year-old. Before the massacres, the family moved to Cairo.

                                                     Atom’s maternal grandparents

Atom Egoyan’s parents Hovsep and Shushan were artists and studied painting. They also ran a furniture business, Ego Arts, in Cairo. Because of the political climate, the Egoyans left Cairo and moved to western Canada in 1963, settling in the town of Victoria, British Columbia. There, they continued their furniture business under the name Ego Interiors, a new company they founded. They anglicized the name Yeghoyan to Egoyan. They were the only Armenian family in Victoria.


                    Atom’s parents and his grandmother with Atom and his sister Eve Egoyan

Unpacking the baggage
Dramatic performances intrigued Egoyan from an early age, and he started to write plays at the age of 13. Despite his interest in the arts, Atom pursued international relations at University of Toronto, where he encountered large numbers of Armenians for the first time and joined the Armenian Students Association.
“It was the late1970s; very difficult times for the community. There was terrorism, the justice commandos, and the Students Association was quite active and militant. 
I suddenly found myself in that tumult. Acts of terrorism occurred in Ottawa and my Canadian and Armenian identities clashed. It was shortly after that I met Arsinée. 
She didn’t understand why that episode in my life was so difficult and why I was struggling to connect two disparate worlds. Arsinée was from Beirut and had an entirely different upbringing. Our conversations were urgent and very important. I had numerous questions regarding identity. There’s a scene in ‘Ararat’ when David (Christopher Plummer) asks Raffi (David Alpay) what he is bringing back after his travels to places in Turkey that were historic Armenia. The questions dealt with the baggage. For some diasporic Armenians this might all be more folkloric – national cuisines, dances, etc. But for me, the politics of the issue and its significance are the very source of identity.”

                                            Atom while at the University of Toronto

Atom’s first short films were shown at festivals and received successfully while he was still a student. In 1979 Egoyan founded the film company Ego Film Arts (his parents’ furniture store, Ego Interiors, had burned down). In 1984, Egoyan’s first feature length film, “Next of Kin,” garnered him recognition not only in Canada, but also throughout North America and Europe.
Throughout his career Atom has appeared on the other side of the camera as well as in films by other directors. Several documentaries have featured Egoyan’s work as a director. During the creative process, Atom has also collaborated with his sister, the pianist Eve Egoyan, and his son Arshile. However, his wife, actress Arsinée Khanjian, has garnered a special place in his work.
“Our life together is a journey of discovery of Armenian identity. We are collaborators in this mission of trying to evaluate what identity means,” Egoyan says. 
“The two of us have assumed the responsibility of portraying the issue of our identity and the Genocide. We are determined since, from the start, it has been a part of our united essence.”  
“Turkey is the land of my ancestors geographically, and the only Western Armenian community that isn’t part of the Diaspora lives there. From an identity perspective, though, Armenia is the homeland for me, a place to which I will continually return,” Egoyan notes. “I haven’t been to Arapgir, but one day I’ll go. I haven’t been to Vasbouragan, the place where my family comes from. I visited those places in the film ‘Ararat.’ Raffi, the film’s protagonist, finds himself on the road to those areas in order to finally complete his journey of understanding.” 
Canadian filmmaker on his artistic quest to capture identity
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Aghavni Yeghiazaryan
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