Political Film Society - Newsletter #149 - November 20, 2002

November 20, 2002


In the year 300 Armenia became the first country in the world to declare Christianity as the official religion, but ultimately the small country fell under the control of first the Arabs, later the Persians, and the eventually the Ottoman Turks, all of whom persecuted Christians, producing a diaspora. In 1828, Russia wrested a portion of the Armenian homeland from Persia, and in 1878 the Congress of Berlin awarded Russia part of the Armenian homeland from Turkey. On the eve of World War I, Armenians were scattered throughout several states. Ararat, directed by Atom Egoyan, is a film about a film. We see a few scenes staged for the background film, also entitled "Ararat," which might have been an exciting epic about the slaughter of one million Armenians in 1915 by the government of Turkey, which forced them on a death march to what is now called Syria. Instead, the foreground film is largely about members of an Armenian family in Canada who are haunted by the memory of the genocide. The one most transfixed by the genocide is eighteen-year-old Raffi (played by David Alpay), son of a father who assassinated a Turkish diplomat and a mother Ani (played by Arsinée Khanjian) who is an art historian. The father apparently committed suicide when Raffi was very young, perhaps the original source of the young man's angst, but in any case we see how the memory of the genocide evokes deep emotions within the contemporary Armenian community. Ani is promoting her recent book about an Armenian artist named Arshile Gorky (played by Simon Abkarian), who depicted a sorrowful family of the genocide on canvas, and she soon becomes a technical adviser to the film within the film. Raffi, meanwhile, went to Turkey to satisfy his curiosity about the genocide and also to provide film footage for his mother's book tour. When he returns to Canada, he is stopped by a customs official, David (played by Christopher Plummer), because he is carrying four reels of film marked "UNEXPOSED," and he refuses to allow David to open the reels. Clearly, nobody travels with unexposed film, but David does not want to ruin the handsome young Armenian's life by calling a dog to identify the contents. Through interrogation, Raffi admits that by another person gave him the reels, so he naïvely believes that they actually contain unexposed film. Accordingly, David, who is prolonging his last day of work before retirement with an extended interrogation, decides to let Raffi go, even though the contents are obviously contraband. Thus, the plot of the foreground film is uncomplicated. However, the foreground film is a prop for the background film, which deals with the Armenian genocide. One character in the background film plays a Turk, is half-Turkish, and presents the official Turkish government's view that war was in progress, so many died. (He could have mentioned that the Turks regarded the Armenians as allies of their enemy, Russia, which was then threatening them.

After World War I the Soviet Union took over Armenian lands, Armenia was established as a republic within the Soviet Union in 1936, and Armenia became an independent state with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.) Raffi replies that the Armenians were Turkish citizens who posed no threat; scenes from the background film vividly show the slaughter of unarmed women and children. The film, which is thus more propaganda than plot, ends with a title that indicates that documentation of the atrocities of the genocide are in a book by Dr. Clarence Ussher, entitled An American Physician in Turkey (1917). If only the background film had been made! MH

President Lyndon Johnson, interviewed for the Warren Report on the assassination of President John Kennedy, expressed the view that there might have been a conspiracy involving several persons, not a lone gunman. His remark was deleted from the report. Many witnesses who might have refuted the claim that Lee Harvey Oswald shot Kennedy were dead within a very few years. Kennedy's assassination, in short, is the major unsolved crime of the twentieth century, ripe for several cinematic treatments. Executive Action (1973) and JFK (1991) are now joined this year by Interview with the Assassin, written and directed by Neil Burger. When the story begins, Ron Kobeleski (played by Dylan Haggerty), an out-of-work photojournalist, is about to interview Walter Ohlinger (played by Raymond J. Barry), a man living on his block in San Bernardino, for a story about a crime that he wants to confess. Ohlinger has leukemia and expects to live only a few months, so he wants his confession on videotape for posterity, but not for the police, or so he says. The crime is the assassination of Kennedy; he claims that he shot the fatal bullet from the grassy knoll. He speculates that Oswald was picked as the fall guy because he was "stupid." Ohlinger claims to have been hired by his former commanding officer in the Marines, but he does not know who, in turn, hired his CO. To corroborate his story, Ohlinger gets a shell casing from a bullet in his bank safety deposit box. Kobeleski then asks a lab to authenticate when the shell might have been ejected. Next, they go to Dallas to walk where Ohlinger went on November 22, 1963, but the main corroboration would be to locate his former CO, who is not easy to find. Then Kobeleski realizes that he might be a target because of what he now knows, and the suspense in Interview with the Assassin builds in a manner similar to The Blair Witch Project (1999). Titles at the end say that Kobeleski was arrested, tried, and convicted of conspiracy but died in prison of multiple stab wounds, while the shell casing from the lab was stolen and disappeared. Laughter greeted the trailer of the film in earlier weeks, but the marginal plausibility of the fictional plot may leave filmviewers hoping that someday the truth will eventually emerge. MH