AURORA’S SUNRISE – Review by Nadine Whitney

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In 1919 a silent film called alternatively Ravished Armenia or Auction of Souls premiered in America. The film, the story of Aurora Mardiganian whose non-anglicised name is Arshaluys Mardigian – a survivor of the Armenian Genocide. The film was a hit and propelled the teen whose experiences were the basis of the film and also the star of the film, to a small amount of fame. Immediately, however, director Inna Sahakyan informs the viewer that her documentary Aurora’s Sunrise is not about a meteoric rise to stardom, but about a survivor of unimaginable horrors. “I wasn’t an actor” says voice over artist Arpi Petrossian playing Aurora, “I wasn’t acting. I was reliving.”

Sahakyan utilizes a mixture of rotoscoped animation, fragments of Auction of Souls (once thought lost but eighteen minutes of footage was found soon after Aurora’s death in 1994), parts of Aurora’s memoir ghost written by reporter Henry Gates, and interviews with the elderly Aurora filmed in 1984 to form a portrait of the woman once called “The Joan of Arc of Armenia.”

Arshaluys was just fourteen years old when in 1915 the Ottoman Empire, who had aligned themselves with Germany in WWI, came to her home in Chmshkadzag in Armenia and rounded up her father and appropriately aged male siblings for service in the army. Arshaluys had seven siblings, one brother who had previously moved to America. Soon she would have no-one as the Turks destroyed her family (shown in parts in graphic animated detail in the documentary) as they gathered them up and made them march across the Syrian desert, over 1,400 miles.

During the death march, Arshaluys was captured by bandits, Turks, even Kurds, and sold as a slave. Her family was robbed, raped, beaten, murdered. Through tenacity and luck, Arshaluys eventually made it to America via St Petersburg and then Oslo. Having no luck finding her brother in America, Arshaluys was essentially a war orphan. When Henry Gates realised that he could make money from her story, he decided to act as her guardian and once again Arshaluys was exploited by men.

Sahakyan provides Arshaluys’ story with all the necessary gravitas attached to such an horrific part of history. Moments that come from the silent film are shown again in the animation and presented in the factual format that Hollywood was not able to accomplish. A scene involving women being crucified used the traditional cross format – this was not how it happened.

In Arshalyus’ words from the 1985 documentary: The Turks didn’t make their crosses like that. The Turks made little pointed crosses. They took the clothes off the girls. They made them bend down, and after raping them, made them sit on the pointed wood which pierced through their groin. That’s the way the Turks killed. Americans kill in a more civilized way. They can’t show such terrible things.

Armenian director Sahakyan resurrects the story of Aurora and how she was brutalised not only by the atrocities of the genocide, but also by venal journalists and Hollywood producers. The only person she could trust became philanthropist and activist Mrs. Oliver Harriman. When producer William Selig and Henry Gates realized they were driving Aurora to exhaustion during the press tour for the film, Gates simply had Aurora committed to an asylum and replaced her with actresses pretending to be her.

Aurora’s Sunrise is far more than a bricolage documentary. It is a testament to survival. When asked by a journalist what hurt Aurora more, losing her country or losing her family, Aurora’s weary response was “My country is my family.”

Aurora has been long forgotten by Hollywood and America. Aurora’s Sunrise is essential viewing, especially in light of the fact that Turkey still refuses to recognise the Armenian Genocide. Sahakyan gives Aurora’s words and experiences new life and is an indelible piece of documentary work that demands to be seen and felt for all the real-life tragedy it explores.

Aurora’s Sunrise was Armenia’s entry to the Academy Awards and is showing in Australia at the Europa! Europa! Film Festival in Melbourne and Sydney.

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Nadine Whitney

Nadine Whitney is a seasoned film critic and scholar. Based in Melbourne, Australia, Nadine contributes regularly to FILMINK, The Curb, and Mr Movies Film Blog. She holds a degree in cinema theory and cultural studies. Her specialty is surrealism in cinema. She is as passionate about cats as she is about film. She is co-chair of the Australian Film Critics Association and a member of FIPRESCI.