AURORA’S SUNRISE – Review by Leslie Combemale

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Truth be told, I didn’t know much about the Armenian genocide before watching Inna Sahakyan’s award-winning animation/live action hybrid documentary, Aurora’s Sunrise. I had vague recollections of it from world history class as a violent event that predated the holocaust of World War II. Rest assured I walked away from the film with knowledge I’ll never forget, and that’s true for anyone who sees it.

The story is based on the experiences of Aurora Mardiganian, whose original first name was Arshaluys, and was 14 when the Ottoman Empire decided to destroy its entire Armenian population in 1915. Her large, happy family was ripped apart, first by her father and brother being conscripted for the army, and then murdered. She then watched as each other family member died, including her sisters and mother, who were raped and murdered. She was forced to walk over a thousand miles, and was raped and sold into slavery more than once. Severely traumatized, she escaped and found her way to New York. There she was approached about creating her memoir, subsequently called Ravished Armenia. Telling her story was something she swore to do as a survivor of not only the loss of her family, but her country. Her memoir was translated to the screen in 1919’s Auction of Souls, a film in which Mardiganian starred as herself. Shortly after its release and organized screenings across the country, all prints of Auction of Souls disappeared. 18 minutes of the 90 minute film are all that remain, surfacing only after Mardiganian’s death.

Aurora’s Sunrise, the first animated release from Armenia’s largest independent documentary production company, takes the surviving footage from Auction of Souls and weaves it together with footage of Mardiganian and animation to tell her personal experiences both during the genocide and after. It is her story, but by extension, the larger story of the 1915 Armenian genocide. The animation is done is a European style reminiscent of work by comic book artist Moebius, and as such isn’t breaking any new ground, but that style lends itself beautifully in representing the harsh realities and emotional trauma of Mardiganian’s story, without becoming impossible to watch. There’s one of Mardiganian’s memories, featured several times, that only becomes clear during an interview with her in which she corrects a scene of the film showing crucifixions. “They made it appear civilized in the film.” What could be worse than crucifixion? The truth is, indeed, worse, and not for the squeamish.

Though Aurora’s Sunrise as a whole is decidedly adult, both visually and in terms of content, it is the story of perseverance and determination. It’s also a strong reminder that war is often most traumatic and violent to the innocent female citizenry involved. Towards the end of the film, Mardiganian herself says if more countries had recognized and stood up to what was happening at the time, Hitler might not have been emboldened, and the murder of millions only decades later could have been prevented. These kinds of documentaries are important for that reason, hard as they may be to sit through. Aurora’s Sunrise would have been much harder to watch had it not been smartly delivered as constructed by its filmmakers.

4 out of 5 stars.

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Leslie Combemale

Leslie Combemale writes as Cinema Siren on her own website,, and is a frequent contributor to MPA's, where she interviews filmmakers above and below the line, with a focus on women and diverse voices. She is the Senior Contributor at Leslie is in her 9th year as producer and moderator of the influential "Women Rocking Hollywood" panel at San Diego Comic-Con. She is a world-renowned expert on cinema art and her film art gallery, ArtInsights, located near DC, has celebrated cinema art and artists for 30 years.