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Film Review: The Armenian Genocide Comes to Vivid Life in Beautiful “Aurora’s Sunrise”

Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | December 19th, 2022

Film poster: “Aurora’s Sunrise”

Aurora’s Sunrise (Inna Sahakyan, 2022) 3 out of 4 stars.

In Hollywood in 1919, Aurora Mardiganian (née Arshaluys), a 17-year-old escapee from the Ottoman genocide of its Armenian population, starred in a silent adaptation of Ravished Armenia, her own retelling of what she experienced. That movie, Auction of Souls (also known as “Ravished Armenia,” as well) is mostly lost to the ravages of history, though 20 minutes of it still remain. Selections from that archive pop up frequently in Aurora’s Sunrise, a new, (mostly) animated documentary from Inna Sahakyan (The Last Tightrope Dancer in Armenia), which chronicles Aurora’s journey from victim to advocate, all the while shining a brutal light on the atrocities long-denied by the Turkish government. We even hear Aurora’s own voice (she died in 1994), taken from late-in-life interviews discovered by Sahakyan. All of it together forms a stirring voyage through time, trauma, and recovery.

We begin with calm in 1915, the Ottoman Empire not yet entered into the terrible conflict that would become World War I. Young Arshaluys enjoys an idyllic childhood with loving parents, siblings, aunts, uncles, and cousins (with a brother off in America). But soon the regime, sitting atop a powder keg that would dissolve its realm just as it would the other 19th-century holdovers, enters the war on the side of the Germans. Concerned that the minority Armenians would ally with Russians to the East, the ruling party decides to unceremoniously remove, whether by direct executions or forced marches, the bulk of the perceived threat. And so Arshaluys immediately loses her father and one brother and then, soon thereafter, almost everyone else. Along the way, she is raped and left for dead many times.

Arshaluys Mardiganian and her family before the atrocities begin in AURORA’S SUNRISE ©Bars Media

The movie follows all these horrible events before finding Arshaluys on her way to the United States, sent there by an Armenian military commander, Andranik Ozanian, to spread the word about what has happened. Through a series of initial misadventures and then adventures, she does just that, eventually partnering with an American journalist, Henry Gates, who writes down her words into what becomes Ravished Armenia, the success of which leads to the movie and then a national tour to raise money on behalf of Armenian refugees. Unfortunately, Gates—appointed her legal guardian—eventually decides to place the newly renamed Aurora (easier for English speakers to say) in a convent when she breaks down during the fundraising presentations, but she eventually escapes (again), and the last we see of her as a young woman shows her appreciating the difference she made.

Animated documentaries are nothing new by now (and just last year we saw another refugee tale, the marvelous Flee), but Aurora’s Sunrise distinguishes itself through its particular mixture of film footage, the elderly Aurora’s recollections, and beautiful hand-drawn images. And even if the sound mix and music don’t always work in perfect harmony to complement those striking visuals, the net effect is still powerful. This is a lovely, if tragic, work of cinematic art, as well as yet another document to throw in the face of those who still deny the genocide occurred.

The premiere of AUCTION OF SOULS in AURORA’S SUNRISE ©Bars Media

Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator, as well as Film Festival Today's Editor. A member of both the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA), and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, Chris is, in addition, lead film critic at Hammer to Nail and the author of Film Editing: Theory and Practice.

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