(Armenia/Germany/Lithuania, 96 min.)
Dir. Inna Sahakyan
Is Aurora Mardiganian Hollywood’s first true hybrid film heroine? The young woman lost everything—her family, her friends, her home—amid the tragedies of the Armenian genocide. However, through strokes of luck and turns of events that Hollywood could never render plausible, she somehow survived. When she was 18 years old, though, Aurora found safe passage to New York. Although few traces of her life exist back home, she managed to captivate a few sympathetic souls with her story.
Aurora’s Sunrise tells how Mardiganian’s narrative helped draw attention to the horrors of the Armenian genocide through stories that appeared in newspapers across the USA. Naturally, Hollywood noticed the gripping tale of survival despite the odds. Aurora then relived her trauma in the 1919 film Auction of Souls, which recreates the history of the genocide and stars the young woman in a fictionalized representation of her experience. The film, long thought lost in its entirety until recently, appears anew in director Inna Sahakyan’s poetic and deeply moving documentary that recreates Mardiganian’s harrowing tale in ways that Hollywood could never imagine.
The film, which is Armenia’s official submission in the Oscar race for Best International Feature, assembles surviving fragments of Auction of Souls along with archival interviews in which Mardiganian recounts her ordeal. Mardiganian’s voice is significantly well-represented via a substantial video interview conducted by the Toronto-based Zoryan Institute during her later years. Her words accent portions of the 18-minutes of Auction of Souls that survived and were digitally restored by Sahakyan. Contrasted with the dated silent footage of Auction of Souls, Mardiganian’s interview underscores the weight of history her words carry.
The connective tissue comes thanks to striking storybook animation. Imagine Atom Egoyan’s Ararat conjured through the lens of Tahir Rana and Éric Warin’s Charlotte with a dose of Flee. Aurora’s Sunrise uses the power of animation to represent the erasure of lives and history. Where there are no photographs or records to represent the lives of family members, friends, and neighbours who were slaughtered, the animation finds more power in imagining what official records cannot provide. Aurora undergoes some truly painful experiences at the hands of the Ottoman army. She sees her family murdered, while she and other girls are forced into sexual slavery. She miraculously survives the “death march” through the Syrian Desert. Her will to live understandably evokes the fodder of which Hollywood epics are made.
Sahakyan deftly combines animation with conventional aspects of history docs to honour Mardiganian’s tale. 100 years after Auction of Souls, Aurora’s Sunrise is an empathetic continuation of her story. While the original work raised significant sums for the relief effort and orphans of war, the snippets of Auction of Souls are sometimes unbearable to watch as Mardiganian reopens fresh wounds. Aurora’s Sunrise is resolutely her tale, but its storybook aesthetic evokes the loss of innocence. It makes the tragedy doubly piercing.
Aurora’s Sunrise screens at IDFA 2022.
Update: Aurora’s Sunrise opens in Toronto at Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema on Sept. 1.