“The people are my nation. If my nation is gone, no more Armenians live”: “Aurora’s Sunrise” at the Samizdat Festival of Central and Eastern European Film3 min read

 In Caucasus, Review, Reviews

The remarkable true story of Armenian genocide survivor Arshaluys “Aurora” Mardiganian is told in this patchwork masterpiece of alluring animation, archival interview footage, and rediscovered clips from the 1919 silent film Auction of Souls

Arshaluys Mardiganian was only 14-years-old in 1915 when her father and brother were imprisoned, and the rest of her family deported as part of the Armenian Genocide. She would spend the next three years living through one tragedy to the next, from seeing her family brutally killed one at a time to being sold as a slave multiple times. After eventually escaping to Russian-occupied territories and meeting General Andranik, a key figure of the Armenian national liberation movement, she was given a mission: To tell the world what was happening to the Armenian people. Upon reaching New York, she worked with a reporter to publish an account of her trials titled Ravished Armenia, and a year later, in 1919, she starred as herself in the silent film Auction of Souls, a project designed to bring attention to and raise money for victims of the Armenian Genocide. It was then that her first name was changed to Aurora, in order to make her more relatable to an English speaking audience. Though an overnight sensation around the globe at the time, Mardiganian’s story was lost over the years, with the film only rediscovered in 1994, a few months after Mardiganian’s death.

In this unique documentary by Inna Sahakyan, Mardiganian’s story is retold for a new audience, delving deeper into Mardiganian’s experiences during the Armenian Genocide as well as her subsequent exploitation in the U.S. Sahakyan does not shy away from showing the true horrors of the Armenian Genocide, from sexualised violence to the targeted destruction of Armenian cultural heritage and identity. Archival interviews with Mardiganian, remastered clips from Auction of Souls, and brand-new animation are used to bring Mardiganian’s narrative to life in a notable hybrid of filmmaking techniques. Aurora’s Sunrise was Armenia’s entry to the Academy Awards for International Feature Film in 2023, and has received much deserved recognition on the international film festival circuit. 

Sahakyan chose animation as the main medium due to its freedom in terms of imagination, and because it was visually more powerful, allowing for a greater use of colours and symbols. In addition, it allowed for the use of symbolism in discussing the most heavy parts of the story and in interpreting Aurora’s thoughts and emotions. For example, as each of Aurora’s family members was killed, they became symbolised by the silkworms her father used to raise, their now blood-red bodies and threads covering more and more of her childhood home. However, the papercut technique used by the animation team (made up of both Armenian and Lithuanian artists), though creative, led to the animated characters often appearing stilted and wooden, unable to capture emotional facial expressions. In this sense, the film’s score, composed by Christine Aufderhaar, perfectly complements the narrative, tying the different filmmaking techniques together by bringing the silent film clips to life and providing the soul-stirring background necessary for the animation. 

Aurora’s Sunrise ends with a haunting message by Mardiganian, who links the Armenian Genocide to the Holocaust. Though she does not seek revenge, Mardiganian reminds the audience what can happen if mass murders go unpunished, serving as blueprints for future atrocities. It is a fitting ending for a film dedicated to all the victims of genocide, no matter when or where. 

Aurora’s Sunrise will be screened on 12 September at the CCA Glasgow. Find full event details here.

Feature Image: Samizdat Eastern European Film Festival
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