EEFF: Aurora’s Sunrise (2022)

If there wasn’t evidence all over the Internet to prove it, you would never believe Aurora’s Sunrise was real. This animated blend of drama and documentary relates the story of Aurora Mardiganian, a young Armenian woman who witnessed the murder of her family in the Armenian Genocide, escaped to the USA, and was manipulated into starring in a feature film about her own life. Surviving genocide is unimaginable. Surviving it and then reliving it for a paying audience? I am not certain there is even a word for that.

Aurora’s Sunrise is a remarkable film, one unlike anything I have seen before. Part of the film is animated, using a combination of photographic collage, painterly artwork, and CGI, and tells Mardiganian’s harrowing story in a heightened, almost abstract fashion. Other scenes present Mardiganian herself, interviewed on video in New York before her death in 1994. The final parts of the film comprise recovered scenes and moments from the actual silent film in which Mardiganian starred: Oscar Apfel’s 1919 epic Auction of Souls, thought entirely lost until fragments were recovered in 2009. It is, all edited together, the work of director Inna Sahakyan. It is a hugely impressive achievement, particularly given that Sahakyan has not worked in animation before.

The parts of Auction of Souls that are included are certainly fascinating to watch, but it is the other two elements of the film that properly impress. Seeing Mardiganian provide a commentary on her own story and experiences is critical to the film’s message. At first her bluntly told recollections are quite confrontational – her descriptions of inaccurate crucifictions in Apfel’s film are particularly hard to take – but over time her humanity and the sheer miraculous nature of her survival shine through. She also provides a badly-needed understanding of the Armenian Genocide, which still remains a criminally under-acknowledged tragedy to this day. She makes the very pertinent point that, had the world’s nations properly addressed Turkey’s war crimes at the time, it is very unlikely the Holocaust would have been allowed to occur.

It is the animation that truly excels. It is stunning to watch, and animated in a deliberately limited way that enhances its effect rather than reveal budgetary limitations. By using extensive photo references from both archival photographs and Auction of Souls footage, it meshes together very well with both the film and video live-action footage. By allowing the animation to break into fantastical and abstract imagery, Sahakyan is able to emphasise moments of particular resonance or emotion – as well as make the intolerable into something more easily digestible. The gradual vanishing of Mardiganian’s immediate family, one child at a time, is superbly realised and hopelessly tragic. This is a great documentary, and a powerful drama, but most off all it is an important remember of a history we should never forget.

Aurora’s Sunrise recently screened at Australia’s Europa Europa Film Festival.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.