Upon Arshaluys Mardiganian’s death in 1994, footage resurfaced from “Auction of Souls,” a silent film from 1919 in which she played herself in the story that brought her to national prominence in America, making a treacherous trek across the Ottoman Empire once the powers that be began a campaign to eradicate the Armenian culture by destroying any national identity the country had, eventually leading to bloodshed in the millions. Mardiganian had the kind of immigrant’s story that was irresistible to Hollywood, escaping Turkish captors who had taken her from her family, witnessing the crucifixion of other young women they had taken, and hiding out in exile for two years before finding safe passage to the U.S. and although the story didn’t need any embellishment to be compelling, she was taken under the wing of a budding screenwriter named Harvey Gates, who rechristened her Aurora and developed both a memoir and a screenplay full of spectacle that captured the public’s imagination.
Today only 18 minutes of grainy footage remains from “Auction of Souls,” but it confirms a certain immortality for Mardiganian that has been amplified beyond being extended with “Aurora’s Sunrise,” which sheds the grandiosity of the Hollywood treatment of her story in favor of something more authentic yet no less epic as director Inna Sahakyan couples an animated retelling with first-hand interviews she gave later in life. Built around an eternal search for her brother, who Mardiganian could never know for sure if he survived or died after being separated in the village of Chmshgatsak where their father ran a prosperous textile business, the film traces each step she took after hearing that Armenians were being rounded up in Constantinople, first taking refuge in the Desim Mountains, evading lions and wolves, and ultimately making her way out to the wilds of Tinseltown where she’d run into the likes of Charlie Chaplin.
A survivor’s story unlike any other when it wasn’t only what Mardiganian had to endure as she eluded the fate that befell so many during the Armenian genocide but to have her memories expressed as she actually remembered them, “Aurora’s Sunrise” employs animation to impressive effect, not only portraying what there is now no longer any other filmed documentation of but accentuating the vivid memories of its lead character, for whom the past is always present. On the occasion of being recently selected by Armenia to serve as the country’s official entry for this year’s Oscars, Sahakyan spoke about the long journey the film itself has made over the better part of the past decade, involving a crew of hundreds from across the world to make it possible and how she became attracted to the film’s painterly style to craft an indelible portrait of Mardiganian.
How did this come about?
I was working on a TV documentary series about the Armenian genocide for 2015, which was the 100th memorial of the Armenian genocide, and I was very surprised when I discovered this testimony which was very different than any others, not only because of the strength of Aurora as a teenage girl – she survived genocide, but also when she agreed to retell her story in the U.S. both in the media and [for] the film. It was so amazing and when I listened to this five-hour interview at the Zoryan Institute, I said, “This is the material for a feature-length film.”
Were most of the recordings at the Zoryan Institute or did it take a larger search to find all the archival material for this?
The testimonies were the easiest part because they were recorded and kept at this institute and I did more research and discovered more testimonies, which were recorded by the Armenian Film Foundation, so that’s how the process started. The next step was to understand [how] we could find the silent movie, which was lost as a whole, but 18 minutes survived. It was available online in public domain, but very bad quality, so it was not usable for the film. Surprisingly, the [footage] was in an Armenian archive, so the next step was to get access to it and rescan and to restore this footage, so we can use it. That was a long and intensive research period because [it involved] the script of the movie, working with scholars, going over history books, and listening to other testimonies from her region, and going into the research of Hollywood’s early days.
It was interesting that digitized newspaper articles at the Library of Congress told so much about her story in the success of the film, starting from her initial announcement when she arrived in U.S. searching for her brother and this is not part of the film, but a very interesting fact is that she took her guardian to court. I found everything in American newspapers, so all these events were in the public [realm] and we really wanted to be true to the documentary background, so we traveled and collected references from all the locations that she [visited] in the U.S. and there was a team in Turkey helping us traveling to her village to the main cities that she passed through, sending us footage for our reference. It was teamwork between our team and scholars that ended up [informing] the script.
Was there anything in your research that gave you a particularly strong idea of who she was?
Initially, when you’re reading the script of the fiction movie [“Aurora’s Sunrise”] and then listening to her testimony, you understood who she really was because in testimonies she’s telling the events as they happened to her. Both in the book [that was written about her] and in 1919 movie, there are fictional elements of the story added into the story for PR reasons of the time and when you hear in reality what happened and the way that she’s telling it, it was very, very interesting. The most obvious example [was] the crucification scene. That was really [expressing] how heavy it was in reality, but also the beautiful moments, for example, when she’s talking about her childhood and her father’s business of these colorful cocoons, which were only in the testimony. You become very familiar with these intimate moments of her life and all of this was very, very interesting to learn.
Did animation seem like the obvious path forward?
It was always the plan for practical reasons because there’s not enough material to do the film on archival [alone] and I really wanted the film to be interesting for an audience and the archives was [all] talking head [footage]. The other option was to have a docudrama like fiction filming, but none of these options were giving the freedom and opportunities that animation can give because it’s a medium that also helps to talk about trauma through art and through the distance for the viewer. It led us to use symbols and colors in order to transfer beauty or heaviness of the story, so from the very beginning it was obvious that animation is the best tool to [speak to] memory and history in way that was true to how she’s telling her story.
What was it like to find the right style of animation?
It was really great collaboration of different creative minds and different artists. It took quite a long time before we got to the style that we have. We tried many different styles and nothing was really working. We knew that the animation style itself is a bit limited in the movement, but this was our only option to make the film because we had more than 65 minutes’ worth of animation and we could not do full 2D or 3D animation because it’s very expensive. We knew our limits, so that’s why we decided to pay additional attention to illustrations and work harder in order to have all this colorful Ars nova style. The animated [sections set in] Armenia part is a collaboration of Armenian and Lithuanian artists and everyone [brought] their own beats of the art style in this, so that’s how we come to the style that we have.
I liked how you cut back between the interviews and the animation – did that editing approach make sense from the start?
For me, it was very important to give voice to Aurora, so this is why the main and most important storytelling tool from the very beginning were the testimonies, so the first step was choosing the parts of the testimonies that I definitely wanted to be in the film and that the audience will see her telling these sequences of the story. But all these interesting real-life events that could speak to an international audience, like meeting Chaplin, [we’d] finish all the events she was talking about based on her testimonies adding other mediums that can represent the scenes. We did not have much freedom with the pieces of silent movie because we had only these 18 minutes, so we could only use the sequences that were matching the story she was telling in that certain places, but of course we had all the freedom with animation how to retell it.
When you pull together giant international production over the course of many years, what’s it been like to get this out into the world?
Sometimes I can’t believe it’s finished. Every time I’m watching it, I say this is a huge thing that we did because nobody really can imagine behind the scenes how many hundreds of thousands of illustrations you have or how many rough cut versions. It really was a long process and I’m very, very happy it speaks to the audience and that people are touched by the story. We’re getting the audience awards in different places and it’s a really amazing and unique feeling.