Credit: Bars Media Films
Before We Vanish by Zachary Goldkind Featured Film

Aurora’s Sunrise — Inna Sahakyan

August 18, 2023

Animation is a tool that has been sporadically utilized to shade in the gaps of history within a subjective consciousness. These subjectivities often pertain to positions of war-torn turmoil, where the erasure of documentation renders memories unsubstantiated. Here, animation comes in to revitalize the rifts, but those examples, more often than not, relegate the re-imaginings to a rigid shorthand. This can be seen in Ari Folman’s solipsistic Waltz with Bashir and Tahir Rana and Éric Warin’s recent Holocaust-industry puff piece, Charlotte (2021), which this critic lambasted.  Often, when reigned in to reconstruct the classicism of cinematic narrative tropes, animation burdens its representations with the affect of aesthetic texture: Waltz with Bashir’s shadow-drenched expressionism aestheticizing signifiers of brutality, and Charlotte’s drab flatness producing an anonymity which subsumes the horror of its subjects into the lineage of straight-to-video Disney sequels. Animation is, thus, a tricky vehicle to express reality through, to capture history and its torments within — Miyazaki and Takahata are the only practitioners who seem to have properly understood a balance between the historic and the fantastic.

The act of reinstating a “forgotten” history is the point in Inna Sahakyan’s sophomore feature, Aurora’s Sunrise. The film takes the 1919 Hollywood picture Auction of Souls as its prototext: 23 minutes of surviving footage, a film about the Armenian genocide from the perspective of its protagonist (our film’s protagonist as well), Arshaluys Mardigian — a survivor of the Turkish-orchestrated massacre who would go on to live under her English name, Aurora Mardiganian. Collecting archival interviews of Aurora in her later years, just before her death in 1994, Aurora’s Sunrise endeavors to fill in the blanks of her visualized story through animated reconstruction, beginning prior to the Armenian conscription to the front lines of the Great War, and following to just after its conclusion. We track Aurora through her confinement, her escape, her handover to the U.S., and into the life that would see her as poster child — for the victims of this Holocaust — to the American bourgeoisie spectator.

The problem with Aurora’s Sunrise is that there appears to be little reason behind the entire project, beyond its most immediate narrative objectives. The envisioning of this specific story is convoluted from a political perspective, and it fails to even contend with its glaring contradictions. A pivot in the film’s narrative — the first point where it detours from the story told in 1919 — comes with Aurora being groomed into a commodity for philanthropic gaze. She is thrust into the spotlight, one of American-Christian Idealism, where her aggressors are painted as monolithic villains of Islam and she the Christian sufferer. This dynamic of influence is underlined in the film, yet such context, which would require some reflexivity and retrospection, is merely glossed over. This happens again when we learn that, during her involuntary confinement at a convent, she was impersonated by hired women on the film’s American Tour. Her persona as a spectacular commodity is never questioned; in fact, the opposite is true, as once this truth is learned, Aurora’s Sunrise very briskly shifts to recognizing how much great and important work was done in the name of her sublimation. The lack of dialectical thought feels both irresponsible and fetishistic. 

This isn’t even to speak on the film’s glossing over of America’s international policy of the time. And these frustrations and oversights provoke further questions that the film is not equipped to answer. Why merely retell and eagerly contextualize this story when there’s been so much history since? Why take these interviews, which are used haphazardly as framing devices, and the remaining found footage of Auction of Souls only to then use the animation in a method that positions it as a reflexive struggle with a history that has elapsed? The final lines of Aurora’s Sunrise are taken from interviews conducted with the subject in the ‘90s, where she suggests that if more had been done about Armenia, the Jewish Holocaust wouldn’t have occurred. This sentiment is intensely provocative and uniformly uninformed, but it is one that asks us to examine the history that could have come forth and encroached into our lives. If this was the film’s core, perhaps something more remarkable would have been carried through; and perhaps this project could have become a work grasping beyond the mere specter of individualism. 

DIRECTOR: Inna Sahakyan;  CAST: Anzhelika Hakobyan, Arpi Petrossian;  DISTRIBUTOR: Bars Media;  IN THEATERS: August 11;  RUNTIME: 1 hr. 36 min.