Friday, June 22, 2007

An Interview with Arsinee Khanjian

An Interview with Arsinee Khanjian
By Khatchig Mouradian

The Armenian Weekly
March 17, 2007

Arsinee Khanjian was born in Lebanon in 1958. Her family moved to Montreal
when the Lebanese civil war broke out in 1975. While a graduate student at
Concordia University, she met her future husband, Atom Egoyan, when
auditioning for his debut film, "Next of Kin" (1984). Khanjian has appeared
in most of Egoyan's films, and has gradually made a name for herself as an
accomplished actress. She has also appeared on the Canadian stage and
television shows. In 2002, Khanjian won the Genie Award for best actress in
"Ararat" and was nominated for the same award in 2005 for her role in

Her most recent role is in "Lark Farm," the ambitious project of the Taviani
brothers, the titans of Italian cinema, which brings the Armenian Genocide
to the big screen. "Lark Farm" premiered at the Berlin Film Festival in Feb.
2007 and was highly acclaimed in the German media.

In this interview with Khanjian, conducted by phone on March 7, we discuss
her experiences with "Lark Farm," with flashbacks to "Ararat."

Armenian Weekly-How did you become involved in "Lark Farm"?

Arsinee Khanjian-A friend of the casting agent for the Taviani brothers was
on the jury of the second Golden Apricot Festival in Yerevan. I met her and
she told me that the agent was looking for my contact information because
the Taviani brothers wanted me to be a part of their next project, which is
about an Armenian family during WWI.
To hear that the Taviani brothers were searching for me was quite strange,
because I am quite easy to find through my agent. Then I figured out this
was the Italian way of having things done: Everything has to be complicated
so that it is simplified afterwards! I said I would be more than thrilled to
have a look at the project. The Tavianis, of course, are inescapable masters
of Italian cinema along with [Michelangelo] Antonioni, [Federico] Fellini,
[Bernado] Bertolucci. They are part of the foundation of Italian cinema.
A month later, I received a phone call from the agent saying that they would
send me the English translation of the script. And that's what I read. I
haven't read Antonia Arslan's book Skylark Farm, which was published in
Italian and recently translated to English. I suppose the script is a loose
adaptation of the book. I have no idea what the differences are between the
novel and the script of the movie.

A.W.-Talk about the script and how you felt about it on your first reading.

A.K.-Reading the script, I asked myself why the Tavianis would be interested
in this particular story of this particular history. How can people who have
not been part of this history understand with so much astuteness and
sensitivity the predicament of this culture, and also the individual lives
and experiences of the Armenians in the Ottoman Empire during that period?

In the actual script, they never locate the town or the city. But we can
deduce from the family's social status that this is a bourgeois family,
quite well off, educated, involved in business. They do not live in a
village. However, there are also interesting encounters in the film with
other Armenian families who are not necessarily of the same social status.
Reading the script was a very powerful, explosive experience for me, similar
to reading [Franz Werfel's] The Forty Days of Musa Dagh. As a culture, we
have been ignored for so long that when we see someone who is really
attentive to us, we are really taken aback. And I really was.

I had to deal with my own demons in the love story issue [in the story, an
Armenian girl and a Turkish officer fall in love]. However, this does give a
perspective of not demonizing every Turkish person in the history of the
Armenian Genocide. I was initially reticent towards the love story, but in
the end I must say that it was masterfully contextualized.

I was surprised that I was the only Armenian in the project apart from
Antonia Arslan. In a way, I was very curious to know how this would work. I
wasn't sure how all these actors would approach the historic background. Not
that it is always necessary for the artists to come from a certain culture
to be able to act; not only the British can play Shakespeare. But again
there was a hidden suspicion of mine, probably a cultural suspicion.

As the shooting of the film began, I realized that I had not been in a
multicultural project like this in my entire acting career. Young Spanish
star Paz Vega plays the role of Nounik. French actor Tcheky Karyo, who was
born in Istanbul and is of Jewish background, plays the role of my (Armine's)
husband. French actor Andre Dussollier plays the Turkish general. The
officer is an Italian star Alessandro Preziosi. Palestinian actor Mohammed
Bakri [who plays the role of a heroic beggar] is in it as well. The young
zabtiyye is played by German actor Moritz Bleibtreu. And then we had all the
Bulgarian actors with smaller parts. [The movie was a co-production of
France, Spain, Bulgaria and Italy, and was shot in Bulgaria].

There was a scene where one actor was speaking in English, others in
Spanish, French, Italian and Bulgarian. And the marvel is that when I
watched the film, I did not see even the slightest sign of disarray. It was
very harmonious and makes complete sense in terms of performances.

I guess the multicultural aspect of the project itself was a very
interesting backdrop to the interest of the Tavianis in this subject, which
is now of universal curiosity. The film has a very strong statement to make,
beyond its artistic quality, and it is done in a very tactful, considerate
and committed way. The music is also beautiful and evocative to the story.

A.W.-In an interview with Berliner Zeitung, Vittorio Taviani said, "As we
read Arslan's book, it became clear to us that we could tie the past with
the present together. As we were shooting the film, the entire team had the
impression that this was the most newsworthy and up-to-date film that anyone
could ever make" (Armenian Weekly, March 3). What do you have to say about
the "newsworthiness" of this film?

A.K.-It was great that the movie premiered [at the Berlin Festival] in
Germany. The country has a great Turkish population, but beyond that, it has
a lot of relationship with this history, because Germany was Turkey's ally
during WWI. There are a lot of things of interest for today's Germans,
because this is also their history. I am not sure how much the German press
pushed the debate in that direction and asked those questions looking at the
film. I think the general attitude was more in relation of where Turkey
stands today and what the possibility is of facing its past as a country
with European aspirations.
Yes, it is a timely subject because we aren't finished with this kind of
behavior in our societies. The history of the Armenian Genocide is very much
alive partly because it is a very archetypical example of what is currently

A.W.-Some German reviewers noted that there was too much violence in the
movie. What's your take on that?

A.K.-What am I supposed to say when critics make that kind of comment? Don't
we see a lot of violence in "Pulp Fiction" and in all the video games our
children play? Didn't we see on TV what has happened in Darfur, Rwanda,
Sarajevo? Didn't we see the hanging of Saddam Hussein? Why are they talking
about violence? Are they insinuating that the topic is being manipulated? Is
this why they are raising this question? As far as I am concerned, there
wasn't particularly shocking violence and the violence was absolutely
minimal compared to what the historical record on the Armenian Genocide
tells us.

I want to add that I think the violence is minimal but what the scenes with
violence suggest is very powerful indeed.

A.W.-What was the general reaction of the public in Berlin to "Lark Farm"?

A.K.-The press and theatre screenings of the film were packed, and people
were taken by this experience. A lot of people were very surprised and
undignified because they didn't know about the history. The film has not
opened anywhere else yet.

A.W.-It will open in France next.

A.K.-In France, it will open in June. I am in close contact with the French
producer and he really wants this to work. The French Armenian community
didn't go and see "Ararat." It is unacceptable and shameful. When there are
films made about these stories, it is our responsibility to be curious and
engage ourselves. It doesn't mean that we have to like it or defend it, but
we really have to know about it by going and seeing. I am hoping that the
Armenian community will do that this time around. The rest is going to be in
the hands of French critics and the French audience. We can only provide
curiosity through our own excitement.

I certainly hope that our intelligentsia will stop having ambivalent
commitment to the subject matter, because a lot of us still haven't sorted
out the impact of our identity. Our writers and social commentators should
put themselves outside of these experiences whether these are films or other
forms of artistic expression, and they should try to contextualize, in a
generous way, the meaning of a work of art on this history. This film or any
other film is the individual's connection with the subject matter and
therefore it will always be presented through the individual's perspective.
The job of any writer, especially an Armenian one, is to understand that
there is more than one perspective around the question of Armenian identity,
and that there is no right one.

A.W.-I can't help but think that you are referring to the critics of

A.K.-Yes, you are absolutely right in saying that a lot of my comments are
based on my experience with "Ararat." Honestly it's not that it affected in
any way the success of "Ararat" in terms of where its sits in the history of
international cinema, but it was a great disappointment to me to see how
limited our community was in terms of its ability to open up to the reality
of what our identities are today.

The regressive kind of attention was not an issue for the filmmaker or
myself, but when generations to come decide to read about how the Armenian
intelligentsia dealt with these issues, it is unfortunate that we don't have
anything more intelligently and less subjectively vested. I would have liked
the coming generation to see how much multiplicity there is in our seeing
and understanding almost 100 years later the trauma of this identity. That
is what's going identity survival for the young generation. They ought to
see an exchange of ideas and experiences, and not just defensive criticism.

A.W.-Compare your experience with "Ararat" to that of "Lark Farm."

A.K.-[Laughs] Thank you for these questions. I would never have thought of
making a parallel between the two and I certainly did not make that parallel
when I read the script because the sensibilities of filmmakers as well as
the stories that they are choosing to tell are very different. But when I
saw the film, I said to myself: This is unbelievable. What "Lark Farm"
happens to be is what people expected "Ararat" to be.

In a way "Ararat" did deal with the history but not as a whole; the onus of
the film was not in the past, because "Ararat" wanted to be a film in today's
reality. It asked questions like: What does the Genocide do to us, the
children of the survivors? "Ararat" wanted to be a contemporary story about
our dilemma and trauma with this history. However, the film within the film
was where we saw flashbacks connecting us with the history. In some ways,
"Lark Farm" is the film within the film that Edward Saroyan was making in

I didn't realize it until I saw the film, its texture, its story. I thought,
yes, many Armenians often need this kind of story, because so little of the
Genocide story has been told on the big screen. In a way, "Ararat" was ahead
of its time and "Lark Farm" should have been made 30 years ago.

A.W.-Many Armenians were expecting "Ararat" to be an epic movie telling the
history of the Armenian Genocide.

A.K.-We have to ask ourselves why weren't these epic films made? Why should
it have been Atom who made it when he goes way beyond this style of
We keep saying that there are so many films about the Holocaust. Who made
those films? The Jews themselves made them. And did we not have that much
presence in the film community? Did we not have the money? Why didn't we do

We didn't make these films because we don't invest enough-financially,
intellectually and artistically-in this issue. Isn't it unbelievable that
ultimately "Ararat" was made by a Canadian Jewish producer? Not even one
penny was provided by Armenians. We have to ask the right question before we
jump to criticism.

1 comment:

Marta said...

great interview. I'm looking forward to seeing the Taviani brothers film and also have seen Ararat. What Khanjian says is very relevant to the original novel by Arslan, which I read in italian, as well as to the film Ararat.