Laureates 2008

2008 Past - Creative Rendering of the Past: Literature, Theater, Film

Atom Egoyan

AtomEgoyanAtom Egoyan, an Officer of the Order of Canada, is a critically acclaimed and prize winning Canadian-Armenian film maker (director, screenplay writer, editor), who has directed feature, television and documentary films. For The Sweet Hereafter (1997) he received an Academy Award nomination for Best Director. His work often explores themes of alienation and isolation, typically set in contemporary situations and social contexts. Hints of his interest in Armenian history and culture appeared before his monumental Ararat in Calendar (1993), where the protagonist travels with his Armenian wife to Armenia to photograph churches for an Armenian calendar, which marks the passage of time throughout the movie: Armenian time. Earlier, in Next of Kin (1984), the protagonist acts out the role of the abandoned son of an Armenian family and immerses himself in their life and culture, which is filled with haunting remains of migration and displacement.

2002 saw Egoyan's great artistic achievement with Ararat, which was the first major motion picture to deal directly with the Armenian Genocide. It explores the human impact of the historical event, and also examines the nature of truth and its representation through art, which is Egoyan's signature in many of his previous films. Egoyan thus made Ararat deliberately self-referential: it depicts the efforts of an Armenian director, Edward Saroyan, to make a Hollywood-style film about the genocide, from the fictionalised point of view of a genuine historical figure, Arshile Gorky. Ararat includes graphic sequences depicting the horrors of the genocide, but they are always framed as scenes from Saroyan's film-within-the-film. Furthermore, it shows the actors and filmmakers discussing the ethical problems that arise when adapting contentious subjects into simplistic movies, while Saroyan's glossy film is contrasted with camcorder footage of real ruined Armenian churches near Mount Ararat.

Egoyan is unique in his approach to structure: the story unfolds through the journey of the characters towards the discovery of 'truth'. The passage moves seemingly forward but eventually will expose significant events in the past. Story, characters and relationships are interwoven in layers that peel off one by one to form an enigmatic structure which is in the same time realistic and abstract. This signature Egoyan structure stems from the passion and craftsmanship similar to that of an archeologist.

Ararat is a superb piece of modernist filmmaking, drawing attention to itself without detracting from the representation of the atrocities. The film-within-film format and cross-cutting, are used effectively not so much to show the intellect coping with what denies its competence, and certainly not to achieve a distancing effect from terrible scenes of genocide, but rather to bringing in the actors, and through them us, into the situation of having to face traumas, personal as well as collective, that have been denied, dissociated, and encrypted.

Atom Egoyan has garnered many awards, among them the Genie: Best Adapted Screenplay, the Toronto Film Critics Association Award: Best Canadian Film, The Independent Spirit Award: Best foreign Film, the Cannes Film Festival Grand Prix du Jury and the Academy Award nomination for Best Director.

The 2008 Dan David Prize honors Atom Egoyan in the field of Creative Rendering of the Past: Literature, Theater, Film for his superb modernist filmmaking, which explores Armenian history and culture and the human impact of an historical event while examining the nature of truth and its representation through art.