Inna Sahakyan’s documentary tells the story of Aurora Mardiganian, an Armenian Genocide survivor who was one of the only members of her villiage in Eastern Anatolia to survive the atrocities of the Ottoman Empire during World War I. Her harrowing tale begins when she witnesses the murder of her father and brother by the newly empowered Turkish regime bent on ridding the country of Christians and “treacherous nationalities.” She and her remaining family were then enslaved as part of the infamous death marches to the Syrian desert. Aurora was sold into a Turkish harem, from which she managed to escape to Russia and later immigrate to New York. Once in the US, she wrote a book about her experiences, which was optioned by Hollywood and made into a hit 1919 silent film in which she starred as herself.
Obviously, her story is extraordinarily unique, but it sheds light on an all-too-common experience. The Turkish government still officially denies the Armenian Genocide and maintains that the mass deportation of Armenians was a legitimate action to combat an existential threat to their empire in the early 20th century. Aurora’s odyssey from rural teenage girl to genocide survivor to Hollywood star and social activist is chronicled in the film via animation, archival interviews, and footage from Auction of Souls, the silent film she starred in. Auction of Souls had been thought entirely lost until one of its nine reels was discovered, and restored in 2009.
Sahakyan’s film conveys Aurora's story and the larger history of the Armenian Genocide with beauty and eloquence but doesn't shy away from the brutal nature of what she's presenting. The 96-minute film captures the inexplicable trauma experienced by the whole Armenian nation, the individual hope and joy of Aurora's odyssey from an expendable slave to a celebrated spokesperson for her people, the disillusionment at how Hollywood greedily processes people (especially young women), and the disheartening cynicism of the American propaganda machine.
The recently discovered footage from Auction of Souls almost begged to have a film like this made around it to contextualize its aproximatly 20 surviving minutes. But Sahakyan takes on the more complex task of essentially remaking the silent movie as an animated film in which the story extends through the production, distribution, and aftermath of Auction of Souls.
I've never been a big fan of animated documentaries. But this is not an example of using animation to illustrate what a talking head is saying or as a poor substitute for non-existent filmed footage. This is a distinctive blending of animated narrative with documentary retrospective. The footage from Auction of Souls as well as video footage of the elderly Aurora Mardiganian looking back on her life in Turkey, Russia, and the US, augments and reinforces the authenticity of what is basically an animated historical feature. Yet the simple, 2D, limited movement, paper-cutout storybook style of CG animation used—with its Armenian symbols, details, and color palette—is captivating when presented, as it is, within the documentary format. Sahakyan creates a unique cinematic aesthetic that feels like much more than the sum of its parts, while telling the important story of this extraordinary woman.
With a distinctive blending of animated narrative with documentary retrospective Inna Sahakyan tells the extraordinary story of an Armenian Genocide survivor who escaped to the US and wound up starring in a Hollywood silent film that told her story.