1919, Hollywood is on the cusp of the Golden Age. A young woman, donning a silver floor-length dress and a feather headpiece, walks the red carpet, slowly approaching a theatre entrance. It is the premiere of Auction of Souls, «the most amazing production ever presented», featuring a harrowing story of Aurora Mardiganian, «a sole survivor of half a million Armenian girls», a film poster reads, with an air of Hollywood pomposity.
Lights are out, now perched on a seat, drawing painful breaths, Aurora joins the audience in witnessing fragments of her story of survival projected on a screen. At the age of 17, Aurora Mardiganian (born Arshaluys Martikian) came to star in the Hollywood silent film about the Armenian genocide. Yet Aurora was not acting; she was «reliving» it.
What hurt more?
Daughter of an affluent Armenian farmer and silk manufacturer in the town of Chmshkadzag in the Ottoman Empire, Aurora had an idyllic childhood, relishing time with her large family, staging amateur plays in the yard, with Mom even joining the cast, and listening to occasional Dad’s singing at the dinner table, which brought him «peace.» They were happy children, leading a life «full of colour» when the atrocious events of 1915 began to unfold, which set the stage for the mass killing and deportation of Christian Armenians by Ottoman Turks during World War I, who, after a string of military defeats feared that Armenians in Eastern Anatolia would seek autonomy from Turkish rule.
Which hurt [you] more? Witnessing the murder of [your] family or seeing the slaughter of [your] nation?—an American reporter asked Aurora after she had fled to America. «My people are my nation», she responded with anguish. «If my nation is gone, no more Armenians will live.» When warnings rushed in that Armenians were being rounded up in Constantinople, Aurora’s father refused to flee their family home. He and Aurora’s brother lost their lives shortly after. The surviving members of her family—like hundreds of thousands of others—were dragged out of their home and forced into a death march to the Syrian desert, during which many were massacred, abducted or died of starvation and disease.
«My people are my nation»
The horrific events that ensued in Aurora’s life lie at the heart of Inna Sahakyan’s Aurora’s Sunrise, her first foray into animated film. Blending animation, archival material, Aurora’s late-life interviews and rediscovered snippets from the 1919 silent film Auction of Souls (also known as Ravished Armenia), which had been feared lost in its entirety, the 2022 documentary uses animation to ground the viewer into time and space that has long been marred by erasures, silences and denial. Facts may provide the necessary gravitas to depict a largely unrecorded piece of history of the genocide, but to remember is to reimagine ways we chronicle our past, to embody intensely intimate recollections of the survivors’ ordeal and translate them into a new filmic reality.
Deploying assorted techniques, the animated documentary captures episodes of Aurora’s biography in brutal yet candid detail: her family reaching the Euphrates after a weeks-long death march through the desert, only to discover the river full of dead bodies «floating slowly, up and down the current»; her siblings perishing in the river after being torn away from their mother; or Aurora coming across the lifeless body of her mother after escaping from her slave traders. These agonising scenes are contrasted with the film’s recurrent motifs, which are anchored in Aurora’s early memories, offering the viewer some respite like little safe islets in tumultuous waters. Arshaluys (Aurora) and her sister are back in their yard, holding up paper cut-outs of the sun and moon; they stand on each side of the makeshift stage. The curtains are drawn open, yet what is unveiled are only relics of the family’s past. The loved ones are no longer there. In their place lie deserted costumes and scarlet-dyed silkworm cocoons strewn around, imbuing the scene with a piercing nostalgia for the family there once was.
Auction of Souls
The original work (Auction of Souls) portraying Aurora’s plight during the Armenian genocide became a box office hit in the US in the early 1920s. The piqued interest in Aurora’s story from the media and Hollywood seemed to echo then-US President Woodrow Wilson’s plans to establish an American mandate over Armenia. Aurora’s story was hence meant «to symbolise this plan’s moral necessity», reads voice-over actress Arpi Petrossian from Aurora’s memoir (the US Senate eventually went on to reject Wilson’s proposal for the mandate). But the reality was far «too grim» for American audiences, with the film making some acts of genocide appear almost civilised on screen.
Auction of Souls was essential to the success of the American relief effort, which raised substantial sums to help Armenian orphans (according to the documentary, Near East Relief’s campaign managed to raise some $116 million, which was used to help over 132,000 orphans). For Aurora, playing herself in the film about the Armenian genocide meant having the opportunity to tell the world about what happened to her people. But it also meant reliving the atrocities that she wanted to forget. The filming was «a nightmare», Aurora recalls in her memoir, as read by Petrossian. It filled her with terror and stayed with her for months on end as she was worked into the ground, having been sent on a drawn-out tour across the United States «to promote the film.»
‘Aurora’s Sunrise’ is nominated for the Camera Justitia Award at the Dutch human rights film festival Movies that Matter. It was Armenia’s official submission to the 2023 Academy Awards for Best International Feature Film.