ATOM EGOYAN Biography - Writers


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Atom Egoyan                                                                                 
Cairo, Egypt, 1960                                                                           
(director, producer, screenwriter, editor)                                                   
Atom Egoyan occupies a distinct position within Canadian filmmaking ? that of               
auteur. His unequivocal authorial vision and inimitable style are sustained                 
throughout a body of work that includes 10 feature films. Egoyan is the most                 
consummate filmmaker of his generation, and his films appeal to national and                 
international audiences alike and, increasingly, receive greater critical                   
acclaim and commercial success.                                                             
Born in Cairo of Armenian descent and raised in Victoria, B.C., Egoyan moved to             
Toronto at 18 to study international relations at the University of Toronto.                 
While studying, two formative encounters fused to inform his life work ? fluency             
with his ethnic heritage and the cinema. Egoyan produced several short films at             
the Hart House Film Board while furthering his knowledge of Armenian history and             
politics. Often submerged and mediated, the residual effects of the Armenian                 
genocide shadow Egoyan?s work to date. The recurring themes of ritualized trauma             
from dispossession to alienation to ?baggage,? in general, arose from the unsaid             
of Armenia?s past, posing an indomitable challenge to representation in the                 
present. Egoyan?s films work at the intermediacies of memory and fiction almost             
by necessity.                                                                               
Archaeological in impulse, Egoyan?s approach to truth and character is                       
incessantly layered. His films relentlessly highlight the act of looking from               
both structural and thematic perspectives, fully exploiting possible                         
implications from knowledge to voyeurism to comprehension and insight. At the               
same time, the oft-used Canadian filmic tropes of identity and its uncertainty,             
image and technology, and communication or the lack thereof compete for equal               
thematic screen time. The content, aesthetics and production contexts of Egoyan?s           
films are decidedly interstitial. Multi-directional, they spring from national               
and diasporic contexts, between art cinema narration and the recent adoption of             
popular genres, chiefly the thriller, that coalesce into an unprecedented brand             
of filmmaking. Still, Egoyan remains our resident ?spokes-filmmaker? for Canada?s           
brand of New World modernity.                                                               
Renowned actor Arsinee Khanjian, Egoyan?s long-time collaborator, helps to                   
solidify the label of international art-cinema auteur. Khanjian?s roles now                 
approximate a signature effect in the films; her performances span from                     
characters such as telephone sex trade worker, frumpy hotel cleaner, pregnant               
strip club proprietor to Ontario Censor Board member, cultural translator,                   
cooking show celebrity and art history professor. The consistent participation               
of numerous actors ? Bruce Greenwood, Sarah Polley, Elias Koteas, Gabrielle Rose,           
Maury Chaykin, among others ? also provide identifiable Egoyan markers across a             
range of films. The reliable makeup of Egoyan?s habitual crew further                       
strengthens auteurist coherency. Paul Sarossy?s cinematography, Mychael Danna?s             
musical compositions, Steve Munro?s soundscapes and Phillip Barker?s designs                 
routinely conjoin to imbue and consolidate the look and sound of the films.                 
Key Egoyan sensibilities emerge in Next of Kin (1984) and continue throughout               
Family Viewing (1987), Speaking Parts (1989) and The Adjuster (1991), though                 
these early features share a fascination with surface affectation particular to             
emerging filmmakers of the period. Side-stepping the banal, seemingly                       
superficial exteriority serves to foil signature Egoyan thematic obsessions with             
social taboos, specifically sex, technology and looking and relations locked                 
into the hermetic horrors of family closets. The films follow a strict                       
interwoven structure loosened by enigmatic abstraction and oblique ethnic                   
references. Surprisingly, the effect is sustained suspense and an arch brand of             
humour fed by a formally procured self-conscious chilly distance. Driven by loss             
of all kinds, characters are chronically detached, and shape their relations                 
toward one another through absurdist speech and the non sequitur, yet, uncannily,           
they prompt compassion all the same.                                                         
While detachment is partially upheld through a seemingly mundane surface, these             
early works all utilize video and the televisual and/or photographic                         
reproduction to work against its remote effects. Themes integral to the image               
assist in teasing out the various narratives? reiteration of the slippery slope             
between image and identity, between the video image and death, between                       
replication and reality, between the false and the true. Without exception,                 
representational technologies as practice and mediating motif continue to recur             
throughout Egoyan?s career. Across a range of usage from familial and sacred, as             
record and fetish, to voyeuristic enactment, bordering on pornography and                   
surveillance, the use of video in Egoyan?s universe stresses the role of                     
mediation in ordering experience.                                                           
The films of the mid-1990s offer a more profound exploration of contemporary                 
anxieties. Calendar (1993), a work both raw and tender, wrestles with belonging             
and identity from here to Armenia and back again. The dissolution of home and               
tradition and its uneasy, lived effects command its 12-part calendar structure.             
Travelling to Armenia to procure 12 photographs of sacred churches for a                     
calendar is the pretext for Egoyan (playing the photographer protagonist) to                 
interrogate historical memory and illuminate its unattainable retrieval, in                 
spite of the precision of imaging technology. With Exotica (1994), perhaps an               
apt title for all of Egoyan?s enterprise, original trauma (Armenia?s genocide)               
shifts into the more familiar terrain of terrifying psychic dispossession.                   
Increased production values and less plot fragmentation than in earlier films               
make room for more fully fleshed but equally disaffected and obsessive                       
characters. An exotic pet store owner, a stripper and a government tax auditor,             
to name but a few beleaguered souls, collide at the strip club Exotica. Here,               
these orphaned adults ceremoniously work through their individual baggage of                 
inheritance or soul murder ? from abandonment to straight-out child abuse.                   
Trepidation combines with the sublime to create the film?s sense of wonder, the             
epicentre that also, not surprisingly, coalesces around the sticking point of               
life in Toronto, or more sub-textually, Canada ? ?difference.?                               
The adaptations of The Sweet Hereafter (1997) and Felicia?s Journey (1999) (novels           
by Russell Banks and William Trevor, respectively) effortlessly mesh with Egoyan?s           
preoccupations, as both stories' claustrophobic worlds turn on the themes of                 
loss and violation. The Sweet Hereafter recounts a small B.C. town?s painful                 
recuperation from a tragic bus accident that claimed most of its children. The               
individual grief of the parents is imparted, but it is the responses of a                   
persistent lawyer seeking to assign blame and a young survivor who entreats                 
acceptance beyond the accident to include incest which take precedence. More                 
linear and seamless than extant works, the film?s tone and subject matter are               
nevertheless Egoyan?s.                                                                       
While a menacing ambiance often girds Egoyan?s films, Felicia?s Journey?s                   
thriller roots amplify this tendency. Third in a series of films that revolve               
around endangered young women and their eerie, ritualized encounters with father             
figures, we witness a sensitive and sympathetic serial killer stalk an innocent             
stray Irish girl. In spite of the film?s source, the radical changes in                     
production contexts and locale (his first co-production and the shift to the                 
industrial setting of Birmingham, England, and rural Ireland), signature Egoyan             
fixations remain. Egoyan?s diasporic constants, such as home and family,                     
betrayal, the impossibility of return and the dangers inherent in detachment and             
impaired sight that result are dramatized to different ends in Felicia?s Journey.           
The protagonist?s criss-crossed trauma takes the opposing routes of                         
vulnerability and violence. But the stalker complements his emotional image bank             
of looped home movies of his departed, fetishized mother with his own Peeping               
Tom-like video productions, replacing the good object to horrific effect.                   
With Ararat (2002), Egoyan widens the standard intimacy of his palette to                   
produce the first film to wrestle with the Armenian genocide of 1915. Ambitious             
in scope, the film memorializes the atrocities of the Armenian holocaust, but it             
also conveys its residual effects from a multi-focal perspective across                     
generations traversing the diaspora. Beyond the immediate narrative, Ararat?s               
complex lattice structure directly queries the representation of history itself,             
exposing its inherent constructed nature through wildly opposing modes of                   
address. The sophisticated treatise on ?past-ness? and the official record                   
builds upon and expands Egoyan?s incessant experimentation with the dubious                 
promise of the image. While a contemporary Toronto tale pivots around two                   
families in crisis, a film-within-a-film dramatizes eyewitness accounts of the               
siege of Van in eastern Turkey and the ensuing death march in epic scale. A                 
fictionalized celebrated Armenian director (played by Charles Aznavour) directs             
scenes of slaughter in a rival filmic register; attempts at flat-footed accuracy             
meshed with melodrama to signify Turkish atrocities.                                         
The staged excess, however, underscores the futility of replication. Distancing             
Brechtian techniques notwithstanding, the limitations of history as spectacle               
exceed simple lessons on how visualizing history confines. Just when the re-enactments       
of massacres allure, a counter-narrative suggesting fabrication often intervenes.           
Each modern-day character in the framing narrative is associated with the film               
production, also titled Ararat, serving to intertwine their individual, familial             
and communal lives. Ararat opens with the great Armenian painter Arshille Gorky             
struggling to perfect his celebrated The Artist and His Mother. Gorky?s fraught             
life is Ararat?s touchstone (both the outer frame and the film-within-a-film),               
its psychic structural and visual motor. Gorky survived the massacre but not its             
legacy ? his unremitting attempts to render memory are also Egoyan?s. Ararat?s               
mastery lies in dually sustaining belief in the possibility of representation               
and its fallibility, in looking both ways.                                                   
The constant, perspicacious depth-probing in Egoyan?s films also extends to a               
range of creative projects that span several artistic mediums to include opera,             
music and the visual arts. No doubt, Egoyan?s intellectual scope and creative               
dexterity inform all of his endeavours, engendering a crosshatch effect across               
art forms. With the Canadian Opera Company, he successfully launched Salome, his             
directorial opera debut in 1996, followed by his own Elsewhereness in 1998 and               
Gavin Bryar?s Dr. Ox?s Experiment. Egoyan proved his musical acuity with the                 
attentive aural direction of Yo Yo Ma in Sarabande, a telefilm inspired by Bach?s           
Cello Suite #4.                                                                             
Egoyan?s art installations have similarly gained distinction to include works               
completed for the Irish Museum of Modern Art in Dublin, the Venice Biennale and             
Le Frenoy in France. His latest projects span from Evidence (2002) to Notorious             
(2000) (a video installation that commemorates Alfred Hitchcock) to Diaspora (a             
short film with music by Philip Glass, which is part of the program Philip on               
Film) to Hors d?usage, a soundscape work based on reel-to-reel tapes of Montreal             
residents. Krapp?s Last Tape (2000), a film adaptation of Samuel Beckett?s play,             
attests to Egoyan?s tremendous formal latitude, one that defies the supposed                 
restrictions of film as a popular medium.                                                   
Such evident, unfailing commitment to innovation and the moving image,                       
regardless of medium, typifies Egoyan?s output, solidifying his atypical                     
position in Canada?s swiftly evolving film industry. Egoyan?s zealous production             
signifies his exemplary role throughout this shifting landscape. As auteurist               
hallmark and chief architect, Egoyan has helped to shape and define the contours             
of contemporary Canadian film, triggering, and exceeding, its promise.