Review: ‘Aurora’s Sunrise,’ starring Aurora Mardiganian, Anzhelika Hakobyan and the voice of Arpi Petrossian

September 3, 2023

by Carla Hay

A photo still of Aurora Mardiganian (voiced by Arpi Petrossian) holding her 2-year-old cousin Hrant in “Aurora’s Sunrise” (Image courtesy of Bars Media Films)

“Aurora’s Sunrise”

Directed by Inna Sahakyan

Armenian, Turkish, English, German and Kurdish with subtitles

Culture Representation: The documentary film “Aurora’s Sunrise,” which is mostly animation taking place from 1915 to 1920, features a white and Arabic group of people telling the story of Aurora Mardiganian (birth name: Arshaluys Mardigian), an Armenian refugee who fled Armenia during the Armenian genocide and relocated to the United States, where she briefly became a movie star when she starred in the 1919 silent film “Auction of Souls,” a drama that was based on her own refugee story.

Culture Clash: Mardiganian had many horrific refugee experiences, including the murders of almost all of her immediate family members, being forced into sex enslavement, and being exploited for her life story by unscrupulous journalists and filmmakers.

Culture Audience: “Aurora’s Sunrise” will appeal primarily to viewers who are interested in watching documentaries about survival stories that are told in non-traditional formats.

An archival photo of Aurora Mardiganian in “Aurora’s Sunrise” (Photo courtesy of Bars Media Films)

Haunting and inspiring, “Aurora’s Sunrise” is a creative triumph in how this non-fiction film mixes animation and archival footage to tell the empowering story of how actress/writer Aurora Mardiganian survived the Armenian genocide of the 1910s. “Aurora’s Sunrise” is not only a memorable biographical documentary, but it’s also an important history lesson.

Directed by Inna Sahakyan, “Aurora’s Sunrise” fully immerses viewers into the compelling story of Mardiganian, an Armenian whose birth name was Arshaluys Mardigian. In 1915, when she was 14 years old, her idyllic life in the Western Armenian city of Chmshkadzag was changed forever when Turks invaded Armenia and committed a genocide that lasted in 1923. To this day, many countries refuse to acknowledge that this genocide happened. The United States officially acknowledged this genocide in 2021.

“Aurora’s Sunrise,” the first animated documentary made in Armenia, was Armenia’s official selection to be considered for Best International Feature for the 2023 Academy Awards. Even though “Aurora’s Sunrise” didn’t get an Oscar nomination, it has received accolades elsewhere, including the Audience Award at the 2022 Animation Is Festival and the Audience Favorite Awards at the 2022 International Documentary Film Festival. Nearly a year after making the rounds at numerous international film festivals, “Aurora’s Sunrise” has been released in North America.

Most of “Aurora’s Sunrise” consists of animation that takes place from 1915 to 1920, based on Mardiganian’s real-life accounts of what happened to her. Interspersed with this animation are filmed interviews that Mardiganian did as an elderly woman (she died in 1994) and rare footage of the long-lost 1919 silent film “Auction of Souls,” a Hollywood-made drama starring Mardiganian in a story abut her refugee ordeal. “Auction of Souls” was a big hit and briefly made Mardiganian a movie star.

The archival interviews of Mardiganian in “Aurora’s Sunrise” are from the Zoryan Institute and the Armenian Film Foundation. Most of the narration in “Aurora’s Sunrise” are re-enactments or are inspired by what Mardiganian said in these archival interviews. “Auction of Souls” remained lost for decades, until some fragments of the movie were found several months after Mardiganian’s death. “Aurora’s Sunrise” also has archival footage of many people in Armenia during the period of time that’s discussed in the movie.

“Aurora’s Sunrise” had live actors perform many of the re-enactments, with these actors then drawn in animated form. (For the purposes of this review, the real Mardiganian s referred to as Mardiganian, while the Aurora character in the movie is referred to as Aurora.) Anzhelika Hakobyan has the live-action role of Aurora, while Arpi Petrossian does the voice work of Aurora in the animation. It’s not a technically advanced animated film, but the animation in “Aurora’s Sunrise” authentically captures many of the emotions and facial expressions that make this documentary so impactful. There’s a lot of humanity’s ugliness in this story, but there are also beautiful depictions of family love and personal resilience.

“Aurora’s Sunrise” begins with the real Mardiganian shown in archival footage opening up a rolled-up canvas portrait painting of herself and “Auction of Souls” co-stars Irving Cummings and Anna Q. Nilsson in a scene where they are coming out of the desert and looking for water. In a re-enactment voiceover, Aurora says that even though she became a Hollywood star as a teenager because of “Auction of Souls,” she wasn’t really an actress. “I was not acting. I was reliving.”

The movie is told in chronological order and begins with Aurora describing her happy childhood, as one of eight siblings raised by their married parents (played by Hambardzum Ghazanchyan and Tamara Chalkhifalaqyan) in a tight-knit and loving middle-class family. Aurora’s younger siblings were brother Hovnan (the youngest, played by Sergey Gasparyan), sister Sara (played by Ani Ghazaryan), sister Arusyak (played by Karina Gasparyan) and brother Martiros (played by Rafael Melqonyan). Aurora’s older siblings were sister Poghos (Vahagn Tulbenjyan), brother Lusineh (played by Sushan Abrahamyan), and brother Vahan (the eldest), who does not live with the family because he has been living in the United States for the past 10 years.

Aurora shares fond memories of watching her silk maker father Kirakos Mardigian (voiced by Ruben Ghazaryan) grow silk in the family’s greenhouse. He liked to dye the silk cocoons in bright shades of green, blue, gold and purple. The results made the silk garden look magical. This garden becomes a symbol in the movie for many of Aurora’s happiest family memories before the Armenian genocide destroyed so many lives. Aurora’s mother (voiced by Ani Toroian) doesn’t say much, but she is a kind and peaceful parent.

In the narration, Aurora says that one night, her father was visited by a Kurdish shepherd friend (played by Harut Galstyan, voiced by Mher Gabrielyan), who warned Kirakos that Turks would be invading this part of Armenia. The shepherd advised that the Mardigian family should evacuate and hide in the mountains. Aurora remembers that her father stubbornly refused to take this advice because he believed that to flee would be showing cowardice. He also believed that if he was going to die in an invasion, he would die in his own home.

Unfortunately, Aurora’s father turned out to be wrong in his predictions. A few days after getting this warning, he and son Lusineh were taken from their home by Turk invaders, forced to serve in the Turkish military, and were never seen by the family again. Aurora and the rest of her family were taken from their home by Turkish soldiers and forced with other women and children to trek across the desert while suffering unconscionable abuse, including whippings, beatings, and other forms of torture. Women and girls were often raped.

Other horrors that Aurora experienced won’t be described in full details here, but it’s enough to say that there are scenes of her witnessing family members and many other people getting murdered; experiencing starvation and other dangers while being trapped in a war zone; and being forced into sex enslavement. These traumas are not depicted in overly graphic ways in “Aurora’s Sunrise,” but sensitive viewers or very young viewers might find some of these images too unsettling to watch.

The retelling of Aurora’s story is handled with a great deal of empathy and care without making any of her ordeal seem trivial. “Aurora’s Sunrise” isn’t just a war story. It’s also a look at how the media can make a difference in charitable efforts to help survivors of wars. The top-notch “Aurora’s Sunrise” musical score—performed by the Armenian State Symphony Orchestra and the City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra—is very effective at conveying and stirring up emotions.

Even though the real-life Mardiganian experienced the worst of humanity, what’s hopeful about her story is that she also experienced the best of humanity from some people who helped her get out of her horrible situations. One of these compassionate people is American socialite/philanthropist named Mrs. Harriman (played by Tamara Iskandaryan and voiced by Sara Anjargolian), who is based on the real-life Mrs. Oliver Harriman, also known as Grace Carley Harriman. “Aurora’s Sunrise” is also an admirable cinematic testimonial to how someone can find inner strength in the midst of tragedy.

Bars Media Films released “Aurora’s Sunrise” in New York City on August 11, 2023, in Los Angeles on August 18, 2023, and in Toronto on September 1, 2023.

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