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.

Christian Bale, Oscar Isaac and ‘The Promise’ team tell a story of love amid the atrocities of war

April 21, 2017

by Carla Hay

Christian Bale, Terry George and Oscar Isaac at the New York City press conference for "The Promise"
Christian Bale, Terry George and Oscar Isaac at the New York City press conference for “The Promise” (Photo by Carla Hay)

The World War II-era drama “The Promise”  (directed by Terry George) tells a story of a love triangle amid the atrocities of innocent civilians being murdered and families ripped apart. At the heart of the movie is the portrayal of a controversial question: Did the Ottoman Empire commit genocide of about 1 million Armenians living in Turkey during this period of time? The answer is an unequivocal “yes,” according to this movie, even though the Turkish government officially denies that a genocide existed.

In “The Promise,” Oscar Isaac plays Michael Boghosian, an Armenian medical student in Turkey, who falls in love with an Armenian artist named Ana (played by Charlotte Le Bon), but he is obligated to marry a local woman named Maral (played by Angela Sarafyan). Ana has also enchanted American photojournalist Chris Myers (played by Christian Bale), who has traveled to Turkey with Ana after the sudden death of her father. As the war increasingly ravages the Turkish communities, the romantic rivalry is put to the test as Michael, Ana and Chris find themselves depending on each other for survival as they try to flee the country with other refugees.

Although there may be conflicting opinions on the historical accuracy of how the war is depicted in the “The Promise,” the cast and filmmakers feel passionately that it is based on a true story that must be told. The making of “The Promise” is prominently featured in the Joe Berlinger-directed documentary “Intent to Destroy: Death, Denial & Depiction,” which was scheduled to have its world premiere at the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival the week after “The Promise” arrived in U.S. theaters. Here is what Bale, Isaac, Le Bon, George, Sarafyan, James Cromwell (who plays U.S. Ambassador Morganthau) and producers Mike Medavoy, Eric Esrailian said during a New York City press conference for “The Promise.”

To the actors, why did you decide to make this movie, and what kind of approach did you take to your role?

Isaac: For me, to my shame, I didn’t know about the Armenian genocide before I got the script and spoke with Terry [George]. So it was new to me. And to read about that, to read that 1.5 [million] Armenians perished at the hands of their own government was horrifying and that the world did nothing. And not only that, but to this day it’s so little-known, there’s active denial of it. So that really was a big part of it. Also the cast that they put together. And then to learn that 100 percent of the proceeds would go to charity was just an extraordinary thing to be a part of.

My approach was to read as much as I could to try to immerse myself in the history of the time. And also, in L.A, there’s a small museum that a few of us got to go to and see some stuff. And then, for me, I think the biggest help was I had these videos and recordings of survivors that would recount the things that they witnessed as little boys and children. Whether it was seeing their grandmothers bayoneted by the gendarmes or their mothers and sisters sometimes crucified—horrible atrocities and to hear them recounted with, almost they would sound like they had regressed to those little kids again, and that was heartbreaking. So I did feel some responsibility to try to tell their story.

Bale: And for me, continuing off what Oscar was saying, he was talking about the documentaries where you would see survivors talking about these horrific experiences that they’d seen their loved ones, families that had been very barbarically killed. And to try to get into that mindset, to try in a very small way to understand the pain that they must have gone through, and the fact that people were telling them they were lying about what had happened. And they had witnessed it with their own eyes, had all of that emotion, but there were people who refused to call it what it is—a genocide. There are still people who refuse to call it that. We have yet to have any sitting U.S. president call it a genocide. Obama did before, but not during [his presidency]. The Pope did, recently. But it’s this great unknown genocide, and the lack of consequence may well have provoked other genocides that have happened since.

And, for me, it became startlingly relevant because as I was reading the script—and in the same way as Oscar was learning about the Armenian genocide as I reading this–embarrassingly, but I think we’re in the same boat as many people—I’m reading about Musa Dagh, Armenians who were being slaughtered under siege on this mountain, and I’m watching on the news and it was the Yazidis under siege, being slaughtered by ISIS. And just thinking this is so relevant. And so tragically, it’s very sad that it is still relevant.

Charlotte Le Bon, Oscar Isaac and Christian Bale in “The Promise” (Photo by Jose Haro)

Le Bon: I did a lot of research as well, which is by watching documentaries. I talked to Armenian friends I have in France, just to get their take on the story and their battle stories. Also, as Christian was saying, a couple of months before the shooting, I was in Greece on a holiday. I was on Lesbos Island, which is the door to Europe through Turkey. It was the beginning of the massive arrival of refugees. They were coming, like a thousand per day. It was really impressive.

And I just remember being in the car and watching hundreds and hundreds of people walking on the street, trying to reach the capital of the island. It was really, really moving to see that. The only thing I could do is give them bottles of water. I didn’t really know what to do. And a couple of months later, I was on set [for “The Promise”] recreating the exact same scene that I saw a couple of months before.

Sarafyan: I had known about the Armenian genocide because I grew up hearing stories from my grandparents, the stories they had heard from their parents about their grandparents. So doing this film was very, very close to my heart because it was a chance for me to give some light to that world in a very different way. It’s never existed on film; it’s a very controversial issue.

So what I got to do was really look at the time and look at what it must have been like to live in that time. The simplicity of what that village was and kind of survival and the romanticism of living in a small place. And learning how people survived within the atrocity. I didn’t really have to go through some of the horrendous things that you see, but I loved being able to kind of investigate that simple life. And I read more, because Terry had introduced so many books and scripts and a lot material on it. So that was it, getting more information.

Christian Bale and Oscar Isaac in “The Promise” (Photo by Jose Haro)

Did the Turkish government give you any problems?

George: I had a very healthy exchange with a Turkish journalist in L.A., a representative of the Hollywood Foreign Press, who presented that the Turkish perspective is that the genocide didn’t happen, that it was a war and bad things happen and lots of people died on both sides. I pointed out to him that that’s exactly true, but in the case of the Armenians, it was their own government who was killing them. So we talked about that.

And you know, we had this thing where IMDb was hijacked, we had the sudden appearance of “The Ottoman Lieutenant” movie four weeks ago that was like the reverse-mirror-image of this film, right down to the storyline. And there’s a particular nervousness in Europe about the film and about the current situation … But our idea, as always with any of these subjects, get it out there, let some air in, let’s discuss the thing. I’d be more than willing to sit down with any representative of any Turkish organization and talk this out in terms of our different perspectives and present our perspective on it. So we want to bring air to the subject rather than hide away and deny that it happened or that one side is right or the other side is wrong. Let’s have this discussion.

Bale: Maybe I shouldn’t say this. but don’t you think also though that’s there’s kind of a false debate been created, a bit like climate change, you know? As though like there’s as strong evidence on one side as on the other? There isn’t. There isn’t as strong of an argument. And then similarly with this. The evidence just backs up the fact that it was a genocide.

George: The Turkish journalist’s perspective was, “Let’s have a convention about this and everyone sit down [to discuss this].” Yeah, but the evidence has been shredded. Clearly, most Europeans’ and historians’ perspective—and the world recognizes—that it was a genocide. Almost every government that isn’t swayed by Turkish strategic position recognizes that it was a genocide. So this, “Let’s sit down and figure out what’s going on”—it’s a bit late, guys. The world acknowledged what took place. Find a way toward reconciliation … because until this issue is not resolved but [reached] a reconciliation, there can’t be any real peace in that area.

Esrailian: The perpetrator of the atrocities tried to force their victims or the descendants of victims to litigate and relive and try to essentially validate the crime. As Christian said, trying to introduce doubt is like the fly in the ointment—it’s a smokescreen to try and confuse people and distract them from what’s actually happening. Denial is one of the final phases of genocide.

Oscar Isaac (center) in “The Promise” (Photo by Jose Haro)

Why do you think it’s taken this long to make a mainstream feature film about the Armenian genocide?

George: There were two attempts: one in the 1930s and then again with Sylvester Stallone producing it in the ‘70s. And on both occasions, the Turkish authorities intervened with the studio and the State Department, and the project collapsed under the weight of that intervention.

Now, because of our funding through Kirk Kerkorian and Survival Pictures and so forth, we were immune from that level of interference. And I think that’s why not only films not being made, but the subject being one of the great unknown catastrophes of the 20th century.

The Turkish government has created this “O.J.” syndrome, where the whole country now believes that they didn’t do it, in terms of genocide. And when you perpetuate that over a century, then it becomes a reality in and of itself. We’re dealing with a very successful campaign by successive Turkish governments.

James Cromwell, an unidentified guest, Eric Esrailian, Charlotte Le Bon, Angela Sarafyan, Terry George, Christian Bale, Chris Cornell and Shohreh Aghdashloo at the Los Angeles premiere of “The Promise” at TCL Chinese Theatre on April 12, 2017. (Photo by Eric Charbonneau/Invision for Open Road Films/AP Images)

Medavoy: I’ve been around Hollywood a long time, as you all know, and I don’t know that I’ve ever got presented doing a film about the genocide. It’s interesting to me when we went into this project and it was first suggested that we do it, my first thought was, “How do you tell this story and make it so that everybody would want to see it?”

The Jewish story has been told many times. I’m Jewish and an immigrant to this country. I was born in China to Russian parents who escaped Russia and went to China during World War II [while China was] occupied by the Japanese. And then [we] moved to Chile and then America.

This is a universal story, but it’s a story. It’s a movie. Let’s not lose sight of that, because we’re not trying to make a political statement that isn’t obvious … When we first talked about it, my reference point was “Dr. Zhivago.” You may or may not think “Dr. Zhivago” is a great movie. The story is what I was attracted to. I think we captured that.

I think the actors did a great job in capturing their characters, and I think that’s what they were hired to do, that’s what they wanted to do. It wasn’t like they came there and someone said to them, “We’re going to tell this story because politically, it’s the right thing to do.” When they did they did the film, they got the fact that it’s a movie, that they’re actors. That’s what’s important. And when you frame the story, that’s what’s important too.

Oscar Isaac and Charlotte Le Bon in “The Promise” (Photo by Jose Haro)

Was there a scene in “The Promise” that particularly moved you?

Bale: Terry and Survival Pictures decided not to show the full extent of the barbarity of the violence that was enacted during the genocide. There were multiple reasons for that that I’ll let Terry explain. But there was one scene where Michael, Oscar’s character, he sees many of his family members and also members of his home town who have been slaughtered on the river. That was a very emotional one I think for many people that day. Also seeing Armenians who were directly connected, or had family members who knew that their origins had come—that their families had gone through that previously—that was a very affecting day for I think for every single one of us on the film.

George: A lot of the scenes, I took from original photographs … Just as I did on “Hotel Rwanda,” I was determined that this be a PG-13 film—that teenagers, schools, people who might be squeamish about the notion of seeing an R-rated genocide movie, that the horror be psychological. And that put the burden—and carried magnificently by both Oscar and Christian on that scene—the horror of the genocide is told through how Oscar conveyed those moments of what he found in his face. We shot that scene just when that little Kurdi boy, the Syrian refugee washed up on the shore in Greece … But the whole methodology of letting the psychology of the genocide fell on these actors … And that’s what I’m most proud of—that we conveyed the horror of genocide without having to hit people on the head with the blood and gore of it.

Isaac: That scene was why I wanted to do the film, because similarly, every time I would read the script, it would impact me in very deeply. And also [when] shooting [the movie], knowing that moment was going to come, that it was going to fall on us and our reactions to convey that. There was a challenge there, but for me, it wasn’t the most challenging scene physically. It was a wild shoot …

You can’t separate yourself from politics totally. It is a political act sometime. Just telling a story can be a political act as well. There was something very liberating about that and feeling it was a communal moment with everybody. We all kind of mourned together through the act of imitation. But also there was stuff in the [water] tank. We had to do a lot of underwater shooting, and that was difficult, especially with the fake beard. Those were some challenging scene.

Christian Bale and Charlotte Le Bon in “The Promise” (Photo by Jose Haro)

Christian, your character in “The Promise” is a journalist who experiences being questioning over his reporting. Did the relevance of that today go through your mind?

Bale: Yeah, of course I mean that was sort of developing during filming and then obviously has become much more present in the news. What are we calling it now? “Post-truth” era? Just how important it is to have a free press for any democracy. So yeah, that’s another aspect of the film that’s become much more relevant.

What are your thoughts on the Web hijacking of “The Promise” on IMDb and Rotten Tomatoes?

George: You know, it can’t have been 50,000 individuals decided, after we had two screenings in Toronto, to [rate] us 1 out of 10. Seems like a miraculously spontaneous thing to happen. So I definitely think that was a bot, or a series of bots that were switched on.

Then we had the contrary reaction from, which I genuinely think was 25,000 votes from the Armenian community—because we didn’t have a bot going—voting 10 out 10. It brought in to highlight the whole question of, not only IMDb, Rotten Tomatoes, just the whole question of manipulating the internet, and manipulating reviews and people being swayed by that. And it’s a whole new world.

Charlotte Le Bon and Christian Bale in “The Promise” (Photo by Jose Haro)

For any of the actors, can you talk about any of the unsung heroes that you found out about in your research? Can you also talk about how this movie may have changed your outlook on specific causes you’d want to support as a person?

Bale: There’s Aurora Mardiganian, she’s a real Armenian national hero…who the award is named after as well, who’s a phenomenal woman who went through real tragic circumstances but came through and told her story with film as early as 1919. She was phenomenal. I mean talk about a fierce, strong woman who overcame phenomenal tragedy. She was very inspiring.

Cromwell: I think Morganthau is pretty impressive, I didn’t know anything about him when I started. And also you can’t leave out the fact that there were consular officers all over Anatolia who were also sending briefs back to Washington. And that’s one of the reasons that we have the record that we have. Morganthau’s biography, his memoirs and these reports which were eyewitness reports.

It strikes me as amazing that today there are no people with that sort of moral outrage as part of our state department. There are ambassadors to Yemen, there are ambassadors to Sudan and Somalia and Assyria and Libya and you hear nothing. No one stands up for the people who are being oppressed all over the world now as far as taking responsibility in the way Morganthau took responsibility. Wilson was supportive, but not the legislature, not congress. Congress was against him. And after [Woodrow] Wilson, [Herbert] Hoover was very much against him, against supporting his work and against establishing the Armenian state.

So as far as a cause is concerned, it just shows us that at the top, down to the average citizen, we have been so desensitized to the suffering of people, that we cannot recognize ourselves in the other, which is one of the reasons you do a film like this. That it has a narrative at the core, so that the audience can come in and feel what other people feel. And that by doing that you do what Shakespeare said: “Hold a mirror up to nature, to show virtue her own feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure.” That’s what we do.

Sarafyan: For me personally, it would be in my family, the orphans really. Because all of my, I guess great great great grandparents were orphaned. They didn’t have parents left, they were all taken away. So the mere fact that they were able to survive and then able to kind of form families. One of them fled to Aleppo actually to start a family in Syria, and it seems like it’s coming full circle with people today fleeing from Syria to find refuge in other countries. So I find them personally as heroes in my own life.

And the mere fact that they were able to survive, form families, have a sane mind, because I think that kind of trauma changes you genetically. So I guess they really would be the heroes and for me doing the film was kind of continuing that legacy and making it kind of live forever. Instead of it just being a story that was told, it kind of lives in cinema and it will be an experience for people to watch and have as their own.

Check out these clips and additional footage.

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