One of contemporary cinema’s most distinctive auteur figures, Atom Egoyan’s work blends detachment and compassion to explore identity and alienation, familial and personal dysfunction, mildly intimidating bureaucratic figures and the wider spectrum of sexuality and sexual peccadilloes.
Born to Armenian refugees in Cairo but relocated at an early age to Victoria, British Columbia, Egoyan initially grew up consciously rejecting his own ethnicity in favour of assimilation into his adopted culture. It was this experience that would later come to exert a profound influence over his work and thinking. Feted at international film festivals, Egoyan remained very much a voice of the underground until The Sweet Hereafter (1997), an adaptation of the novel by Russell Banks that earned him two Academy Award nominations. Wider recognition followed but the director continued to plough his own independent furrow, balancing higher profile assignments including Where the Truth Lies (2005), starring Colin Firth and Kevin Bacon, with uniquely personal works such as Ararat (2002), an explicit examination of his Armenian ancestry, and the controversial Adoration (2008).
Egoyan, who has more recently come to explore other disciplines, including opera and installation pieces, has also completed video diary-type exercises with the relatively little seen Citadel (2003), a thematic and aesthetic companion piece to the earlier Calendar (1993), in which the director charts his wife’s emotional return to Lebanon. As one would expect with Egoyan, in the film nothing is what it seems.
Citadel is the sole film to have escaped Artificial Eye’s extensive reissuing of Egoyan’s entire catalogue, which runs from his debut feature Next of Kin (1984) up to and including The Sweet Hereafter. Calendar and the brilliantly unsettling The Adjuster (1991), in which emotions and relationships are totted up by an insurance adjuster and ascribed their worth, enjoyed brief theatrical outings, but save for the most ardent Egoyan admirer many of these films have remained written about but rarely seen in the UK. As a collection of work, what is most readily apparent is how they all interrelate. A natural technical progression aside, the films form a kind of esoteric jigsaw puzzle, in which a whole picture only clearly forms once all of the pieces have been assembled and locked together. This sense of connectivity is further enhanced by the recurrence of a regular repertory group of actors including Arsinée Khanjian, Don McKellar, David Hemblen, Maury Chaykin and Elias Koteas. Moreover, Egoyan has also formed tight-knit technical collaborations with editor Susan Shipton, cinematographer Paul Sarossy and composer Mychael Danna, all of whom feature on the director’s most recent feature, The Devil’s Knot (2013).
As well as frequently dealing with estrangement and isolation, and characters who are to some degree straining to recapture something that has been lost (a perished child, a relationship, a sense of innocence), Egoyan’s work is also marked, both visually and thematically, by a consistent exploration of the manner in which personal experience is mediated and manipulated by digital or video technology. In Family Viewing (1987), a son discovers that his father is taping over old family videos with new footage of him fucking. ‘He likes to record,’ comments another Egoyan regular, Gabrielle Rose. ‘And erase,’ responds the emotionally vulnerable son. ‘Mostly he likes to erase’.
I’ve known Egoyan since I first interviewed him for a film I was making about him and have been fortunate enough to maintain contact with him. I have written, and attempted to write, about the director’s formative features many times and it has long been my ambition to make his early features available in the UK. Now that they are, I thought it would be more interesting to have Egoyan’s own perspective and so I asked him to give his own reflection on these early works and what they mean to him. Below is his response.
“I never went to film school. My first attempt at making a film, a short called Howard in Particular (1979), was made when a campus drama society rejected a short play I had written. I was studying International Relations at the time, with vague hopes of becoming a diplomat. The moment my play was rejected, I made the very diplomatic move of finding a practical alternative. I went across the hall to the film club and found some other students who helped transform this short play into a movie.
From the moment I started making this short, I became aware that the film camera – in this case a spring-wound Bolex – could transform itself into an absent character watching the drama. The eyes of the camera became the eyes of an unseen presence observing the people and events it was recording. While this now seems like a rather obvious phenomenon, it struck me at the time as a revelation. It was like discovering electricity, or that the world wasn’t flat. I felt that I had created an entirely new artistic language. Again, I hadn’t gone to film school. There was no one there to tell me that I wasn’t inventing the wheel.
When I now reflect on this time in my late teens and early 20s, I’m thankful for this cinephilic ignorance. Believing that I was the first person to explore this uncharted territory gave me the motivation to carry on. If I was the first person to think of the camera as a character, then I had a duty to go further, to make this character of the camera go deep into my own experiences as an immigrant negotiating a new culture, and finding the route towards assimilation.
In this way, my first feature Next of Kin came into being. The first part of the film finds the camera on tripods and tracks, coolly recording the domestic events of its protagonist Peter Foster. We see Peter at home, in an airport, and – most significantly – at a clinic for family therapy. His therapy sessions with his parents are being recorded, with the idea that individual members of the family can watch these tapes later to discern and analyse their behaviour. One day, Peter is accidently given the tape of another family, and his life is transformed as he watches the therapist work with this troubled immigrant family.
At one point, the therapist suggests that Peter pretend that he is this family’s missing son. As he begins this impersonation, the video camera recording this session magically lifts off of its tripod and becomes handheld. I wanted the effect of seeing that the actual spirit of the missing son was suddenly released, and from there on everything in the film would become handheld as Peter – inspired by the therapist – finds a way of insinuating himself into this immigrant family.
As Peter records his experiences in a diary, I became aware of another important element in my early fascination with film. My characters were living in a time when they had the ability to record their feelings and – with ever-greater facility – share these feelings and transmit them to others. This obsession with technology and media as a way of both enhancing and perhaps trivialising our engagement with others (and with ourselves) became the subject of my next feature, Family Viewing and was further explored in Speaking Parts (1989).
Both of these films were obsessed with a culture of recording. While 8mm home movies had been around for decades, the advent of videotape made it possible to film domestic events cheaply. As a filmmaker, I was fascinated by the way the characters in the films could be faced with the same issues I was exploring as a filmmaker: concepts around recording and projecting behaviour. While these early features all explored different themes (family and identity, romantic love, the transmission of culture), they stimulate a common feeling in the viewer. In each of these films, one remains very aware of the act of watching a film. While the behaviour of the characters is at times ‘naturalistic’, there is a sense that everyone in these films is somehow aware that they are being watched.
While this gives these early features a deliberate sense of self-consciousness, it also affords a mordant sense of pleasure in recognising our own role as observers. The ‘family viewing’ is that private moment when relatives can spend final moments with a deceased beloved in a funeral home. At the same time, ‘family viewing’ is a label that discerns a film can be watched by all. This unexpected alchemy between intimacy and display is at the core of these particular works.”