The Armenian Stars of the Canadian Cultural Universe

Originally published in AGBU News magazine (March 2000)

Atom Egoyan and Arsinée Khanjian: Canada’s Premier Couple of the Arts

Atom Egoyan directing his film Felicia’s Journey with the author William Trevor.

At the forefront is cinematic superstar Atom Egoyan. Interviewing Egoyan is like stepping into one of his films. As the light of the tape recorder flashes the discussion is filled with pregnant pauses and frequent segues. After three awards at Cannes, two U.S. Academy Award nominations and accolades from most international festivals, he continues to be known for his subconscious strain of cinema.

Egoyanesque has become a word to film aficionados, commonly understood to mean a cinematic moment that examines sexuality, technology and alienation in the modern world.

Egoyan and his actor wife Arsinée Khanjian have become what one reporter termed, Canadian Reel Royalty. When the couple attended the 1997 Academy Awards ceremony in Hollywood, Canadians felt their culture was beginning to receive the attention it rightfully deserved.

Arsinée Khanjian in the film Calendar by Atom Egoyan.

Born in Cairo, where his parents met in art college, he moved to Victoria, British Columbia in 1962 with his family, away from all the established Armenian-Canadian communities.

“During my childhood I was desperate to assimilate. In Victoria, I wanted to be like the other kids. They used to call me the little Arab boy because I was a little darker, had a strange name and came from Egypt. It wasn’t until adolescence that I realized something had been lost in my life,” Egoyan says.

Inspired by his artistic parents, Egoyan fostered his interest in theatre at a young age and began to write plays at age ten. He moved to Toronto in the late seventies to study International Relations at the University of Toronto, but continued to work in theatre.

“When in Toronto, I experienced an Armenian community for the first time. Armenian student activism became a part of my life,” he says.

Fortunately for him, his college seemed unresponsive to his interest in mounting his plays so he began making films instead. After completing a series of edgy short experimental films he started working on his first feature, Next of Kin.

The small budget film describes the story of a young man who masquerades as the prodigal son of a Toronto Armenian family. In retrospect, the film seems to reveal some of Egoyan’s own anxieties emerging from the Anglophile city of Victoria to the bustling metropolis of Toronto. He would meet his cinematic muse and future wife, Arsinée Khanjian, while casting actors for that film in Montreal.

In contrast, Khanjian was born in Beirut and moved to the heart of Montreal’s Armenian community at the age of seventeen. She remembers her shock when she first saw the young director, “In 1984, Atom arrived in a beige tweed suit. He didn’t speak Armenian and he was a director. I was fascinated by this new species of man. He was the first man from the community who I met that was a full-time artist.”

She was cast in the film and moved to Toronto, leaving her failing marriage of five years and Montreal forever. “I moved to Toronto knowing no one and having only a practical grasp of English but I knew I wouldn’t return. When we were shooting Next of Kin we would talk afterwards. For him it was ironic to meet someone from the Armenian community with whom he had so much in common,” she says.

Khanjian and Egoyan both arrived in Toronto during a period when the city was transformed by massive foreign immigration and the migration of English-speaking Montrealers from Quebec. Soon, the couple would go on to collaborate on Egoyan’s early video-obsessed features like, Family Viewing and Speaking Parts and later his more mainstream films, The Adjuster, Exotica and his most popular film to date, The Sweet Hereafter–for which he received an Oscar nomination for best director and best screenplay adaptation.

“The most enduring impression I have of Oscar night is seeing all these people in the auditorium and then seeing Cher and introducing myself. She looked at me and said, ‘Inch bes es,’ and I was amazed. It was an amazing weekend,” he says and then admits he knew he wouldn’t walk away with the golden statuette. “As much as you know that Titanic is going to win, you think you might walk away with an Oscar. So you feel like a king. During that weekend you’re leading this other life. You get access to any party, you get a car, and it’s great fun.”

The director has never shied away from his Armenian heritage and last year when a Member of Canadian Parliament, with strong ties to the Turkish lobby, made erroneous remarks about the events of 1915 Egoyan responded in the national media, “I was infuriated that a member of my government would say something like that. I live in this country pretending like it has already been accepted as fact.” His films also explore the rich experiences of Armenian identity. Shot in Armenia, Calendar is Egoyan’s most personal film. “It uses an experimental form to chronicle the levels of Armenian consciousness and it does so through the prism of my relationship with Arsinée,” he says. “I saw Calendar the other day and I’m really quite proud of that film, it’s quite unique. It’s almost embarrassingly personal, regarding my worst fears of myself and what might happen to our relationship.”

Some have also recognized overtones of the Genocide in The Sweet Hereafter . The film, based on Russell Bank’s novel of the same name, tells the story of a fatal bus accident that traumatizes a small British Columbia town — a subconscious allusion to the Armenian community’s own unhealed wounds of Genocide and Turkish denial, critics have suggested.

Always preferring to forge his own path independent of Hollywood, Egoyan has also proven that he is the master of many mediums. Equally at ease in opera, television or cinema, his 1996 production of Richard Strauss’ seminal opera Salomé used projected video imagery and capitalized on the story’s sordid sexuality. He has been invited to Houston, London, Ottawa and Vancouver to direct other operatic performances.

Khanjian has herself been establishing an international reputation independent of her superstar husband. She works extensively in France, where her celebrity has long been recognized, and has appeared in Jean-Pierre Lefebre’s La Boîte à Soleil, Marilu Mallet’s Rue de la Mémoire, and numerous films by Olivier Assayas, including his contemporary classic, Irma Vep.

In Irma Vep, she plays the role of an American who, while reclining naked on her bed and whispering on the phone to her lover in Los Angeles, is unaware of a thief stealing her jewelry in an adjacent room. Khanjian says it was a strenuous experience that forced her to confront one of her greatest fears by acting in the nude.

When Assayas called her she accepted reluctantly, “I don’t know why he chose me, so when I went out to dinner with him in Paris I told him, ‘I don’t know if you realize that my body is not what would be considered a perfect body.’ Olivier interrupted and said, ‘I know what I’m doing.’ ”

Why has she received a great deal of attention in France? She answers, “I’m not sure but it is a culture I can appreciate and project into. It is an auteur cinema culture and they follow Atom’s career very closely. I feel like I am a fantasy from abroad for them and I speak fluent French. I think they perceive me as a persona that spans the ancient to the modern. I am different from many French actresses because I am from an ancient culture and still in the present.”

Last year, Khanjian undertook her most ambitious project with another Canadian director, Ken Finkleman, in a dramatic TV mini-series, Foolish Heart. To accommodate her the director altered this complex story that weaves together the emotional lives of all its protagonists. Originally written as a Hispanic immigrant with an at-risk son, Khanjian helped remodel the character so that it would conform to Armenian-Canadian realities.

The second episode centers on Khanjian’s character, Lena, and her adaptation to the foreign Canadian culture. It was the first prime time national broadcast predominantly in Armenian and, ironically, her first professional work in her mother tongue.

HRANT ALIANAK Pioneer of the Canadian Theatre

Hrant Alianak, Producer, Actor, Writer.

Before Egoyan and Khanjian, there was another Armenian pioneer, Hrant Alianak (who Egoyan admits was his idol during his youth). While many ethnic groups arrive in Toronto without an established theatre tradition, Alianak has done a formidable job of reaching out to the city’s Armenians–trying to lure them to productions. He produced Richard Kalinoski’s post-Genocide immigrant play Beast on the Moon in 1997 and was surprised by the response.

“When Beast on the Moon came across my desk, I thought I should do it. During the run I realized that the majority of my audience was from the Armenian community. So when The Hats of Zenobe [about the life of outsider artist Vahan Poladian] came my way, Armenians were responsive again. I decided that my non-profit company, Alianak Theatre Productions, would produce at least one Armenian-related play every two years because they break even and I can raise the money through the Armenian community. They’ve been wonderful about their support,” he says.

In 1967, Alianak arrived in Montreal from Sudan and a year later his family settled in Toronto. In his adopted city, he worked as a postman and moonlighted as a student of theater at a local university. He would soon join the booming Toronto theatre scene.

“I was one of the pioneers. There were few theatres and I arrived on the scene when people were only starting to write Canadian plays. In the eighties there was a big boom, then government funding for the arts bottomed out. But, now there’s a lot of talent and the theatre community is huge,” he explains.

His early theatric successes included the so-called Gangster Trilogy (Night, Passion & Sin and Lucky Strike ). During the eighties he would go on to act in many projects including numerous Egoyan films and write numerous screenplays. Beginning in the nineties he has discovered a new interest, “I decided ‘enough is enough’ and I started producing my own work.”

Alianak is mounting two new plays this year but continues to plan for the future, “I actually have a new play in development right now, we are going to do a workshop of it this year and present it in the fall of 2001. Arsinée [Khanjian] is involved and it’s called The Georgetown Boys. It’s perfect because it’s a Canadian story as much as an Armenian story.

“I started [in Canadian theatre] as the only Armenian and then Atom came and now there’s a new breed of Armenian actors and directors out there,” he says.

ARTO PARAGAMIAN and GARINÉ TOROSSIAN Taking notice of a Younger Generation

Among the new wave are director Arto Paragamian and experimental filmmaker Gariné Torossian. Being a male Armenian-Canadian director can be difficult under the shadow of Egoyan, but as independent director Arto Paragamian coyly points out, “We both deal with issues of alienation but we do have different glasses.”

Born and raised in Montreal, he studied film during his university years. “The first day, as part of a class project, I was chosen as director and I’ve been one ever since. It was natural for me and I never felt burdened by it,” he says.

His first film, Because Why , is an existentialist satire about a group of friends in Montreal. The film was well received in Canada and Scandinavia and utilizes a dry comedic tone he attributes to his heritage.

“I feel the Armenianness comes out as irony in a humorous way that is reflected in my films,” he says. Equally at ease in French or English, he was asked to join a stable of young Quebec directors to collaborate on Cosmos in 1997, which toured internationally and won many awards.

Always an iconoclast, his latest project, starring Hollywood actor, writer and director John Turturro, Two Thousand and None is a comedy about death. He hopes that it will be his breakthrough to a wider cinematic audience and distributors all over Europe have already signed contracts.

Another unique talent, Gariné Torossian, was born in Beirut in 1970 and permanently settled in Toronto in 1979, where she continues to work.

“At first Canada appeared cold and distant. I went to school not knowing the language, which was very difficult. My experience in Toronto only changed when I discovered photography in grade ten. I later felt limited by the still image and started using a friend’s college library card to borrow a video camera and began taping myself. I then discovered Super 8 and started breaking down images and I continued from there,” she explains.

“My early films, like Girl From Moush and My Own Obsession , are very much a woman’s point of view, what goes on in a girl when she is discovering her sexuality and growing up wanting to break free of the conventions. I didn’t realize my films were experimental until people told me. It felt intuitive.” It is unusual for such a young director to have been shown at the Pompidou Center in Paris, given a retrospective as part of the Cineprobe series at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and this year she received an award at the Berlin Film Festival from the New York Film Academy for her latest short, Sparklehorse.

Respected by many senior directors, including Egoyan, last year she was voted by a national magazine as one of the ten up-and-coming young Canadians. She is appreciative of the support Canada has given her, “Though in some ways I find I still don’t belong here, I think there will always be Canada in my life. Right now it’s the best place to be.”

Maestros RAFFI ARMENIAN and NURHAN ARMAN

Conductors Raffi Armenian and Nurhan Arman have enjoyed major success on the Canadian scene. As an active Armenian presence in classical music and opera they have been part of the cultural landscape for decades.

Armenian arrived in Canada in 1969 after studying music in Vienna. He became the Artistic Director of the fledgling Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony in southern Ontario and in two decades made it into one of the outstanding orchestras in the country. He even helped design a new concert hall in the city that would bear his name.

After dozens of CD’s, an Emmy Award nomination, numerous Canadian awards and his investment as a Member of the Order of Canada he continues to teach at the Conservatoire de Musique in Montreal and the University of Toronto. He has been welcomed in orchestras internationally and his music was even used by Woody Allen in his 1992 film, Shadows and Fog.

The younger Arman is originally from Istanbul and arrived in 1982 to become the Music Director of the North Bay Symphony in northern Ontario. From there he became a Visiting Instructor at the Royal Conservatory in Toronto and later became Music Director of the Symphony New Brunswick in eastern Canada.

In 1993, his talent was recognized by his homeland when he was appointed Principal Guest Conductor of the Yerevan Symphony Orchestra. He warmly remembers his experiences in Armenia during the winter of ’93 when the country confronted power shortages for the first time, but it didn’t deter the national love of classical music and audiences filled the theatre. Arman remembers that the musicians found it hard to practice with cold hands, and while the Parliament buildings were cold the Symphony Hall was the only heated building in the city.

Today he works with the Sinfonia Toronto and has learned to appreciate and cherish the love of music he believes is an integral part of Armenian culture. Coincidently, his son Stepan along with 18 year-old Catherine Manoukian are up and coming violin virtuosos of the first rank.

Diva ISABEL BAYRAKDARIAN In opera, the Armenian community boasts Aline Kutan, who has long enjoyed a solid national reputation, and now young diva Isabel Bayrakdarian is fast emerging as a future superstar.

Born in Zahlé, Lebanon, she arrived in Canada at the age of 15 and settled with her family in Toronto. While studying engineering, she enrolled at a local conservatory to improve her singing in the Armenian church choir, something she has done since childhood. She soon won the 1997 Metropolitan Opera Council auditions while finishing her Engineering thesis–it was her first ever performance on an opera stage.

Always placing a high value on education, only after finishing her undergraduate degree did she become serious about her singing career. She has been fortunate to develop a close relationship with acclaimed mezzo-soprano Marilyn Horne, with whom she studied for two years in California. Now 25, she remains in Toronto and continues to develop an international presence performing both in Europe and America.

The constellation of stars and talent that have gathered in Canada have created one of the most vibrant and accomplished artistic communities of the Diaspora. Comfortable in both Armenian and Canadian cultures they continue to explore the limits and futures of their creativity.

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