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Aurora’s Sunrise

Filthy genius documentary offers very some harrowing and compelling insight into the Armenian Genocide of 1915, and it's on animation - from the 31st Raindance Film Festival

Armenia’s official submission for the Oscars in the Best International Feature category is one of extreme significance, fantastic creativity, and unbelievable star quality. Aurora’s Sunrise is a hybrid film in every sense of the word; a documentary in nature but one that is structured with exquisite animation, harrowing silent film footage, and topped off with a detailed interview that features one of the bravest female protagonists in cinema history. Although it’s incredibly unique, it strikes a similar tone to that of 2021’s outstanding Flee (Jonas Poher Rasmussen, 2021), with its adult-like animation and crushingly real story, but it differs in that it spreads its wings just that little bit more, and the result is simply a cinematic marvel.

Inna Sahakyan’s documentary film focuses on the travesties of the Armenian genocide in the early 20th century, while exploring the story of a woman with unquestionable strength who was forced to live through unparalleled dread and came out clean on the other side. Aurora Mardiganian’s idyllic little life with her family was shattered when she was 14 years old, and her country was invaded and brutally massacred by the Turks. She was now faced with the perils of losing her family, being at the mercy of barbarian savages, and used as a pleasure toy by anyone and everyone, but Aurora never lost hope of the situation that was forced upon her. The road to a better life led her to the land of opportunity with her life story becoming a Hollywood film called Auction of Souls (which is the archival film footage seen throughout), a project that resulted in extremely positive coverage of her country’s struggle, but one that also stunk of Hollywood greed and manipulation.

Aurora’s interview at the end of her life perfectly marries up with the animation of her journey; every step we take with this woman results in so much pain and suffering, and yet, remarkably, she seems as strong-willed and determined as she ever has been. Her final port of call was a life of absolute obscurity and to be simply forgotten about – this woman’s fate had long been sealed, but her unforgettable sacrifice resulted in so much good for her fellow Armenians.

We know that the story itself is about as devastating as it gets, and what makes this travesty even worse is the denial from the Turks, even to this day – to even fathom this level of audacity is something that makes you quiver. On the plus side though, there are now 33 countries that have fully recognised the events as they happened, which is a wonderful level of support for this tiny landlocked country – but to get to this point, the journey was truly arduous. The film does a fantastic job in not shying away from portraying the atrocities in their full horror, and nor should it have, and this high level of representation couldn’t have been achieved without such varied levels of storytelling.

Away from the travesties that affected this country though, there is a rather special individual to focus on and to understand how unbelievable Aurora’s story actually was, needs a few seconds of quiet contemplation. It’s a story that is almost too hard to believe: how many people out there have had a Hollywood film made about them? Especially a young girl who has just escaped a war-torn Armenia and now finds herself alone in this gigantic United States of America. When three different forms of artistic direction combine to explore the depth of one story, it creates a very inventive amalgamation of the highest quality: a perfectly constructed piece of art that should be admired and cherished, one that educates as well as it entertains.

Aurora’s Sunrise has been stitched together by some of the most talented Lithuanian illustrators around, and it offers this team a platform to showcase their outstanding balancing skills, firmly asserting Baltic creatives back on the map with an authoritative presence. It is about as powerful as a film can be. And one of the best and most thought-provoking documentaries I’ve ever seen. Anything other than the top prize in the Baltic Film Competition at this year’s festival (or the Oscars for that matter) would be an absolute travesty.

Aurora’s Sunrise premiered in the Baltic Competition of the 26th Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival, when this piece was originally written. Its UK premiere takes place at the 31st Raindance Film Festival, which takes place between October 25th and November 4th (2023).

By John McDonald - 22-11-2022

Failing from the seaside town of Southport but now living in Liverpool, John McDonald has had a passion for cinema since he was a small child. The westerns of John Wayne were his gateway into the cine...

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