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‘Aurora’s Sunrise’ Marks a New Era in Armenian Storytelling

Inna Sahakyan’s animated documentary, integrating pieces of Aurora Mardiganian’s harrowing account – and lost 1919 film adaptation – of surviving unspeakable horrors as a teenager during the 1915 Armenian Genocide, shares one woman’s incredible courage, and how telling, and retelling, such a painful story is the strongest step forward a person can take.

Two years of horror and tragedy, first detailed in a 14-volume newspaper feature that became a novel, and then a silent film - all in less than two years - that suddenly disappears, only to resurface 70 years later with only 18-minutes of the original full-length feature intact. 

But it’s those 18 minutes of black and white footage, partnered with archived interview recordings and lots and lots of animation, now make up Inna Sahakyan’s retelling of Aurora (Arshaluys) Mardiganian’s story, how the teenage girl survived the 1915 Armenian Genocide and then escaped to America, where she agreed to star as herself in the Hollywood film about her experiences on a forced death march towards the Syrian desert, losing her entire family, then being kidnapped and sold into sexual slavery.

“We talked to psychologists during production, and it's not typical at all for any war or genocide survivor to revisit their story this way,” says Sahakyan, director of the animated documentary, Aurora’s Sunrise. “These people usually try to totally forget and start a new life. Because, if they don't forget, it's very hard to move on. Most of the survivors won’t even talk with their kids about genocide until they are in their 70s or older.”

Sahakyan continues, “But [Aurora], who was only 17, agreed to retell her story and then travel with the film, understanding that each time she would have to relive her pain again and again. I think it's the strongest step that a human can take. She wanted justice and she wanted her people’s story told.”

Sahakyan’s hybrid documentary is produced by ARTBOX laisvalaikio klubas, Bars Media, and Gebrueder Beetz Filmproduktion. The film covers the content of Aurora’s book “Ravished Armenia” (written in 1918), her film Auction of Souls (made in 1919, with only a portion discovered in 1994 after the after the USSR’s collapse) and the rest of her odyssey detailed in the many interviews Sahakyan poured over. 

A partnership between Armenian and Lithuanian animators and artists as well as German and Lithuanian co-producers, the CG animated Aurora’s Sunrise is the first-ever animated feature created by Bars Media, and the first-ever animated documentary film made in Armenia. Awarded Best Animated Film at the Asia Pacific Screen Awards and winner of the Silver Apricot from this year’s Golden Apricot Yerevan International Film Festival, Aurora’s Sunrise is also Armenia’s submission to the 95th Academy Awards for consideration as the Best International Feature Film.

Despite being Armenian and dedicating much of her documentary filmmaking career to telling Armenian stories – films like The Last Tightrope Dancer in Armenia, Mel and The Road - Sahakyan had not heard of Aurora before coming across her testimonials in 2014 while doing research with Zoryan Institute for another documentary based on their Oral History Archives, which has more than 700 recorded testimonies of genocide survivors starting from the 1980s. 

“I was brought a story from Aurora when she was 83-years-old and I was so shocked because it was so different, not only the story itself, but also the way she was telling it,” explains Sahakyan. “She's a great storyteller but also has this will to survive and go against the pity and try to find solutions to move on and keep her humanity.”

Sahakyan says that Aurora’s testimony, which was five hours long, stood out from the other 100 survival stories she has listened to, with Aurora’s story harboring an “interesting strength to it, showing Aurora’s character and amazing destiny.”

Sahakyan and her team decided that Aurora’s story should be a separate feature all its own; they began working on Aurora’s Sunrise that year, continuing for more than seven years to finish the film. And, unlike most productions that took place during the years 2019-2022, COVID was not the biggest challenge Aurora’s Sunrise faced. 

On top of the historic genocide that took place during WWI, Armenia and its people have remained on the frontlines of war to this day. Since the genocide over a century ago, Armenia has seen roughly nine additional wars, two occurring in just the last two years. 

“You just realize that nothing has changed,” says Sahakyan. “A hundred years later, my country is still in this situation. The players are the same. The horrors are the same. The death is the same. I'm doing a film about history, but this is happening right now in my homeland. People are dying.”

Five years into the making of Aurora’s Sunrise, in September 2020, a new conflict erupted over the landlocked region of Nagorno-Karabakh, territory between Armenia and Azerbaijan disputed since the collapse of the USSR. During the fighting, all the men on Bars Media’s staff were on the front lines, some under direct fire. The strain of the war put the entire project in jeopardy, and the studio itself nearly shut down. 

“It's been extremely difficult, but, on the other hand, the additional layer to all this is that this story should be told so we can learn from the past and not repeat today,” notes Sahakyan, who says it’s thanks to the perseverance of the German and Lithuanian co-producers that the project kept moving forward.

“Any Armenian has a hard time talking about genocide, and it’s hard to keep a clear head when we’re talking about an atrocity that took place during my great great grandfather’s time while war is still happening,” shares Sahakyan. “None of us can totally distance ourselves, but I needed to keep some distance from the story in order to be able to tell it, and our international partners and co-producers were a fresh and distant eye on story development when I got super emotional.”

Some of the most emotional points for Sahakyan were also the most rewarding aspects of production, where she had the opportunity to input her own artistic vision into Aurora’s narrative. 

“Animation is an amazing tool to tell these kinds of stories because it’s not only striking, but it also gives the opportunity to capture Aurora’s dreams, and it can be a little bit fairytale-like because of her memories,” says Sahakyan. “The animation gives an opportunity, while being super realistic, to use symbols and colors that further add to the story.”

Early in Aurora’s Sunrise, the film shows that her father had a small silk production workshop at their home where he would create silk cocoons, which he then dyed all sorts of bright colors. Sahakyan says this was what she believed to be Aurora’s “brightest memory,” which made using this bright memory to practically torment Aurora throughout the film particularly challenging.

“The way she was talking about her father's silk work in interviews, she was shining every time she talked about these parts of her childhood and I had this task to show that everyone in her life who was part of these bright moments had gone away, in a brutal way, but not show that brutality so aggressively on the screen,” explains Sahakyan. “I came up with the idea that, with every person's loss, the silks would lose their colors and become red as blood and, at the end, there is only red left. There are no other colors.”

Another bright spot in Aurora’s memories was spending time putting on plays at home with her family. In the film, she talks about being on stage with her mother and siblings as they act out a story of The Three Goats, who all join together to defeat an encroaching wolf. This is another scene that Sahakyan used to display pain, loss, and evil in the story, relating the wolf on stage to the Turkish soldiers who were murdering Aurora’s family and, as more people die and more silk turns crimson, Aurora’s family members begin to disappear from the stage, eventually leaving Aurora all alone, with nothing but broken props and cobwebs of red silk surrounding her. 

“The play and silk motifs work together to fulfill that task to show the pain of losing everything that you've had in your life,” says Sahakyan. “To show visually this heavy topic of losing every member of her family, to give those emotions, but not show direct brutality.”

And scenes that do show the harsh reality of Aurora’s story - being held at gunpoint, holding a screaming orphaned child, staring into a river of corpses - are juxtaposed with the undeniably breathtaking landscapes of the Ottoman Empire. Even with so much hate, savagery, and death, somehow the waters, the deserts and the forests still appear stunning; it’s jarring to be so captivated by the setting itself when what’s happening to the people in the scene is so horrific.

“For me, personally, it was important to capture the beauty of Western Armenia because this is what we lost,” shares Sahakyan. “This is what [Aurora] was so connected to, where her roots were. And, even if she found the best life in another country, this pain of losing her home, this part of her, is really strong. I wanted to show that.”

Sahakyan, art directors from Armenia and the animators and illustrators from Lithuania worked with Turkish filmmakers who traveled to Aurora’s village and sent back photos for reference.

“It’s a lot of creative teamwork,” says Sahakyan. “We knew from the very beginning that we were going to do the animation in a CG, paper-cutout technique, which would be very limited in the movement. But we decided to compensate for it with the illustrations, and letting the illustrations ‘talk’ where movement was limited.”

The six minutes of credits at the end of Aurora’s Sunrise show the full extent of the teamwork and care put into its making; the production included a Documentary Research department, Restoration department, Fiction Filming department where live actors were filmed on a greenscreen for animation reference, and Full Animation department , with work divided between Armenia, Germany, and Lithuania. Sahakyan credits Editor & Live Action Director Ruben Ghazaryan and Art Director Tigran Arakelyan and Lead Illustrator Gediminas Skyrius as key influences on the film.

“The team was endless, and I’m grateful for everyone who worked on this project,” she says. 

The live film footage, old video recordings of an aged Aurora, and the highly detailed illustrations and animation – each from different decades - are tied together with an emotional score composed by Christine Aufderhaar, with additional Armenian music from Andranik Berberyan and Garegin Arakelyan. 

The result is a feeling of disarming awe, accented with deep anger for the injustice that, for many years, was pushed under the rug as expanding US-Turkish relations made even discussion of the Genocide controversial as the topic itself continued to fade from people’s minds.

But, amidst the challenges of war and denial from other countries that the genocide even happened, Sahakyan had her own bright moments during filmmaking. The House of Representatives passed a resolution with broad support on October 29, 2019, and the Senate did the same by unanimous consent on December 12, 2019, making the recognition of the Armenian genocide part of the policy of the United States.

And, on April 24, 2021, the Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day, President Joe Biden referred to the events as "genocide" in a statement released by the White House, in which the President formally equated the genocide perpetrated against Armenians with atrocities on the scale of those committed in Nazi-occupied Europe.

Though it was Aurora herself, more than anything else, who helped Sahakyan dissect and unpack traumatic moments in history so many of her fellow Armenians still have difficulty talking about. 

“For me, the most important moment - when I am trying to put myself in her place and understand the heaviness, the history, and the post-traumatic stress - as well as the most sacrificing and strong step for her was agreeing to tell her story and acting in the Hollywood film,” says Sahakyan. “At the end, despite of all these horrors, and what happened to her, she stayed true to her mission, and she stayed true to her humanity. That also gave life to me to keep moving and keep working on the film.”

Sahakyan hopes that Aurora’s Sunrise’s impact is three-fold: that it sparks a love for Armenia even in those who have no previous connection to the country; that the love ignited will give way to sincere anger for what the country has endured; and, finally, that that this love and righteous anger will prompt a desire to make change happen so Armenia can have a permanently bright future that’s long overdue. 

“That will mean that we somehow succeeded,” says Sahakyan. “I never knew much about Aurora’s story, but I want others to know. Maybe then history won’t repeat itself.”

Oscar voting begins on Monday, December 12. If Sahakyan’s film eventually wins, Aurora’s Sunrise will be the first Armenian film ever awarded an Oscar. 

Victoria Davis's picture

Victoria Davis is a full-time, freelance journalist and part-time Otaku with an affinity for all things anime. She's reported on numerous stories from activist news to entertainment. Find more about her work at