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Content Warning: There will be scenes of real life dead bodies, graphic violence, and assault
Do you know what has been a cool thing to happen with animation recently? How it was able to help bring back what was lost media and give it new life, or how it’s able to tell a different kind of story, like following the life of someone with a very rich history. If animation “fans” want to say they support new and distinct ways of telling stories through the medium, then that means you need to support and watch stuff like today’s review of Aurora’s Sunrise, which has been making its festival runs through some major places like Annecy and Animation is Film, where it took home the audience award over films like Titina, My Father’s Dragon, Little Nicholas, and Wendell & Wild. Seeing audiences for this festival choosing something so different was definitely a surprise. Then again, it was one of the few sold-out screenings at the festival. So, what is the film all about?
Directed by Inna Sahakyan, this documentary animated feature follows the story of Arshaluys Mardiganian aka Aurora Mardiganian, her experience of surviving a multitude of horrors of the Armenian Genocide of 1915, and her journey to America to tell her story, only to have to deal with a different kind of horror of dealing with Hollywood execs. It’s a combination of live-action footage of people interviewing Arshaluys, some actual found footage of the Auction of Souls film that was said to be lost to time, and animation that looks like it uses something akin to puppet or motion tween rigs to tell the majority of the story. It won’t be an easy sit, as the story of Arshaluys is a tragic one of losing her entire family, being sold into slavery, and escaping the horrors for a small moment in time, but only to find herself with another set of challenges. That’s even before arriving in America and dealing with an entirely different set of abuse and challenges. It’s a tough watch, but it’s fascinating to observe how she strived and survived, even when she was in Hollywood, where they censored or changed what actually happened to her. She wanted to help tell the story of what was going on, but they weren’t willing to share all of the details and so changed them for an American audience to consume. There was even one point where I don’t even know how it wouldn’t make your blood boil. Even if it ended on a positive note of change making the world better for individuals affected by genocide and horrible events, what happened to her by people she trusted will make you despise the darkness in some people’s heart. It’s all interesting and eye-opening stuff to what was going on during that point in history, but you can definitely tell this was directed by someone who has mostly worked on documentaries. The story and plot play out in a very narrative-driven way of telling the details, and while they do have actors who portray young Arshaluys and so on, if you have seen any documentaries, you know how they don’t really follow a 3-act structure or a traditional film narrative. They mostly use the runtime to fill up the details of what exactly was going on. It can be a bit tough to sit through all of the details and history notes, but it’s really more so in the pacing due to how this film is 90 minutes long. It wants to be very atmospheric to let you soak up the mood of the sequences and the quiet moments, but it can feel a bit slow. Still, it’s more the fact this is such a harrowing and depressing story of Arhslauys’ history and the genocide that was happening. It just has trouble at times working as both a documentary and as a film.
The animation does look good. The only times where it was a touch distracting was any time they used motion blurs to mimic fast movements. It looked a bit clunky, but the visuals themselves look fantastic. The painted look of everything gives the film a distinct visual flair that matches the tone of the story, and while they are definitely using plenty of tricks and work-arounds to make it look good to keep you captivated by the story being told, they definitely help show you the horrors that unfold. They show the beauty and darkness of history and the journey one person took to tell her story. The acting was a mixed bag, though to be honest, it’s mostly in terms of when anyone speaks English in the film. When they have American individuals, the acting sounds flat. At least, that is what it sounds like. You can tell the focus was more on telling the story than having compelling performances.
While maybe not a recurring rewatchable kind of animated feature that some are, Aurora’s Sunrise is one of those animated features that focuses more on the documentary side of things rather than telling a story in a more filmlike way. Seeing more mature stories being told in animation means getting films like this. It’s important to see stories like this one told because it’s our world’s history, and to see a piece of filmmaking history get partly restored and preserved is something to treasure. You can not deny or ignore when such world-changing events and stories happen. It’s a shame that there are already some stories and films that are lost to time. Hopefully, Aurora’s Sunrise gets some proper US release/distribution, because films that are interesting to talk about are worthy of being remembered. We all need to remember the history of our world, whether it’s the darkest of times or the sunrise that shows us the beauty of our world. Definitely give this one a watch if you find it at a festival (it’s playing at the Asian World Film Festival nov 10th and 14th, IDFA, and Tallinn Black Nights) or when it becomes available to rent or own via a physical release or a digital one. Now then, next time, we will talk about something a bit lighter in tone, but remember, animation is a medium of storytelling and art. Animation is film, and animation can tell stories like Aurora’s Sunrise.
Rating: Go see it!