Arts and Entertainment

Aurora’s Sunrise: A Voice From the Genocide Will Not Be Silenced

Aurora’s Sunrise is by far the most poignant animated film of the year, communicating Armenian history in a novel medium.

Reading Time: 4 minutes

The Armenian population of Anatolia was subjected to deportation and massacre by the Ottoman Turks in 1915, who were concerned that the Armenians’ Christian faith would splinter their empire. It is estimated that 1.5 million Armenians (along with hundreds of thousands of Greeks, Assyrians, and Kurds) were exterminated during the three years of genocide. While this devastation was seminal for Armenia and its diaspora, the rest of the world remains largely unaware; only 34 countries officially recognize the events of 1915-1918 as a genocide, with President Joe Biden formally affirming this fact in 2021, over a century later. 

The film Aurora’s Sunrise (2023) premiered in New York City on August 11 and has since received minimal recognition, much like the genocide itself. Aurora’s Sunrise is an accessible tool to express the devastating reality of the Armenian genocide to all audiences, regardless of cultural background. The film follows the true, unabridged story of Aurora (Arshaluys) Madiganian, a 14-year-old Armenian girl who fled the Turks and became a silent film star in the United States. But the film is about so much more than Aurora’s life. Director Inna Sahakyan manifests the survival experience of the Armenian collective into a single, intimate narrative, grounded in both history and individual experience. Aurora’s Sunrise will appeal to Armenian allies, who are able to further understand Aurora Madiganian as a figurehead of Armenian resilience, and Armenians, who will be able to identify with the more ambiguous themes of the film, discovering parallels between Aurora and their ancestors.  

Aurora’s Sunrise is a carefully crafted patchwork of three mediums, each representing a different stage of Aurora’s life as a survivor. The film’s primary medium is animation, which documents Aurora’s life prior to stardom. The linework is organic, utilizing indistinct, sketchy edges complemented by cross-hatching. The characters move across the screen rather awkwardly, each frame pausing for a beat more than necessary. Oftentimes the stagnancy of the facial expressions exudes indifference. Despite its stilted animation, Auroras Sunrise still manages to triumphantly curate a fluid and concise picture of Aurora’s story. Some of the animation’s stiffness and ambiguity even make its effect all the more powerful. For example, after Aurora escapes her enslaver on horseback, she finds her mother hunched over in the middle of the Syrian desert, dead and dismembered. Throughout the course of their forced “immigration,” Armenian women and children were subject to death marches, where the Turks would lead them aimlessly and wait for the marchers to succumb to the cruelty of the Syrian desert. Aurora kneels slowly to her mother’s side, the clunky movements emphasizing her immeasurable grief.

The most gruesome, graphic scenes like this one are cut by glimpses of scratchy archival footage from Auction of Souls (The Ravaged Armenian) (1919), a silent film from Hollywood recreating the harsh realities in Armenia and starring a young Aurora Magdiganian. The recovered material is realistic in its sheer brutality, capturing the seething Ottoman soldiers as they ravage and rape camps of girls and set fire to Armenian churches as worshippers are left locked inside to burn.

 Periodically, Aurora’s voice cuts through the silence. Suddenly, she has aged 60 years—something she never could have imagined when the Ottoman Turks first knocked on her family’s door in 1915. The voice is derived from Aurora Madiganian’s 1984 interview footage, and despite the decades of assimilation, Aurora’s Armenian accent is still potent, as are her memories of the genocide. Aurora recalled, “I became a Hollywood star when I was just 17. But I wasn’t an actress. I was not acting. I was living.” 

Sahakyan’s genius pervades, communicating Aurora’s resonant trauma through the symbolism of white silk being dyed red. Aurora’s father was a farmer and silk weaver before he was executed, and the beginning of the film captures young Aurora helping her father harvest fresh, untainted silk from their backyard in Armenia. This is one of the last moments shared between Aurora and her father, showcasing the prosperity of Armenian life prior to the abuses of the Ottomans. But this moment is so much more than that—it manifests as an extended metaphor; the wholesomeness of her early life being tainted by bloodshed. Each time she loses one of her eight family members in the film, Aurora’s childhood is revisited. Her family’s silhouettes disappear, and are substituted by piles of deep red silk, representing the blood of her brothers and sisters. Eventually, her garden is an inescapable web of red silk, and she is all that is left. In New York, after successfully escaping Armenia, Aurora lands a job sewing garments in the factory. The bobbin unfurls a string of red, representing how she created art from her grief. 

Documentaries about the Armenian Genocide seldom mention the psychological ramifications for survivors, instead cutting the story short at the liberation of the Armenians. However, Armenians have continued to survive and their culture needs to be explored beyond the scope of genocide, which Aurora’s Sunrise does. Aurora’s story is, no doubt, heartbreaking. It is meant to provoke a recognition of pain undercut by rage. This rage exists because stories like Aurora’s have been ignored for so long.  This rage continues to pervade our cultural existence since our sorrow was never fully recognized by global leaders—many have yet to recognize it at all. Rage that I, as a great-granddaughter of genocide survivors feel the need to uncover. My great-grandparents, Hagop Berberian and Mariam Garaoghlanian, both died in the 90s, around the same time as Aurora. I never heard my great-grandparents’ firsthand accounts of their experiences in 1915. I have, however, heard the stories passed down by my mother and grandfather about their painful escape from genocide. Aurora’s Sunrise tells the story many have not yet heard, echoing the voices of those who were silenced in the Armenian Genocide.