ANN ARBOR, Mich. — How can we remember someone so deserving of being remembered, but whom we truly know so little about? And how can we do justice to their story?
These were some of the questions that seemed to haunt actress and producer Arsinée Khanjian as she set about to retell the story of Aurora Mardiganian, the Genocide survivor and exploited star of the groundbreaking 1919 silent film, “Auction of Souls.”
Mardiganian’s story, little known for most of the mid-to-late 20th century, has gained greater awareness in recent years. A genocide survivor from Chemeshgadzak, born Arshalouys Mardigian, she underwent the horrors of the death march, seeing family members killed, being sold into slavery, and subjected to assault, before finding refuge in the Caucasus, meeting historic figures like General Antranig and then reaching New York City.
Since she was an attractive 17-year-old girl, local newspapers and writers seized upon her story as an image of idealized Armenian womanhood destroyed by the “terrible Turk” and published her ghostwritten autobiography, Ravished Armenia, in keeping with the pro-Armenian, anti-Turkish sentiment of the World War I period in the West.
Billed as the “Armenian Joan of Arc,” she was renamed “Aurora Mardiganian” by the publishers. By the end of 1918, she was brought to Los Angeles to star in the silent film version of her autobiography, named “Auction of Souls.” The film, widely shown at the time, is cited as the first in the screen medium to depict any genocide (not just the Armenian).
But Mardiganian was emotionally drained from the experience of touring the country for the film’s promotion, and ended up alone in her later years, passing away at the age of 93 after she was forgotten and deserted by the Armenians and the film was lost.
Khanjian is one of many people in recent years inspired by Mardiganian’s story. In 2015 she was commissioned by the Maxim Gorki Theatre in Berlin to write and direct a theatrical performance of “Auction of Souls,” which has been performed in Berlin on successive commemorations of the Armenian Genocide. A recorded film version of the stage presentation was also made.
It was this film version that was presented in Ann Arbor, Michigan, on April 7, for the 2022 Dr. Berj H. Haidostian Distinguished Lecture at the University of Michigan’s Center for Armenian Studies (CAS).
Introduced by CAS Director, Prof. Melanie Tanielian, the presentation was followed by a “conversation” where film scholar Marie-Aude Baronian (University of Amsterdam) acted as interlocutor, drawing out Khanjian’s thoughts on the work.
Auction of Souls – Performing Memory
The film of Khanjian’s unique production was screened for a small audience at Ann Arbor’s State Theater. Rather than attempt to restore the original “Auction of Souls” film or recreate the scenes from Mardiganian’s life in a traditional narrative way, Khanjian opted to tell the story in a multifaceted manner that included theatre, and music, sound effects, film, and other elements. Khanjian’s approach seemed to be that the story by itself, does not tell the whole story.
Concluding that Mardiganian’s story did not speak for itself, and did not truly express the horrors she endured, Khanjian felt it was necessary to tell the story in a more artistic and imaginary way. To summarize Khanjian’s philosophy differently, it seems that what happened to Mardiganian was on one hand too horrible for her to relate to (therefore the original book and film were full of euphemisms) and on the other hand, even a modern and more graphic film depiction would somehow be “not real.” In other words, it is impossible to replicate this story as it happened and therefore only an impression if it can be given artistically.
As Khanjian read excerpts from Mardiganian’s biography in English, two young actors, male and female, acted out symbolic representations of the scenes of her life. At times, the roles were interestingly reversed; for example in a symbolic rape scene, the female actress “assaulted” the male actor.
The actors at times spoke the dialogue related in Mardiganian’s memoir, except in German, rather than Armenian or Turkish. Hearing the “Turkish soldier’s” words shouted in harsh German interestingly brought to mind a connection between the Ottoman Holocaust and that of the Nazis, although it was unclear if this was intentional.
Khanjian added a droning in the background of much of the performance, rather than music. This cold and unfeeling tone sounded like feedback or some kind of machine running in the background, but that also was the point.
Khanjian mentioned in the question-and-answer period that she didn’t think it was appropriate to use music (certainly not the Tin Pan Alley style pop song Armenian Maid which was written in honor of Mardiganian), and the machine-like background sound gave the whole production a feeling of meaninglessness that was consonant with the subject matter.
In all, the symbolically stylized reenactments of the scenes of Mardiganian’s life, the facial expressions, shouts, and utterances of the actors, were able to conjure horror and disgust perhaps better than a typically “Hollywood” style narrative film could have done.
Interspersed with the actors were clips from a 1980s interview of Mardiganian. Being able to hear her story in her voice was gratifying, and interestingly it was statements from the woman herself that provided the most respite from the emotionally charged performance; a humorous story about meeting Charlie Chaplin worked as a kind of breather and at the same time showed us that Mardiganian didn’t lose her vivacious spirit despite what happened to her.
Nevertheless, the “laughter” shown by Mardiganian in her interaction with Chaplin was immediately contrasted with the laughter of the Turkish military in the context of their assault on Armenian women. In this part of the performance, as throughout, Khanjian used an overhead projector to write out keywords with definitions: “laughter,” “kissing,” “ravish” and so on, showing the irony of how human emotions, reactions, and acts associated with love were twisted during acts of genocide.
At the close of the performance, Khanjian and Baronian sat at the front of the theatre and engaged in a conversation about the project for the benefit of those present. Khanjian, who is married to noted filmmaker Atom Egoyan and has appeared in many of his films, noted a similarity between her approach and that of Egoyan in the making of “Ararat” (2002).
Although many Armenians were disappointed that the latter film was not a narrative story about the Genocide, Khanjian similarly approached the Aurora Mardiganian story in a non-linear way, because as stated, to tell it in a “Hollywood” style would almost bowdlerize or romanticize an episode of such horrific human suffering.
Khanjian’s effervescent personality and storytelling was ably counterbalanced by Baronian’s calm, scholarly demeanor; with her deep knowledge of Khanjian’s as well as Egoyan’s work (she is one of the foremost scholars of Egoyan), Baronian was able to gently guide the discussion, making the result quite fruitful and interesting for the audience assembled. Audience questions followed which sparked more discussion.
Khanjian’s work, with its subtitle “Performing Memory,” raised important questions about how the atrocities of the Armenian Genocide and the experiences of very real, though romanticized, people like Aurora Mardiganian can be remembered, how their stories can and should be told, and whether it is even possible to truly remember or tell these stories.
Whatever one’s opinion about the merits of narrative storytelling and film, as opposed to more avant-garde approaches, Khanjian, Baronian, and most of the rest of us, would probably agree on one essential: we owe it to the survivors to at least make the effort, the attempt, to remember and tell their stories. In this respect, Khanjian’s work, which approached the subject matter with the utmost respect and with the desire to honor Mardiganian, cannot be seen as anything but successful.