Political Film Review #680

AURORA’S SUNSHINE Graphically Explains the Armenian Genocide

A biopic about Arshaluys Mardiganian, Aurora’s Sunrise is also a biopic and mini-critique of the previously forgotten film Auction of Souls (1919). The latter film is a story (though she was renamed Aurora to sell to an American audience), of a 14-year-old who is evicted from her home in Armenia by the Turkish army allied to Germany during World War I; she suffers while in exile, is rescued by an American humanitarian organization, arrives in New York, and is the only living Armenian who can recount the horrors of the genocide. Then a New York reporter, Henry Gates (Ervin Amiryan), transfers her story into a new series, then a book, and ultimately a somewhat sanitized film that makes her a Hollywood star, though she feels out of place in a glitzy surrounding until Charlie Chaplin makes her laugh. She then embarks on a nationwide tour premiering the film to raise funds to save Armenian race. Mysteriously, copies of Auction of Souls vanish after 1920, though 18 minutes of the film are discovered after her death in 1994 in Soviet Archives after the fall of the USSR. But the story of the film is minor compared to biopic of the central figure, who appears as a saint amid cruelties.

Directed by Inna Sahakyan, Aurora’s Sunrise combines documentary film footage, re-enactments of scenes with characters (with Aurora voiced by Arpi Petrossian), and several profound interviews of Aurora before her death. Her harrowing experiences begin in 1915 with a friendly Kurd farmer warning her family to flee to the hills before they will be massacred, in response to which her father (Hambardzum Ghazanchyan) says that he is not a coward and would prefer to die, if he had to, in his own home—a canon of morality that clearly enables Aurora to persevere many years of mistreatment. First, the Turks come for his father and oldest son and shoot them dead. Next, Turks evict the rest of the family and force them on a 1,400-mile death march to a new location, while raping women. Even those escaping more murders are captured, forced to give up their treasures, and sold as sex slaves. But ultimately Aurora manages to escape to an area held by the Armenian Resistance, thanks to the Russian army. Funding from a New York philanthropy in New York, which in time rescues 13,000 orphans, arranges to transport her to the United States by 1918. Then those receiving her arrange an ad to reunite with her brother, who immigrated years earlier. The ad, however, captures the attention of Gates, who sponsors her as a legal guardian as she moves to Hollywood and then embarks on a year-long film tour so demanding that she collapses on stage one night. Gates lambastes her, sends her to a convent, and uses phony doubles to complete the tour. While at the convent, she learns that her brother is in Beirut, seeking to liberate Armenians, including her sister, who is en route to the United States. Nevertheless, along her journey she meets Mrs. Oliver Harriman (voiced by Sara Anjargolian), a major source of funding for Armenians, so she flees from the convent to Harriman’s house for the first decent treatment she encounters from a truly caring person.

During interviews, Aurora confides many opinions, the most profound of which is that the failure to arrange justice for Armenians after World War I, when Turkey became a defeated power, meant that later Adolf Hitler specifically justified his genocide of Jews on the impunity regarding Armenians, though the term “genocide” did not exist until 1944. Aurora’s form of justice was not more killing but instead legal and political condemnation, which evidently that would bring sense to the Turkish people and thereby have the Turkish government do what contemporary Germans have done to renounce the evils of the Nazi genocide.

Titles at the beginning and end of Aurora’s Sunshine provide a lot of context for the events portrayed. One of the most fascinating is the fact that President Woodrow Wilson petitioned at the Versailles Conference to have Armenia become an American mandate, but when the treaty came before the U.S. Senate, his idea was voted down. Instead, Armenia became a Soviet Socialist Republic. Even when Armenia became an independent country in 1991 after the end of the Soviet Union, efforts to have the world declare Turkey’s actions as genocide were blocked in the United States by those preferring that Turkey would be an ally against the Soviet Union. But in 2021, President Joe Biden officially recognized the Armenian genocide as one of his first actions as president.

The Political Film Society rarely has an opportunity to nominate a film for all four categories—and does so enthusiastically for Aurora’s Sunrise as best film on democracy, human rights, peace, and best film exposé. MH

Scroll to Top