Aurora’s Sunrise (2022) arrives on PBS just a month after the ethnic cleansing of Armenians from Artsakh, also known as Nagorno-Karabakh, and the timing could not be more chilling. This 82-minute animated biography tells the story of Aurora Mardiganian, whose birth name, Arshaluys Mardigian was “Americanized.” Her story starts as a middle-class Ottoman Armenian girl who falls victim to the carefully orchestrated Armenian Genocide and escapes enslavement and certain death to arrive in the United States. While stateside, Aurora, whose name was changed by two White Americans who adopted her and later scammed her out of her publishing and movie earnings, tells her story to the newspapers, causing a sensation that led to a major book deal and Hollywood movie. Sadly, that 1919 film, Auction of Souls (or Ravished Armenia), which is believed to be the first feature to fully grapple with the topic of genocide, has since been lost, like many movies in an era when making money rather than archiving was the priority. 

This film, directed and written by Inna Sahakyan, is a lovely retelling of a story that helps humanize some of the parts of Aurora’s life. Sahakyan’s filmmaking draws heavily on documentary footage and material, including interviews with Aurora herself conducted by the Zoryan Institute, a leading hub for genocide-related scholarship. The result is a moving, if imperfect film that uses animation brilliantly, its recreated world appearing as lusciously illustrated as a children’s storybook.

Where the film falls short is in the emotional intensity of the figures who never quite convey the horrors or shock of what they’re experiencing since the animated faces remain mostly blank throughout. Another curious feature is the decision to gloss over the swindling of Aurora, who was clearly traumatized again and again in the making of the 1919 film (as were other Armenian Genocide survivors who served as extras in the same project) or the legal case that caused Aurora to sue her guardians for some of the profits from the book and film — this is told quickly with text on the screen. Instead, the film ends when Aurora finds a family member, leaving her descent into obscurity untold.

Aurora herself lived a largely uneventful life after that early fame until genocide historians, and later film historian Anthony Slide, rediscovered her story. The former documented her in footage we see here, while the latter wrote Ravished Armenia and the Story of Aurora Mardiganian, which told her side of the harrowing experience. When Aurora died in 1994, no footage of the film was known to exist. Yet later that year 20 minutes of the 90-minute film surfaced, giving us a look at the important historical work of cinema, which was a sensation across the United States at the time.

I also wonder whether including so many photographs from the genocide itself, almost all created by humanitarian and news agencies, was a good choice, as they are left to illustrate the tragedy when the animation itself falls short.

These criticisms are not meant to detract from the larger achievement of this film. It brings to life the story of a woman who endured the unimaginable to become a household name in America before being hurled aside by capitalism, which disposed of her as soon as it found no more value in a person who trusted a system that she didn’t fully understand. I used to think the telling and retelling of these stories were crucial to ensure that these events are not repeated, but after the fall of Artsakh last month and the humanitarian crisis it created, emptying a land of its indigenous inhabitants for the first time in 5,000 years, I’m rethinking that. Perhaps we tell these stories so that we ourselves don’t forget. Aurora is every refugee who puts their faith in a system that inevitably fails them, and makes them realize that being treated by others as fully human is a rare thing indeed.

Aurora’s Sunrise, directed by Inna Sahakyan, premiered on PBS’s POV on October 23 and is available for streaming on all PBS platforms until January 24, 2024.

Hrag Vartanian is editor-in-chief and co-founder of Hyperallergic.

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