Atom Egoyan, the Armenian-Canadian director best known for The Sweet Hereafter, Where the Truth Lies, and Ararat, is back with a new film out in theaters, titled Adoration. Whether or not you’ll like it may depend upon your taste for intellectual complexity: Egoyan’s style of film-making is famous for its use of misdirection and the withholding of information as storytelling tools, so that each new fact subtly changes the meaning of the story. Although he has actually won an award specifically for this aspect of his style, this approach dismays many viewers, who either find that it overly complicates simple stories, or that it is too cerebral for the explosive and provocative subject matter he broaches with it. The argument here is that the viewer becomes so exhausted with playing intellectual games that an emotional response to the film is difficult to muster.
For better or worse, Adoration deploys this style in full force. It opens with a high school boy, Simon, reading a startling essay to his classmates, in which he “reveals” that he is the son of a terrorist who has committed a particularly nasty act. It’s a plausible enough scenario to begin with, but as scenes unfold and characters start behaving contrary to expectation, it becomes clear that Simon is making up at least part of his story, and that he is using it — and the reactions of strangers — as a way of conducting his own search for identity. This search is made more understandable since it is revealed that he is actually an orphaned child, and that the circumstances of his parents’ death are a mystery. But the full significance of his actions — and those of all the adults around him, who also behave in ways that are not fully comprehensible at first — only becomes clear in retrospect. Egoyan seems to expect, if not demand, a second viewing.
Yet for all this evidence of artistic confidence and clarity of purpose, during our interview Mr. Egoyan seemed at pains to project self-effacement, tentativeness, and uncertainty. He spoke softly and had an endearing but odd habit of sprinkling every otherwise firm statement with qualifiers such as ‘I think,’ ‘you know,’ ‘sort of,’ ‘kind of, ‘ ‘probably,’ and even ‘like’ — the kind of empty qualifiers that serve to soften only the impact of words, not their meaning — as if he were anxious to make his points, but not come on too strongly.
The interview was conducted in a screening room of the San Francisco International Film Festival, while Adoration received its US premiere in the adjacent room. I asked Egoyan whether he was nervous about the premiere; he said that although he was “dying to see” what kind of response it would get, he wasn’t too worried. With a wry smile, he added: “I think it’s going to be quite provocative for people, but that’s okay.”
The Rumpus: Adoration begins with its central character, Simon, telling a shocking story: just before he was born, his father put his mother on a flight with a bomb in her bag, of which she was unaware until security discovered it. You drew this story from a true news account: what interested you about it?
Atom Egoyan: It just seized my imagination, because it seemed like the most extreme and incomprehensible act conceivable. It is impossible to understand how someone could actually plant his lover, who was pregnant with their child, on a flight, and use her as a detonating device. It raises so many questions. When did this idea occur to him? Did he get her pregnant to do it, or was that a coincidence? Was he trying to rid himself of her and the child? It’s just so evil.
Rumpus: The incident itself is true, but it quickly becomes clear that Simon’s role in the story is fictional, and that he has placed himself into it and is passing off his story as memoir. Why would he do that?
Egoyan: Simon has been orphaned at a very early age, and his only access to his parents, or who his parents were, is either through his uncle — who resists examining this — or through a grandfather who idealizes Simon’s mother and demonizes his father. In other words, for him to actually understand who the father was, he must explore the question imaginatively; he has nothing actual to explore, because nothing’s been given to him.
His grandfather has repeatedly told Simon that his father was an evil man, so when Simon encounters this story in class, he seizes on the opportunity to understand someone who is purely evil. And it probably gives him permission to mourn, to actually go through the stages of mourning and reach some sort of understanding. I don’t think he’d really think of it in that way, but he is compelled to do this. I think the film is full of actions that the characters feel compelled to do, even if they don’t completely understand them.
Rumpus: It’s clear that the film is about a search for identity on Simon’s part, and it struck me as very true that, after deceiving his classmates with this story, he would then take this fiction onto the internet, into video chatrooms with total strangers, and use those forums as a kind of stage where he could play out this role in public, essentially making strangers complicit in his self-exploration.
Egoyan: Yes. Especially true in adolescence, right? Because an adolescent is a person who is consumed with the drama of his own life. But I’m not even sure how much he’s engaged in that. He quickly loses interest in the chatrooms because it stops being about him, and starts being about all their own issues, be they the perceived victims of a catastrophe that never happened, or Holocaust survivors, or Holocaust deniers. For each of these people, they use this story — and him — as a background against which they spiral off into their own little psychodramas. Even though people are inspired by him, they’ve lost track of him.
Rumpus: If I’m not mistaken, there is a scene just before Simon reveals the truth and ends the charade, where he plays with his hamster for a moment, puts it back in its cage, and then immediately rejoins the chatroom and makes an absurd, intentionally provocative statement, as if he’s deliberately going too far just to see what kind of a reaction it will provoke.
Egoyan: Yes, that’s exactly what he’s doing. Because he has seen that people actually have their own issues, and that they’re now even using him to explore them. It’s not satisfying him anymore, so he pushes it further and further, only to realize that he’s not going to find any resolution through this means. Because it’s not possible there: the internet is open-ended; it’s not designed to be cathartic.
Rumpus: It’s anything but. You can tie yourself into the most incredible mental knots, watching and reading and clicking, watching and reading and clicking.
Egoyan: Yes, and when he inevitably becomes dissatisfied with that, he realizes he has to go on some sort of physical journey and take these objects with meaning for him, and try and realign them. He must try and create a ritual of some sort, to create a new meaning for them. He uses these chatrooms to explore certain ideas, and that is part of his journey, but I think these journeys have to go into the physical world. He must arrive back in the physical world to complete this.
Rumpus: The chatroom technology you show doesn’t quite exist yet, so I was curious how you created these exchanges. Were they scripted? Were they somehow done in real time?
Egoyan: In terms of video chat, no, that technology does not exist yet. But I needed to create a cinematic equivalent of the kind of behavior you do find in chat rooms, with the kind of extreme, fervent stuff that people say. But they weren’t scripted. With the students, we went to a number of high schools with multiple cameras and set up these simulated chat rooms in these small sets we had built to be their bedrooms. And I said to them: “imagine that a friend of yours latches onto this story and purports to be the son of this terrorist — ” and before I could even finish the direction, they would be off and running. All the students you see are actual students — they’re not actors as such — and those are their actual ideas. They had absolutely no problem either imagining this might happen or responding to it. They’re a generation of kids who completely, intuitively understand the performative nature of being on the internet, or rather how you have to be in order to gain attention. They understand that they have to stir controversy and create drama.
Rumpus: How many students did you see before settling on this group?
Egoyan: We filmed about 150 volunteers, twelve at a time, and handpicked the most vocal and interesting ones to be in the film. But many of the more interesting ones that didn’t make it in the film will be included as extras on the DVD.
Rumpus: You also featured a chatroom of three professors hashing out some of the issues that Simon has inadvertently raised.
Egoyan: Yes, those are three really smart people I know, and we may include that uncut on the DVD as well, because that conversation, where they are talking about living in a “victim culture,” is also pretty good in its full form.
Rumpus: Speaking of that, one of the extraordinary moments in this film was when the heavyset man claimed his life had been ruined by Simon’s “father,” that he felt like one of the “walking dead.”
Egoyan: It’s a convenient thing for him to blame his problems on, but it’s patently ridiculous. It doesn’t make any sense, and yet his friend actually supports him in this. Again, I’ve seen that sort of thing in chat rooms. For example, if you go to the forums for one of my earlier films, Ararat, often what people are saying there is just insane, because there is both an anonymity and a spontaneousness that allows for people to not consider what they’re saying.
For example, while we were shooting this, there was this incredible situation where this girl in Florida had been raped, and her assailant was brought to trial and found not guilty. There was some technicality, I think. [NB: The actual story is more complex than Mr. Egoyan recollected.] She was so outraged at the lack of justice from the court system that she went on YouTube and just pleaded with people to believe her, and she got all this attention from viewers of the video and from bloggers and news media. The video itself was really sad and excruciating to watch, but I wondered whether the fact that other people listened to her and commented on it gave her any sense of justice? It’s a kind of testimony, so we have to believe that what she’s saying is the truth, that it was not a performance per se. But it’s also performative.