Catching Aurora’s Sunrise
Learn more about filmmaker, producer, and our Creative Armenia-AGBU Fellowships alumna Inna Sahakyan
April 12, 2023 | by Creative Armenia
Inna Sahakyan, 2022 Creative Armenia-AGBU Fellow
From stories about elderly tightrope dancers to a documentary about a successful weightlifter choosing his identity over a promising career, filmmaker and producer Inna Sahakyan has always been fascinated by stories of resilient outcasts. Her recent award-winning animated documentary Aurora’s Sunrise is no exception, telling the story of the Armenian genocide survivor Aurora Mardiganian with imagination and innovation.
Read about Inna Sahakyan’s inspiring journey in our interview with the 2022 Fellow
"As a documentary filmmaker, I usually find my inspiration in human stories. At the core of all my films are real people, who follow their dreams, fail, rise up, make decisions, and often go against the mainstream."
Tell us a little about how you began your journey of becoming a producer and filmmaker.
Growing up in the Soviet Union and having no idea what it means to be a film director, let alone a producer, I always dreamt of being closer to the world of cinema. I desperately wanted to study filmmaking at university. But when I was choosing my profession, the First Artsakh War was taking place and there was uncertainty about the destiny of the country and its economy. Together with my family, we came to the conclusion that there is no future in the film industry. I compromised and studied art criticism.
After graduating and working here and there for a while, I learned that there was an opening for an office manager at Bars Media. So, with my honors degree in arts and my basic level of English, I was interviewed and got the position. That was 20 years ago.
It took over a year for me to start working on small projects. I started by producing human rights films in Armenian villages for international organizations like USAID and the UN. The first time I worked on a feature-length film was when I became Vardan Hovhannisyan’s assistant for A Story of People in War and Peace. With that film, we won over 20 awards, including the Best Documentary Filmmaker Award at Tribeca Film Festival. That early success inspired me to make feature-length films of my own. I owe a lot to Vardan for believing in me and making me the filmmaker I am today. I took part in several international workshops for documentary filmmakers and started working on The Last Tightrope Dancer in Armenia (co-directed with Arman Yeritsyan), which became a festival award-winning film and was aired by many international top TV broadcasters, from Europe to US and Japan.
Up to now, I have produced several TV series with the Armenian National Broadcaster and about six feature-length documentaries. My directorial background includes the above-mentioned The Last Tightrope Dancer in Armenia, Mel, and Aurora’s Sunrise. All of them are very different films that traveled to many festivals, won awards, and gained wide international distribution.
I should admit that being a producer and director in our region is not easy. With limited funds and resources, we had to work much harder and longer on all stages of production. But with hard work, a lot of learning, the support of a professional team, and perseverance you can reach any goal, and making a film is no exception.
Tell us about your creative inspirations – whether those are people, things, or phenomena – and what you have learned from them.
As a documentary filmmaker, I usually find my inspiration in human stories. At the core of all my films are real people, who follow their dreams, fail, rise up, make decisions, and often go against the mainstream. Human nature is complex and interesting and has many layers to discover and capture.
I was taken by the devotion of elderly tightrope dancers, fighting to keep their art alive in the face of globalization. I was inspired by the strength of Mel who, despite being one of the most successful weightlifters in Armenia, chose his identity over glory and risked losing loved ones to find peace within himself. I was inspired by the bravery of Aurora Mardiganian, a young Armenian woman, who even after enduring genocide, hunger, slavery, and exploitation refused to be a victim. My current project is about a nursing home in Armenia, where elders from all walks of life overcome loneliness and sickness to live out their dream of being big-shot actors through a theater group.
As Alfred Hitchcock said, “In feature films the director is God; in documentary films, God is the director.” I am inspired by the lives of people and want to show their strength and resilience through my films.
Your most recent directorial work – Aurora’s Sunrise – is one of the most ambitious projects to come out of Armenia in recent years. What motivated you to take on the challenge? What kept you pushing through all eight years it was in production?
I never thought of Aurora’s Sunrise as the most ambitious project to come out of Armenia but it is the most important project for me.
"I was mesmerized the first time I watched it. While painful to hear, the elderly woman appeared to grow more and more youthful as she spoke."
The Armenian Genocide is a painful subject for all Armenians. It is my family’s pain and it is my pain. I was always wary of making a film about it, as I was afraid of being overly sentimental and didn’t want to portray us as victims.
That is until I stumbled upon the oral testimony of Aurora Mardiganian, recorded by the Zoryan Institute in 1984. The institute has done immense work in documenting facts about the Armenian Genocide and has recorded over 700 testimonies of survivors.
I was mesmerized the first time I watched it. While painful to hear, the elderly woman appeared to grow more and more youthful as she spoke. Through her words and expressions, incredible but ordinary heroism shone. This woman survived a genocide but refused to be a victim; refused to be swept away by the tides of history. She agreed to relive her pain on-screen to show the world what was happening to Armenians and raise funds for orphans. The world and even we, Armenians, did not know much about her legacy. Her story had to be told.
From idea to completion, the film took almost eight years. Challenges were at each and every step, from developing a co-production structure and animating online during a pandemic to ceasing the production during the 2020 Artsakh war because our crew had to document the frontline. Eventually, we finished the film, mainly thanks to the devotion and professionalism of the team not only in Armenia but also in Lithuania and Germany.
We all believed in the film and had a mission – all that had helped us to move forward. Besides raising further awareness about our shared historic trauma, still denied by Turkey and many other countries, we also wished to portray a universal message of human resilience even under the harshest circumstances. A message that audiences beyond the Armenian community could also draw inspiration from. The story of Aurora Mardiganian can do for the memory of the Armenian Genocide what Anne Frank’s diaries did for the Holocaust remembrance, helping the world relate to unspeakable tragedy through her words.
Aurora’s Sunrise has a distinct visual style and striking storytelling. While freeing, sticking to a certain style also requires sacrifices. How did the style and medium you choose empower and limit you in telling this important story? What was the process like for developing such a special visual language?
My mission was to create a film that would take audiences beyond the cold facts of the genocide. To achieve that I decided to use a dynamic combination of mediums: animation, archival interviews with Aurora Mardiganian, and digitally-restored footage from Aurora’s 1919 film Auction of Souls.
As a documentary filmmaker, from the very beginning, I wanted to create a film around the documentary footage of Aurora Mardiganian. She is a fantastic character, very emotional and strong. I wanted her to tell the story and remind the audience that all that really did happen. So the first step was choosing the parts from her Zoryan Institutes and Armenian Film Foundation testimonies that would be included in the film.
The next step was adding the surviving footage of Aurora’s Hollywood film, Auction of Souls, in the narrative parts of the film with a special emphasis on the scenes where she is present. Besides being an important historical artifact from the Silver Screen Era, the footage further enhances our film’s tangibility.
"We could not imagine what a nightmare the production of more than 60 minutes of animation would be."
Then we needed to employ artistically powerful tools to visualize the film. From a very early stage, our creative team was against reenactment. Inspired by examples of other visually compelling animated documentaries, we decided to tell Aurora’s story through animation. Animation is a powerful medium for showcasing something as difficult as trauma. It portrays the representation of an event and not the event itself and allows the viewer to be deeply engaged with the narrative and thematic core of the story. At the same time, animation can communicate not only colors but even smells, tastes, and textures. It goes further than reproducing the events: it interprets them, like our brain does with memories, and allows symbols and motifs to speak loudly instead of drowning them in the utter realism of details. Animation as a medium became the soul of the film and allowed Aurora's forgotten story to become vivid again.
Of course, we could not imagine what a nightmare the production of more than 60 minutes of animation would be. At some point, we decided that the style and techniques we developed initially would not work and changed it entirely. We had to film all animated scenes with real actors on the green screen, illustrating and animating selected frames. The current animation style used in the film is based on a combination of different techniques – from classical animation and rotoscope to CG cut-out.
Again, this was only possible with the hard work of our great creative team. It is not possible to list all of them, but I would like to mention art director Tigran Arakelyan, editor and live-action director Ruben Ghazaryan, lead Illustrator Gediminas Skyrius, and lead character artist Rimas Valeikis among others.
As a creative person, you most likely had to put many ideas on hold while bringing Aurora’s Sunrise to life. Now that the production has been completed, what kind of project would you want to realize next?
Aurora’s Sunrise is still keeping me very busy since I am currently involved in the festival life of the film and the impact campaign’s realization.
At the same time, I am now in the early production stage of my next feature-length documentary Shakespeare Goes Armenian, co-directed with Lilit Movsisyan. The film documents how the daily strains of old age disappear as elderly residents of retirement homes in Armenia stage Shakespeare. While it seems like every performance may be the last one for my protagonists, the determination to succeed and try new and scary things drives them to carry on dreaming. Currently, we are in the early filming stage and plan to complete the film by the end of 2024. On the heels of the success of Aurora’s Sunrise, I am also laying the groundwork for an animated TV series, which is in the early development stage as of Winter 2023.
What did you accomplish in your Fellowship year and what are your next big milestones?
2022 was a unique year. Not only did we finally complete Aurora’s Sunrise, but I can proudly say that we succeeded in our goal to distribute it worldwide. This is in part thanks to the help of the Creative Armenia-AGBU Fellowship and especially the mentorship opportunities with Aram Yacoubian (Director of Original Content, Netflix) and Tobias Pausinger (Head of Acquisition & Development, The Match Factory).
The film had its world premiere at the Annecy International Animation Film Festival in 2022, the most-renowned animation festival in the entertainment industry, where it was screened in competition. It had its Armenian premiere at the International Competition of the Golden Apricot International Film Festival, where it was awarded the Silver Apricot Award. Afterward, the film was translated into French, Spanish, Italian, and other languages and traveled to more than 30 festivals worldwide, including International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (Netherlands), Black Nights Tallinn (Estonia), Goteborg International Film Festival (Sweden), DocHelsinki (Finland), Trieste Film Festival (Italy), and many others. The film also earned a number of awards, receiving Audience Awards at the Animation Film Festival (US) and at the Asian World Film Festival (US), Best Baltic Co-Production Award at Black Nights Tallinn (Estonia), Best International Feature Film award at MiradasDoc (Spain), and the Best Animated Film Award at the prestigious Asia Pacific Screen Awards (Australia).
To add to the film’s robust festival run, we also garnered critical approval with over 40 professional reviews in international publications such as Screen Daily, Los Angeles Times, POV Magazine, Animation World Network, and others.
The next milestone for me is to continue working on the distribution and outreach for Aurora’s Sunrise and ensure that it reaches an even larger audience worldwide. We have great festivals planned this spring, this time also including countries in Latin America and Asia. It is especially important that the film is included in the programs of human rights festivals, such as Movies That Matter in the Hague or International Film Festival and Forum on Human Rights in Oslo, which also organize panel discussions on human rights and historical injustice.
From the end of April of this year, the film will have a theatrical release in cinemas in the Netherlands and Belgium. We also are working on having theatrical distribution in the US. Currently, we are in negotiations with different broadcasters to have television distribution.
And of course, I will continue to work on my new film and ideas that are in development. I am also planning to be involved in educational activities and share my experience of co-production with young filmmakers in Armenia.