Sona Tatoyan – actress, Syrian, Armenian, American, Anatolian – is making a film about the Armenian Genocide based on the novel, Three Apples Fell from Heaven, by Micheline Aharonian Marcom. The screenplay has been adapted by Oscar-nominated writer Jose Rivera and will be directed by Shekhar Kapur, the director of the historical biopics on Queen Elizabeth Elizabeth (1998) and The Golden Age (2007), which garnered several Academy Award nominations.
The story travels from slaughter in what is modern-day Turkey to refuge in Beirut, Lebanon, passing through Syria. Survivors in Sona's family found safety in Syria and only recently left Aleppo, after nearly a hundred years there. Today, they are trying to establish lives in Armenia.
Sona Tatoyan answers questions about her own family's story, the making of the film, and the complications of identity.
Why are you making a film about the Armenian Genocide?
I am making a film about the Armenian Genocide because I can't not make a film about the Armenian Genocide. This story has been an obsession of mine since I was a kid trying to understand my own family history: Why were we Armenian but living in the States? Why was our extended family in Syria, where my mother and father grew up, surrounded by Arabs? What were these family stories about exile and slaughter from our original homes in places like Kharpert, Urfa, Aintep, and how come I never came across those stories in the history books of my youth, in American schools in Indiana and California where I had a nomadic upbringing?
Why did you choose Three Apples Fell from Heaven?
I came across this novel in my early 20s—having read so many others out of this obsession to know more, learn more. Being a lover of literature and a self-described dork, I fell in love with its poetry, its language, its visceral, lyrical way of telling the story. I remember the exact moment, reading a passage about one of the central characters walking through the town and seeing the heads of men on pikes after slaughter—and it was written in such stunning, visual language that I literally saw the scene in my head. The book had the ability to draw me in further with the beauty of its language, while at the same time the content of what it was describing stunned and horrified me. I found that juxtaposition of beauty and horror incredibly exciting and could see that it would make a great film. The novel also had several magical realistic sequences, which impacted the reader on an emotional level, and allowed the story to exist in myth and surreality. Given the subject matter, genocide, this is so fitting. How else can we even start to grasp that level of destruction? It's all very surreal.
What is your own family's story?
On my father's side, my great grandmother Lucine was pregnant with my grandfather when her husband was beheaded. She gave birth to my grandfather and marched to Aleppo. The details beyond that we do not know. I can imagine the level of shame that must be wrapped around what a young woman had to endure with an infant in those conditions to safely arrive at the refugee camps of Aleppo. My paternal grandmother was born in Aintep to a very wealthy family—and they were able to arrange a passage to escape, having been forewarned of the doom that was coming.
On my mother's side, also, there was privilege. They had Turkish friends who told them they needed to flee. So, that's what they did. They left Urfa and went to Aleppo and tried to re-start a life there.
Why did they stay in Syria?
They stayed because Syria was hospitable to them. Syria embraced the community and let them live in relative freedom—to retain their language, culture and religion.
How did your family see being Syrian? Or being in Syria?
My family has always been very proud of being Syrian and very grateful for what they were able to create in Syria. There is an intense feeling of pride.
What is the status of the film now?
The film is in pre-production.
What is your role in the film?
That's such a large question. I mean, this film is my child in a lot of ways. I remember the moment I envisioned it as a film. I approached the incredible screenwriter Jose Rivera to adapt it, and he so graciously saw the beauty and poetry and potential as well. I got in touch with the novelist and told her I'd like to option the book for adaptation and took several research trips to the Der Zor desert in Syria (the killing fields and end point of those deportation marches), and also went to Kharpert in Turkey, etc. I have been working on this film for 11 years. In the summer of 2012, I went to Armenia on a gut instinct to somehow start production and met a man who within days came on board to fund development. Shortly thereafter, Jose and I reached out to filmmaker Shekhar Kapur, who fell in love with the script and joined us immediately.
It's tough, because for years and years I was pretty much laughed at during meetings in Hollywood and dismissed. Who was this young, naïve girl who wanted to make a film about the Armenian genocide? Who wants to see a film about that, for god's sake! But I honestly felt like something larger was driving me. It wasn't an intellectual exercise for me—it was really a deeply emotional one. Logic and reason had nothing to do with it—so even in the face of closed door after closed door, I just kept going. All I knew is that I wanted to have the film completed in time for 2015—the centennial of the genocide.
What became apparent to me, and what is so humbling, is that I have changed so much as a result of this journey. Going to Turkey, engaging with people on the ground, meeting like-minded Turkish artists, liberals and activists was such an eye-opening experience that it helped me to evolve the rage I had felt for so long as a child and young person into a tool for compassion and understanding. To me, the telling of this story is vital, because it will memorialize the world that was lost due to such a terrible atrocity. The telling will also create an opportunity for dialogue and incite change and healing.
More than ever, I see two traumatized cultures that have been stunted in a lot of ways because of their inability to deal with the trauma. Turkey needs to acknowledge the Armenian Genocide, as much for the sake of Armenians as for themselves. Living under that much denial has been detrimental to the Turkish psyche. My hope is that in a film like this, which my director says should be "a mirror for society," we will be able to explore our humanity in its full spectrum—from the most depraved elements to the greatest heights of our courage and compassion.
In addition to being the mama of this film, I will be acting in it as well. And ironically, the role I am playing is of a woman named Lucine (like my great-grandmother) who also is pregnant in the film when unspeakable tragedy befalls her.
What are you hopes for this film?
So many. It is essential to tell this story to the world, because the Armenian Genocide was the first mass atrocity of the 20th century. This is when the concept of human rights became a legal category for the first time. The word "genocide" was coined by Raphel Lempkin in 1943 to literally describe what happened to the Armenians in 1915, and yet, ironically, a word which was coined to describe a specific historical event is always referred to in Turkey as "the so-called genocide."
The film will speak the truth, and will allow that truth to be healing to both sides of this equation: the descendants of the Turks and Armenians. It will touch people on the level of the heart, our human level, and help inspire dialogue between these two cultures. For sanity, it is essential to somehow, someday, move forward and not be defined by the losses of our past.
How has your self-identification changed over the course of your life?
Growing up in the States, I was seen as Armenian (or Syrian)—essentially, the other. I didn't look like the American kids in rural Indiana or Alabama. My parents had accents. I ate weird food at lunch. In the summers in Aleppo, I was American—fair-skinned and light-eyed and speaking English with my sisters in an act of defiance. I've always been an outsider to the two cultures of which I am a part. Apart from my summers in Aleppo, I had no Armenian community in the States. I didn't grow up in LA or New Jersey or other places with Armenian communities. We were pretty much a lone, singular family and our Armenian-ness was within the confines of our family home, where my mother made us speak this ancient language. And I hated it—I must say. I just wanted to fit in—to belong—as I think most kids do.
It wasn't until I went to college and had the great fortune of studying with Maya Angelou that that reticence towards my ethnicity started to change. I became curious, and I began to appreciate what made me different. I delved further into my cultural history and I became incensed. Here was a genocide that was widely written about at the time in the American press, and yet the USA and some countries still shy away and deny this fact due to political considerations.
I would say it was at this point that my "Armenian-ness" came about! I became obsessed to get to the bottom of this intricate issue. I learned more, and I began to identify more. But that's not the whole picture—there are Armenians nearly in every corner of this world, and what it means to be Armenian is so varied, fractured. Syria was such a huge part of my identity and childhood, so at some point I had to start owning that. And of course, I'm an American—born and pretty much raised in the States, but I am deeply critical of many aspects of U.S. foreign policy, because the concept of humanitarianism is used as a cover for political interests.
And now, I've been living a nomadic existence for nearly the last two years—traveling extensively while working on this film—to Armenia, Turkey, Dubai, and now India, where I've been for the last two months. And I'm often faced with the question: Where are you from? And I always have to give a very circuitous answer.
I feel elements of home in many places: In modern-day Armenia, even though the eastern dialect of Armenian is not the one of my upbringing. In Turkey, specifically Anatolia, where the food, music, smells, sounds, chaos are so familiar to me – where people look like me. In Aleppo, where there is such physical connection…
In a way, I have come to the conclusion that if I had to narrow down one identity for myself it would be "artist." Because I feel most at home as an actor or writer or producer, when I am creating something I am passionate about, when I am telling stories that I deeply care about, stories that don't get much of a voice.
How does it feel to be making this film as Syria disintegrates?
It is heartbreak every single day. The irony of the parallel is so hard for me. The Armenian community there is a fraction of what it once was. That community was a stronghold of what remained post-genocide.
While I was in Armenia in the summer of 2012 and the initial elements of this film were starting to really fall into place, 13 members of my family relocated to Yerevan because of the Syrian situation. It was surreal. It was déjà vu all over again for them: leaving their homes and having to start anew. It made me ponder at length this Armenian condition—this diaspora—being rootless in so many ways, dispersed. I am writing my own feature script about this very story, currently entitled, The Summit and the Well.
It's so painful—Aleppo and Syria were the only constants in my own nomadic American upbringing. We moved around in the States a lot—my father is a physician and wanted to work in small-town America. But I went to Syria for the first time when I was 9 months old. Had my first birthday there, took my first steps there, was baptized there, and spent nearly every summer of my childhood there. My grandmother's house in Sulemaniyeh in Aleppo had been a fixture for our family for 70 years.
My grandmother died there December 2012, and refused to leave her home to go to Armenia. The house is now shuttered.
It's like layer upon layer of loss, and for me now, it's about finding a center that is not defined by so much traumatic fracturing. In so many ways, being Anatolian-Armenian is an exercise in gluing pieces of yourself and your history together.