Review: Inna Sahakyan’s ‘Aurora’s Sunrise’

Aurora's Sunrise Review - 2022 Inna Sahakyan Documentary Movie Film

Vague Visages’ Aurora’s Sunrise review contains minor spoilers. Inna Sahakyan’s 2022 documentary features Aurora Mardiganian, Anzhelika Hakobyan and Arpi Petrossian. Check out the VV home page for more film reviews, along with cast/character summaries, streaming guides and complete soundtrack song listings.


As a native Midwesterner, I’m fascinated by first impressions. The most colorful of personalities might be interpreted as a quiet, naive individual, when in fact their facade — or presentation, if you will — is typically a product of the environment. That’s why the Coen brothers’ Fargo (1996) remains so fascinating to the public at large, given the film’s blend of distorted reality and pop culture, and that’s why older Midwesterns typically trust anyone who approaches them with a big smile. When I moved to Hollywood during the mid-2000s, I realized how easy a person like myself could be manipulated, evidenced by interactions with various colorful personalities who carefully fine-tuned their first impression facade. Now, years later, I understand the need to mutate — the need to adapt to new environments: survival via changing colors, survival through resistance.

Aurora’s Sunrise is grounded in color, memories and unfortunate facts. Inna Sahakyan’s 2022 film — the first-ever animated documentary made in Armenia, and the country’s official Oscar selection for Best International Feature Film — shifts between bright hues and sobering black-and-white photographs of the Armenian genocide between 1915 and 1917, during which approximately 800,000 to 1.2 million Armenians were slaughtered. Aurora’s Sunrise documents the life and times of Arshaluys Mardigian aka Aurora Mardiganian, an Armenian woman who somehow managed to escape her captors and flee to America, where she became a national sensation due to her highly publicized story, and also because of her starring role in Auction of Souls (1918), a watered-down Hollywood production about her life.

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Aurora's Sunrise Review - 2022 Inna Sahakyan Documentary Movie Film

Visually, Sahakyan uses Mardiganian’s words for creative inspiration. In the opening minutes of Aurora’s Sunrise, the subject appears as an elderly woman in vibrant clothing, and states that she never forgot the colors of her childhood. Sahakyan contrasts this particular sequence with the pure brutality of the unthinkable massacres, along with Mardiganian’s recollection of a river (the Euphrates) full of corpses. As Aurora’s Sunrise progresses, the filmmaker explores various moods with her animation; a technique that vibes with the changing color palette.

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For example, a first act animated sequence in Aurora’s Sunrise thematically underlines Mardiganian’s fear immediately after being captured, with the staging of figures reminding of classic Guillermo del Toro films about frightened yet hopeful protagonists. Sahakyan steadily returns to ethereal, nature-themed animation, and ultimately complements the subject’s most pleasant memories by highlighting motion, such as when Mardiganian recalls a chance encounter with a future movie icon named Charlie Chaplin while preparing to shoot the aforementioned Auction of Souls.

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Aurora's Sunrise Review - 2022 Inna Sahakyan Documentary Movie Film

The Auction of Souls footage in Aurora’s Sunrise adds another layer of depth. One, the completed film mysteriously disappeared a century ago, and so the inclusion of surviving imagery makes Sahakyan’s documentary somewhat of a restoration film. Two, Aurora’s Sunrise transforms into a meta-production as Mardiganian discusses the horrors of making a Hollywood movie about her horrific experiences, some of which were “too grim” for American audiences to see in movie theatres. The Auctions of Souls footage is obviously black and white, so it organically aligns with Sahakyan’s storytelling techniques via color.

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And this brings me back to first impressions. Were Mardiganian’s Hollywood experiences entirely forgettable? Are the black-and-white visuals of Auctions of Souls steeped only in truth? No, of course not. There’s always more to the story. Some things didn’t happen in real life, and some Hollywood people showed love to Mardiganian but still manipulated her all the same. I’m reminded of the fantastic FX on Hulu series Reservation Dogs and a traumatized Native American character known as Deer Lady (Kaniehtiio Horn), who reminds a fellow survivor to keep smiling, even when the color palette of their natural habitat shifts from lovely greens and bright yellows to solid reds and blacks.

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Aurora's Sunrise Review - 2022 Inna Sahakyan Documentary Movie Film

Aurora’s Sunrise might’ve benefitted from more imagery of Mardiganian as a young woman. Meaning, the audience doesn’t receive a good look at the subject, during the late 1910s, until late in the film’s second half. But perhaps this was a filmmaking decision that positions the viewer in the mud, in the shit, alongside Mardiganian. The same concept applies for a devastating photo montage during the final act of Aurora’s Sunrise. Pacing, pacing, pacing. Sahakyan invites the audience along for a cinematic journey and then smacks them across the face. “Don’t look away,” the director seems to communicate, “and don’t you forget what you’ve seen and heard.” Mission accomplished.

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Black and white films disappear because the pictures don’t receive the love they need. Black and white movies often get labeled as boring, lifeless and irrelevant. But what about people who consume, consume, consume and take away nothing meaningful from the experience? Do they love cinema and what documentaries can help us understand about human history? Or do such individuals simply need to feel the pain of others instead of addressing their own? Seek out Aurora’s Sunrise, sit with it, and then think about how any lingering pain can be used for good.

Aurora’s Sunrise releases theatrically on August 11, 2023 in New York City at Village East and New Plaza Cinema. The film premieres in Los Angeles on August 18 and will also screen in Toronto on September 1 at Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema. Director Inna Sahakyan will make in-person appearances at each event. 

Q.V. Hough (@QVHough) is Vague Visages’ founding editor.

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