One problem is that the film's subject is an obscure one to casual Western viewers. But for Armenian nationals and expatriates, it is the central event in their narrative: their collective massacre at the hands of the Ottoman Turks in 1915. Setting the template for the bloody century to come, 1.5 million men, women and children died in their villages while Western Europe was preoccupied with their Great War. To this day, the Turkish government denies any knowledge of the slaughter. One witness was a Canadian Red Cross doctor named Clarence Ussher, whose perspective is one of many that make up Ararat.
Director Egoyan (The Sweet Hereafter, Exotica) is a Canadian of Armenian heritage, so Ussher becomes the natural focal point for his treatment of the story. However, Egoyan is also an intellectually rigorous filmmaker who never lets his emotions run unchecked. This leads to a second difficulty with the film: Egoyan's refusal to make a conventional movie that pushes the audiences' buttons of shock and outrage in superficial ways that allow them to continue enjoying their popcorn. (Schindler's List would be exactly the kind of movie Egoyan was trying not to make.)
Instead, we find that Ararat is a movie set in contemporary Canada about a group of Armenian filmmakers trying to make a movie about the genocide. (The fictitious famous director is played by Armenian-French singer Charles Aznavour, who was so heartbreaking in Truffaut's Shoot the Piano Player.) Egoyan's aesthetic hand-wringing leads to much discussion within the film of the proper way to make movies of historical tragedies. By the evidence of Ararat, Egoyan himself is conflicted: he clearly shares the grief and rage of his fellow Armenians, but he's repelled by the thought of making a conventional and perhaps exploitative movie about the horrible epoch.
The resulting film is a fascinating, exasperating and occasionally brilliant one that deserves greater attention than it has thus far received. Although Egoyan's theoretical rigor can chill the life out of certain sequences, many others work sensationally. Best of all is the scene where Bruce Greenwood, as a politically indifferent actor who plays the heroic Canadian doctor in the film within the film, makes a terribly moving speech on a flagrantly bogus set, under bright lamps and a boom microphone.