A celluloid 'sadhvi'

World cinema

Her large grey eyes express anguish as she recounts the Armenian cataclysm of 1915. Sona Tatoyan, actor and writer, is consumed by the film that she hopes to make on the genocide against her people. According to Tatoyan and Wikipedia, the term ‘genocide’ was coined after the Ottomans systematically slaughtered 1.5 million Armenians, while expelling them from the country. They killed able-bodied Armenian men and made widows and children march from Kharpert, in western Armenia, which is now part of Eastern Anatolia in Turkey, to the arid deserts of Syria; raping, looting and killing them en route.

Born in Baltimore, US, Tatoyan is a first generation Syrian-Armenian American. She studied scriptwriting at the Sundance Institute in America and is married to Jose Rivera, the Oscar-nominated Puerto Rican-American playwright and screenplay writer, who scripted the Oscar winning, The Motorcycle Diaries, a biopic on Che Guevera, in 2004. Tatoyan is currently pursuing her dream of filming Three Apples Fell From Heaven, a critically-acclaimed novel about the Armenian massacre, written by author Micheline Aharonian Marcom. The book has been adapted into a screenplay by Rivera and will be directed by Shekhar Kapur. A formidable combination, she declares.

Tatoyan is not just putting it all together, but is also playing her great grandmother in it. Working in it will not only be cathartic for her, she says, but the film can also work as a healing bridge between two cultures…the Turks, who are in denial and the Armenians, who were the victims.

Tatoyan is a good storyteller and recounts the history of three generations of her family, lucidly. After the genocide, her great grandparents fled to Syria, where her parents were born. Her paternal family went to Lebanon for a while, but her father left for the US at the age of 16 to study medicine. When he was 27, her maternal grandfather brought his 18-year-old daughter to meet him. “My two grandfathers sat in Queens, New York and arranged the marriage of their children,” she chuckles.
From a completely sheltered life in Alleppo, Syria, her mother slowly learnt the ropes in America, says Tatoyan. She has changed a lot since those early days, she recounts, “but she was conservative when I was growing up”. She laughingly recalls the time her mother chased her around the house, hurling abuses at her, when she learnt she had a boyfriend. “I was 21 and in my senior year, already old by American standards,” she chuckles, but virginity was treasured in nubile Armenian girls at that time.

Life in America was not easy, she says. Even though she was born and brought up in America, she spent her summers in her granny’s house in Alleppo with her Syrian family, learning all that there was to know about Armenian history and the genocide. Back home in America, she would desperately look for passages mentioning the holocaust in history books, but found none. That confused and frustrated her.
Her American friends found her ethnicity “weird”. From the woolen, Armenian clothes to her different appearance (“chubby, with thick eyebrows, jet black hair and fuzz on her arms and legs”) to her mother’s awkward English and the food that she cooked….everything seemed strange. Once a classmate, watching her eat zaatar, (a middle eastern delicacy that has a brown, pasty appearance), wondered aloud as to why she was eating “shit”. That did it, laughs Tatoyan, “I just decided to be as American as I could. I wanted to be ‘light’ like them…have light hair, eat light food and lead a ‘light’ life, unburdened by a heavy, traumatic history.”

But all that changed when she grew older. She began to feel that her history made her special. And that ethnicity was not a bad word, but an asset. In college, Tatoyan studied English Literature and theatre — the refuge of the ‘fringe’ as she called it. There, she found her calling. Soon she was directing plays.
That is when she met Rivera. She was asked to direct his play, Cloud Tectonics, which had moved her immensely. He was approachable, she says. Three years later, they were in a relationship. “I was 23 and he was 24 years older than me. He was a divorcee with a 14-year-old daughter…the age difference between her and me was smaller than that between him and me,” she laughs.

The duo run a theatre company called Door-Key Productions. And now they plan to make a film out of Three Apples Fell From Heaven. The book, written in the magical realism style, is also indebted to Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things, for its technique, says Tatoyan. “The prose is gorgeous although the theme is horrific. But Rivera has been able to maintain the poetry of the book with his “filmic architecture”, she says. And Shekhar Kapur’s sensitivity and artistic vision will add to it, she declares with conviction. 

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