Film historian Anthony Slide tells the story of star, Aurora Mardiganian
BY ANI BAGHDASARIAN
SAN FRANCISCO–Film historian and author, Anthony Slide, discussed the story behind a 1919 film documenting the life of Armenian Genocide survivor, Aurora Mardiganian, at the San Francisco Public Library on April 28. The event, hosted by the Bay Area Armenian National Committee and the library, also included a screening of the only remaining 20-minutes from the film, “Ravished Armenia,” as well as excerpts from Slide’s interview with Mardiganian.
“Both the lady and film did more than we can possibly acknowledge to bring the Armenian Genocide to the attention of Americans,” said Slide, who has authored or edited more than fifty books on the history of popular entertainment and has served as associate archivist of the American Film Institute and resident film historian of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. His 1997 book, “Ravished Armenia and the story of Aurora Mardiganian,” (Scarecrow Press, 1997), reprints Mardiganian’s original memoir and other original documentation on the film.
Slide gave the audience of approximately 200 an account of the life of Mardiganian (born, Arshalouys Mardigian), the behind-the-scenes story of how the film was made and publicized, and played excerpts from an interview he conducted with Mardiganian in the early 1990’s. The full-length motion picture is believed to be lost. It is unclear whether the recovered clips were part of the final film, or whether they are outtakes.
Mardiganian, who starred in the film, does not appear in the clips, which were provided by the Armenian Genocide Resource Center. The clips included an added introduction and subtitles explaining the events being depicted.
Slide explained that the story of “Ravished Armenia” begins on Easter Sunday, 1915, and ends in 1917, with Aurora Mardiganian wandering across the plains of Armenia watching as her family and her community are raped, robbed, and murdered. She later escaped to Russia, Norway, and eventually the United States.
When he first came across Mardiganian’s memoir, Slide said, “I became quite fascinated, and also frankly a little suspicious of the story. One reads of atrocity after atrocity, ethnic cleansing in its most brutal and savage form. As one turns the pages, one cannot help but wonder what the author can come up with next to top the last account of violence and sexual assault. Could it really be true that one woman, a woman named Aurora Mardiganian, was the principal character in this drama? Did she really exist? I really had doubts.”
Suspecting that the story was an amalgam based on the stories of all the suffering of the women of Armenia, Slide sought out Mardiganian herself. A series of inquiries led him to Van Nuys, California, where Aurora lived in a “tiny, tiny, one-room apartment.”
“I met this really sweet old lady, charming, and she seemed really pleased to have someone come and talk to her. She was so delighted to see me, she made stuffed grape leaves,” said Slide. “She also made me coffee and she gave me the coffee cup to take home, saying it was an Armenian tradition.” Slide said that when he was leaving, Mardiganian told him, “I hope Heavenly God will help you with his light, and you’ll be the one who will bring out the real truth of my life.”
Slide said that he didn’t realize how important his interview with Mardiganian would be, considering she was not only speaking as a witness to the making of the film he was writing about, but also as an eye witness to the Armenian Genocide. Had he considered it further, he may have conducted a much longer interview, than the one-hour he recorded with her, he added.
Mardiganian arrived in New York on November 5, 1917, as a teenager. A screenwriter and his wife, Harvey and Eleanor Gates, became her legal guardians. Working with the Near East Relief fund, which provided aid to Genocide survivors, they transcribed Mardiganian’s experience, and published the memoir as a book. Between 1918 and 1935, 30 editions of book were published, selling more than 1 million copies. The memoir was also published in serial form in the Hearst paper, New York American and in the Los Angeles Examiner.
Producer William Selig eventually bought the film rights to the story. Selig owned a movie studio in Los Angeles, where the film was shot, with Aurora Mardiganian starring as herself. Oscar Apfel, who had co-directed Cecil B Demille’s first film in 1913, was hired to direct “Ravished Armenia,” and among the cast was the major silent film star, Anna Q Nilsson, and Eugenie Besserer, who had played Al Jolson’s mother in the first sound film, The Jazz Singer.
The film was shot in less than one month in late 1918. Sets were built depicting Armenia, Mount Baldy represented Mt. Ararat, and desert scenes were reported to have been shot at the Santa Monica beach. Although many of the film’s scenes of genocidal acts were graphic, the U.S. censorship board approved it, saying it was “a frank, straightforward exposition of sufferings of Armenia, which make a sincere and powerful appeal to every drop of red blood in America’s manhood and womanhood.”
Some scenes in Mardiganian’s memoir, like that of a priest’s fingernails being torn out, were omitted from the film, and others, like the crucifixion of girls, were depicted less graphically than Mardiganian’s descriptions.
Nevertheless, the advertising for the film particularly exploited the circumstances, with lines like, “Ravished Armenia…Girls impaled on soldiers’ swords. Aurora Mardiganian sold for 85 cents.” The film was banned in Pennsylvania, but a court eventually overturned the censure.
The film was also screened in London under the title, “Auction of Souls,” after an investigation by Scotland Yard regarding whether it should be shown there. Because of concern that it would stir anti-British sentiment in the Muslim world, references to Christians in the subtitles were removed, as well as scenes of women being crucified.
Aurora Mardiganian was introduced to the public at the Alexandria Hotel in Los Angeles, at a luncheon hosted by the mayor in January, 1919, and the film premiered shortly after.
The New York premiere of the film at the Plaza Hotel took place in February, 1919, and was a major society event, with 1000 paying invitees. Later that month, Mardiganian spoke at the Civic Auditorium in San Francisco, during a fundraiser for Armenian and Syrian Relief. At the time, her leg was still bandaged from jumping 20 feet from a building on the set of the film. Filming continued after her fall, and Mardiganian reported to Slide that her leg bandages were visible in the final film.
Although Mardiganian briefly became a star, Slide described how she was exploited during the making of the film and the publicity affairs surrounding it. When the constant public appearances began to take their toll on Mardiganian and she began inquiring about an accounting for the money being raised for Armenian relief, she was sent to a convent school, and a series of “look-a-likes” were hired to take her place during public appearances. In 1921, she escaped the convent and sued Harvey Gates for money owed to her. Gates claimed that out of the more than $8,000 she had earned, most was used for publicity expenses. Only $195 was subsequently turned over to her.
“Everything relating to Ravished Armenia seemed to disappear,” Slide said, describing a sad end to both the film and Aurora Mardiganian herself. “Only a handful of still photographs were known to survive. No prints of the film seem to exist. All the records of the film held by Near East Relief were destroyed in a fire in 1964.” Slide said that all of the film documentation he had seen at Mardiganian’s home was probably destroyed when she died.
As for Mardiganian herself, she was taken to Ararat Home, the Armenian retirement facility, in January 1994. On February 5th, she was taken to Holy Cross Medical Center, where she died the next day. “There was nobody with her in the end,” said Slide. “No son, no friends, no members of the Armenian community for whom she had helped to raise so much money. Her body was cremated. Her ashes unclaimed, and four years later, as required by California law, she was buried in an unmarked grave with 2,099 others.”
Ani Baghdassarian, of the Bay Area Armenian National Committee expressed great appreciation to Anthony Slide for having written about Aurora Mardiganian and “Ravished Armenia,” and for his excellent presentation.
To order a DVD of the “Ravished Armenia” film clips (including a newly added introduction, music score, explanatory subtitles, and production stills), please send a check or money order for $10.95 plus $3 postage to Heritage Publishing, 5400 McBryde Ave., Richmond, California, 94805.