Personal handwriting... political document? - Notes (y 12 quotations) on Calendar

By Eckart Stein

The presence, the present as history—a good subject to talk about.

Calendar (1993) is a famous reality fiction by the Canadian Atom Egoyan. It isn’t strictly a documentary, but there are few films that permit me to investigate reality in such a profound way as Calendar does. Egoyan calls his movie a metaphor of separation. Calendar represents time and space, presence and history in the absurdity of their relation.

I think we live in an ideological revolution that brings revolutionary changes in the image and ideas, in reality and relations and our own identity. One monoideology is left on the stage. Now the brands and the market represent presence and history.

Expression and communication have been my professional homeland. Inviting me to talk about Calendar is a provocation to revolt in favour of expression and communication and our human relationship with the changes. I think Calendar is such a revolt, a provocation, a personal document of the crisis.

Story telling and history writing work together.

I have been working for public television for 40 years, for a late night workshop, for avant-garde, for daring films, for young films, also for politically provocative films.

The presence as history…In Egoyan’s film Toronto represents the present and the Calendar and Armenia are the past and the history. The main character on the stage – “la mise en scène” – is Atom himself. When he acts as a history writer we only see him while he is working on the images – in the present he is in the centre. He is a photographer who has been commissioned to shoot 12 Armenian churches for a heraldic calendar. We are with Atom and his calendar throughout those twelve calendar months and he sits in his room in Toronto. During one year, as each month passes, we are confronted with both the church on the wall and the same church as Atom watches his video rushes of the living “reality” in Armenia—he is shooting images of his wife and translator Arsinée, a Canadian-Armenian with double identity, and of their driver Ashot, an Armenian Armenian with an Armenian identity.

The number 12 determines the magic structure of the movie: 12 months last year, and 12 months this year. And the irony of 12 girls – each month Atom invites to his house one sexy girl, each one of them, at some point, asks for the phone and makes a phone call to her lover - with their 12 phone calls in 12 languages (Those twelve languages, Atom explains, are the languages of the 12 main Armenian homelands where Armenian Diaspora lives — Russian, German, Italian, Hebrew, Spanish, Turkish, Egyptian, etc.), 12 phone calls by Arsinée and 12 letters and so on.

Obeying the 12 rules of game I have chosen 12 quotations in my Calendar:

Atom Egoyan 1
The first quotation: Rene Magritte:
Images interest you because of their similarity to the things you do not recognize in the original

Atom is working on such images in Armenian past and present, in Toronto: photographs, 8 mm, video, 12 mm… The Armenian history in three representations: Ashot is as hot as the real Armenia, Arsinée as the Diaspora (an Armenian still with Armenian identity) and Atom as a totally assimilated Armenian.

In Canada, Atom watches videos that he made in Armenia, as he watches he is more and more concerned that the images he took reflect the growing intimacy between Arsinée, and Ashot. We see them several times going out of the frame, coming in. Once, Atom waits 2 minutes and 54 seconds at a church entrance, the time it takes for Arsinée to notice he’s there. Atom becomes voyeuristic love detective at work and we become his accomplices. Neither his homeland nor his fatherland interest him, not even the interior of the churches, nor those 40 virgins who came over to spread Christianity there, nor the hunger, nor the war of 1992. Atom’s narcissism and our voyeurism find each other in the present and the past.

Bresson sad: 'I invent you as you are'.
This one sentence for me is a key to understanding a person in a documentary. Atom Egoyan does it with obsession; the questions are: Where are we? Were you there? Where are you? – the last two are also the last words of the film, it is what Arsinée said to the answering machine in her last (12th ) phone call to Atom. At the beginning of the movie, in Armenia, Atom explains his relation to his Armenian origin: ‘We are from here, but being from here made me someone from elsewhere’.

Story telling, history writing.
Carlo Emilio Gadda: 'Conoscere é inscrire alcunque nel reale e, quindi, deformare il reale'.

Yes, Atom Egoyan is continually deforming his images in order to understand the reality, especially his love. Yes, it is not possible to do a documentary without deforming reality. It is not possible to write history without telling stories.

4, 5, 6, 7
Telling about presence in history.
Bill Gates said it in a simple sentence: 'He who owns the images owns the heads'.

Yes, we live in a period of Berluscolonialisation… in the so-called global world. Benjamin has already warned that we are becoming increasingly alike because we are not only consumers, but the product itself.

A German sociologist explained it coolly: there are two kinds of people: 'designers and consumers'. Or a famous model: 'I am a product everybody wants'.

8, 9
The claustrophobic presence of Atom, the Calendar, the 12 girls, the videoreflection, the telephone… The letters, the red wine in Toronto: yes, our life is structured ritually like history. Love and Armenia and the churches are history like the 40 virgins who brought Christianity to Armenia.

You see, I think irony is our way of dealing with absurdity of our reality, in the past and in the present. I love the Greek story of Tiresias. 'He was blinded by Hera, but Jupiter then made him a prophet capable of seeing things in the reality'. We are not capable of seeing with our eyes.

Atom shows us how Arsineé, the translator and the lover, and Ashot, the driver and the foreigner who steals his lover – finally move out of his frame. And he tells her: ‘You make me feel like a stranger. Have you forgotten our history?’
Irony, in my understanding, is a form of reason. And Francis Picabia (in the same understanding as Magritte, Gadda and Bresson, as a contradiction) said: 'Reason is a light that makes me see things as they are not'. We have to understand that we are capable of understanding things as they are as well as things as they are not. For me, a good documentary must always do both.

10, 11, 12
I need three more calendar quotations. I will give you three optimistic political statements of the history, still important for our action today, if we do not want to contribute to the branded-product consumer market.

'Similar people cannot create a polis. Only dissimilar people can create a polis'. Aristotle. My conclusion: let us create a subversive new media polis.

Thomas Aquinas said: 'You need rage for courage'. Let us live with this courage.

And finally, Leopardi: 'We need pessimism for the analysis in order to win optimism for action'.

Let us be optimistic and find alternatives. By the way, Calendar only cost 100,000 dollars.

CALENDAR (72’) written and directed by Atom Egoyan, with Arsinée Khanjien, Ashot Adamian, Atom Egoyan. Ego Films arts, Toronto, Das Kleine Fernshehspiel, ZDF. 1993.

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