50.50: Feature

Animated documentary film tells story of ‘Armenia’s Anne Frank’

‘Aurora’s Sunrise’ tells the forgotten true story of a teenage girl who survived the Armenian genocide of 1915

Lucy Martirosyan
26 December 2022, 12.01am

Armenian genocide survivor Aurora Mardiganian – still from the animated documentary ‘Aurora’s Sunrise’


Bars Media

She is known as ‘Armenia’s Anne Frank’. Except, unlike the young Jewish girl in Nazi-occupied Amsterdam, what happened to Aurora Mardiganian was largely forgotten, until now.

‘Aurora’s Sunrise’ is Armenia’s official submission to the 2023 Academy Awards for best international feature film. The animated documentary tells the true story of a 14-year-old Armenian girl who escaped the 1915 Armenian genocide but was sold into sexual slavery. Through a combination of luck, wit and perseverance, Mardiganian managed to flee to the US, where she found fame in Hollywood alongside Charlie Chaplin and other silent-era stars.

“I always compare [Aurora’s story] with Anne Frank’s,” Inna Sahakyan, the Armenian director of the film, told openDemocracy. “[Frank] became a representation of how to keep humanity and artistic skills even during such horrific surroundings as the Holocaust.”

A forgotten hero

Aurora Mardiganian (Armenian name: Arshaluys Martikian) was born in 1901 to a prosperous silk manufacturer in the ancient Armenian town of Chmshkatsag in Dersim province (now Tunceli province in Turkey). The third of eight children, she saw many of her family killed in the 1915 genocide and was forced to join one of the death marches to the Syrian desert before being kidnapped and sex trafficked.

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She managed to escape and eventually reached the US, where she attempted (unsuccessfully) to find her last surviving brother by posting adverts in newspapers. As a result, her story was discovered and serialised in a newspaper, before being turned into a book, ‘Ravished Armenia’, published in 1918, and then into an American silent movie called ‘Auction of Souls’ (1919) – in which Mardiganian starred as herself.

The success of the film helped the US’s Near East Relief humanitarian campaign, set up in response to the Armenian and Assyrian genocides, to raise $116m and care for more than 132,000 orphaned survivors.

‘Auction of Souls’ premiere in Hollywood, 1919 – still from ‘Aurora’s Sunrise’

‘Auction of Souls’ premiere in Hollywood, 1919 – still from ‘Aurora’s Sunrise’


Bars Media

After the end of the First World War, the film was lost for 75 years. It was rediscovered after Mardiganian’s death in 1994, though only 18 minutes of footage, which was originally almost an hour-and-a-half long, was recovered.

The US didn’t recognise the Armenian genocide until 2021, joining 30 other countries in doing so. However, Turkey and the UK still don’t consider the massacre of 1.5 million Armenians by the Ottoman empire ‘genocide’.

It wasn’t until 2015. with the establishment of the Aurora Prize – Armenia’s annual international humanitarian award given on behalf of survivors of the Armenian genocide – that people started to remember Mardiganian, who died aged 93 in a Los Angeles care home.

“Before 2015, most Armenians did not know much about Aurora,” Sahakyan said. “This is very painful. Aurora is one of our heroes, but we forgot her the same way that Hollywood and the whole world did.”

While researching archival testimonies from survivors of the Armenian genocide at the Zoryan Institute, a US-Canadian charity, Sahakyan found a five-hour interview with Mardiganian as an elderly woman. It was then that she decided she wanted to make a feature-length documentary about Mardiganian.

“When you listen to the testimony, you see herself,” Sahakyan said. “You see an old woman who really still remembers and still continues her fight for her story to be told.”

Sahakyan incorporated parts of the interview into her documentary, alongside excerpts from the silent movie and original animation.

War through the eyes of a woman

What makes Sahakyan’s documentary unique is not only its blend of watercolour-esque animation and archival footage, but the fact that it shows the horrors of the Armenian genocide through the eyes of a woman. We learn from Mardiganian how women were kidnapped, raped and killed by Ottoman Turks in 1915.

“Women’s stories are not told much in our history in general,” Sahakyan said.

A teenage Aurora holding her baby cousin while on the death march to Syria – still from ‘Aurora’s Sunrise’

A teenage Aurora holding her baby cousin while on the death march to Syria – still from ‘Aurora’s Sunrise’


Bars Media

Two months ago, when Azerbaijan attacked Armenia and videos of Armenian servicewomen mutilated, tortured and killed by Azerbaijani soldiers went viral on social media, history seemed to be repeating itself, said Sahakyan. “I felt like 100 years passed, we’re in the 21st century, and nothing has changed.”

In fact, war was one of the main obstacles for Bars Media, the independent documentary production company that made the film. Sahakyan works for the company in Yerevan, Armenia’s capital.

Two years ago, during the Second Karabakh War, all the Armenian men working on the film were conscripted, and film production in the country had stopped. Without the help of Lithuanian and German co-producers who continued the animation work, ‘Aurora’s Sunrise’ would never have appeared.

Inna Sahakyan, director of ‘Aurora’s Sunrise’

Inna Sahakyan


Bars Media

“I was at a point where I was thinking, is it important what I’m doing now? Is it important to turn to history when you have kids, the young generation, being killed in large numbers and you’re totally useless. You can’t do anything to stop it,” Sahakyan said.

‘Aurora’s Sunrise’ debuted in Yerevan in early November. The film has won two awards so far and appeared at prestigious film festivals across the US and Europe, where Sahakyan is currently on a promotional tour, gearing up for Oscar nominations in January.

Since the film’s release, the Armenian diaspora has reached out to Sahakyan to share their ancestors’ genocide survivor stories.

“Sometimes we really want to forget about all of this, especially the new generation,” Sahakyan said, referring to Armenia’s history. “But this film, I see, reopens dialogue about important pages of our history and I really hope it becomes a good example of staying strong despite everything.”

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