Burning down the house
'The pain of those who have lost or will lose access to their land and roots... is very difficult to picture. Near impossible'
This is about a film again – this time Atom Egoyan’s 1991 feature, The Adjuster.
Noah, played by Elias Koteas, is an adjuster of insurance claims in the aftermath of residential fires. He helps customers restore their fire-destroyed lives. He asks them to bring him pictures of their homes before the fire as evidence.
Rose Sarkisyan plays Seta, the sister of Noah’s wife, a silent woman who stays with the couple. Seta is always at home. When she is not occupied with a young boy we assume is her son, she looks at photographs. These are black and white photos that she receives in big manila envelopes full of stamps. She studies them, spreads them on tables, sorts them out, organises them. From time to time she picks a specific one, studies it, and then, over an ashtray, sets it alight with a cigarette lighter.
The film takes place in Canada. Seta’s clothes are perfectly modern, perfectly Canadian. Noah’s house, in which she lives, is perfectly Canadian too; the furniture, albeit a bit scarce, is also Canadian, western.
The photos Seta is burning show nothing Canadian, though. We don’t know much about Seta’s connection to them. We can surmise a life somewhere far away; rural landscapes, dusty villages, distant smiley faces, friendly animals. We see fragmented evidence of someone else’s distant life. It burns holes in Seta’s soul.
Seta stands out. We never hear her utter a single word, not in English, nor in any other language. We see her whispering to the ears of her boy. The boy’s face, just like the faces in Seta’s photographs, has its roots elsewhere.
Atom Egoyan, a Canadian film maker, is, as his name suggests, of Armenian origin. I do not know the details – I choose to avoid Google search as I write this – but it is easy to imagine that he shares some of Seta’s pain. The lands of his ancestors in eastern Anatolia, now part of Turkey, are lands that he also cannot visit. They burn in his soul.
The pain of those who have lost or will lose access to their land and roots – call them evacuees, refugees, immigrants – is very difficult to picture. Near impossible.
Just try to imagine.
Imagine that it’s you who have to leave. You have to leave tomorrow. You can only take with you a small suitcase. It’s not that someone really forces you to leave everything behind. It just makes sense: the less you carry, the more flexible you are. What will you choose to salvage?
The room next to yours is your late grandfather’s. More like storage now, it’s all boxes and boxes full with whatever came his way and he chose to keep. It’s a room full of fragments of a whole life. A mess, really.
You enter this room. What will you keep?
Look around. Perhaps that picture of so long ago that showed him propping you up as a toddler, trying to make your first steps? Or that undated love letter? You would like to believe that it is from the woman who was to become your grandmother. Is it? Will you keep it? That book he got as a present when he was just fourteen years old and future was still possible? Or the ticket from that famous trip he took when he finished school? You have heard him talking about this trip so many times. Will you keep that? Will you keep anything else of the myriad of other things that are piled up there, in that room?
Will you keep anything at all?
Who are you? Who were you? Who have you been?
Were you an older villager, a peasant, living in your ancestors’ lands in eastern Anatolia? Were you uprooted and forced to march towards the Syrian desert by paramilitary Ottoman escorts with no food and water? Did you survive?
Was that not you? Then perhaps you were that young doctor from Aleppo? The one with the hobby in local history, about which you were writing on the internet? You too were forced to leave. Different times, different reasons. Am I confusing you with someone else? Was it not you who had to leave everything behind? In desperation you crossed Turkey towards the west. You were intercepted on entering Greece, was that not so? People shouted at you, exploited you. But those older women who knew better gave you bread and water to drink.
Where are you now?
Who else could you have been?
Seta, perhaps? The sister of Noah’s wife in the film?
You see, if you are, indeed, Seta, we never learn your name. Nobody calls you by name. We only read it in the end-titles. You have a name but at the same time it is as if you don’t have one.
You burn the photographs they send you. Who sends them?
Why do you burn them?
Is it that you want to carve a space where you can be alone and make sense of your loss?
You want to mourn. You want to make sense of the loss. You need to make it your own. And that’s only possible when you can change it. A black and white photograph of a village in eastern Anatolia is evidence. It’s useful for an adjuster, perhaps, but you don’t need evidence. You are the evidence, silent in the comfy but a bit empty Canadian flat you live in.
You don’t need evidence. What you need is memories.
Memories of the house you can’t have.
That’s why you burn the photos. You are turning them into memories.
You are burning down the house.
This piece was originally published in the September issue of Splinters.
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