The film was featured out of competition at the 2002 Cannes Film Festival. It won five awards at the 23rd Genie Awards, including Best Motion Picture.
In Toronto, an Armenian Canadian family is headed by Ani, a widow whose husband attempted to assassinate a Turkish ambassador. Her adult son Raffi is involved in a sexual affair with Celia, who has accused Ani of pushing her father off of a cliff, while Ani insists he slipped and fell. Ani gives art history presentations on Armenian American painter Arshile Gorky, with Celia constantly attending and publicly heckling Ani about concealing the truth.
An Armenian film director, Edward Saroyan, arrives to Toronto with a goal to make a film about the Armenian Genocide and Gorky. Ani is hired as a historical consultant, with Raffi working on the project with his mother. A Turkish Canadian aspiring actor named Ali receives his big break when cast as Ottoman governor Jevdet Bey. Ali reads on the history of the genocide, which he had never heard much of before, and offends Raffi when he tells Saroyan that he believes the Ottomans felt the genocide was defensive, in light of World War I. Raffi attempts to explain to Ali that the Armenians were citizens of the Ottoman Empire and that the Turks were not at war with them. Ali shrugs the encounter off, saying they were both born in Canada and the incident is forgotten.
After Raffi returns to Canada from a flight to Turkey, he is interrogated at airport security by a retiring customs official named David, who has reason to believe Raffi is involved in a plot to smuggle drugs. Rather than employ drug-sniffing dogs, David speaks to Raffi at length, with Raffi claiming he had taken it upon himself to shoot extra footage in Turkey. In fact, the film is premiering that night. Inspired by his own son, David chooses to believe Raffi is innocent, without checking the film canisters which may contain the drugs.Charles Aznavour as Edward Saroyan
Christopher Plummer as David
David Alpay as Raffi
Arsinée Khanjian as Ani
Eric Bogosian as Rouben
Marie-Josée Croze as Celia
Brent Carver as Philip
Bruce Greenwood as Martin Harcourt, the actor playing Clarence Ussher
Elias Koteas as Ali, the actor playing Jevdet Bey
Lousnak as Shoushan, mother of Arshile Gorky
Simon Abkarian as Arshile Gorky
Garen Boyajian as young Arshile Gorky
Issues explored in the film include truth and art. Using a story within a story device, the film explores whether films should recreate war crimes, and whether films can alter facts to communicate more important truths.
Another theme of the film is gaps between generations, as it explores how later generations understand the historical record rather than the Armenian Genocide itself. Numerous Armenian Canadian characters in the film identify symbols with their heritage, such as pictures of Mount Ararat. The fictionalized Arshile Gorky's symbols are a button and a photo of his mother. Gorky is depicted in the film as a link between the history and current life of the Armenian people.
Director Atom Egoyan and his wife, actress Arsinée Khanjian, are Armenian Canadians, and some of Egoyan's ancestors had been lost in the genocide. Egoyan had attempted to explain the genocide to their son, Arshile, when he was around six. Arshile asked, "Did the Turks say sorry?" The film Ararat is intended as a response to that question.
Producer Robert Lantos had promised that he would support a film about the genocide if Egoyan ever felt prepared to make one. Alliance Films provided Egoyan a budget of $12 million.
For cinematography, Egoyan worked with his frequent collaborator Paul Sarossy, with shooting taking place over 45 days during summer 2001. The battle scenes depicting the Defense of Van were shot in Drumheller, Alberta, with some of the soldiers actually being computer generated. The Van villages were also computer generated.
Other scenes were shot at Cherry Beach in Toronto. The film could not be shot in Turkey or at the real Mount Ararat because of Turkey's denial of the genocide.
The film was made prior to the Parliament of Canada voting to recognize the Armenian Genocide in 2004. Egoyan said it was more important that the Turkish government accept the truth.
The film was screened out of competition at the 2002 Cannes Film Festival. The film also played on the opening day of the 2002 Toronto International Film Festival on 5 September. The film opened on 15 November 2002 in Los Angeles, New York City and Toronto.
The Italian release of Ararat was intended to for 24 April 2003. However, its showing was unexpectedly banned by Italian authorities a day before the planned release, with the authorities explaining that the film's distributor missed the deadline to apply for a mandatory censorship certificate. The Embassy of Turkey in Rome acknowledged its government did not want the film screened in Italy, but said it was not involved in the decision that the film would not be shown. Belge Film had permission from the Turkish government to release the film in Turkey itself, but opted not to when nationalists pledged to "take action". It ran on the Turkish TV station Kanaltürk four years later.
In the opening week after the limited release on 15 November, the film averaged $35,188 per screen. It made $162,000 in five theatres by 18 November. By 24 days, it had made US$1.1 million in North America.
The film completed its run on 30 January 2003, with a gross of $1,555,959 in North America. It grossed $1,187,377 in other territories for a total of $2,743,336.
Critical reception was mostly negative. In Canada, The Globe and Mail wrote "The metaphors are provocative, but too often, the viewer is left puzzled by the mechanics of the delivery." Brian D. Johnson, writing for Maclean's, called it frustrating, though also interesting, and said it fell short despite ambition. The National Post's review stated "Egoyan is almost crippled by a need to show all sides." At the Toronto International Film Festival, the national panel of judges placed it in the year's top 10.
Roger Ebert gave it two and a half stars, calling it "needlessly confusing," saying it "clearly comes from Egoyan's heart" but is "too much, too heavily layered, too needlessly difficult, too opaque." He also said it was disputed whether the film's quote from Adolf Hitler that the Armenian Genocide is forgotten is genuine. In The New York Times, Stephen Holden called the film a "profound reflection on historical memory," and "hands down the year's most thought-provoking film." The BBC's Tom Dawson wrote the film "feels clumsy and convoluted" compared to Egoyan's other work. Ararat has a 55% rating at Rotten Tomatoes, based on 76 reviews, and a metascore of 62 ("Generally favorable reviews") at Metacritic.
The film won several awards. These included five awards at the 23rd Genie Awards, which Ararat star Arsinée Khanjian co-hosted with actor Peter Keleghan. Egoyan was not present.
In 2008, the government of Israel also awarded the Dan David Prize to Egoyan for "creative rendering of the past." Ararat was especially a reason for the honour.