Remember the days of old,
consider the years long past;
ask your father, and he will inform you;
your elders, and they will tell you.
The two previous films of Canadian filmmaker Atom Egoyan that I have seen deal with the past and its often painful effects that linger on. In The Sweet Hereafter it is the recent past, the aftermath of a school bus accident in which several young children perished and a talented teenaged girl is crippled, destroying her hopes for a singing career. In Ararat it is the distant past, the early 20th Century massacre of Armenians by the Turks, still resonating in the work of an aging filmmaker an art historian, and her son and stepdaughter. Much of the tagline for the second film could apply to Mr. Egoyan’s new film, “A Quest For Truth… Among Lies, Deception And Denial.” As with all of his films, this new one raises important questions we all must deal with in regard to the past.
In our related Scripture passage Moses is depicted as instructing the Israelites to “Remember the days of old,” one of a great many passages in which the people are to remember how God liberated them from captivity and cared for them in the wilderness. In the case of orphaned teenager Simon (Devon Bostick) memories of the past are not so benevolent. As he videotapes his dying grandfather Morris (Kenneth Wilson) on his camcorder, the old man’s story of Simon’s father is laced with spite and hatred. An otherwise kind and wise-seeming old man, Morris asserts that Simon’s Lebanese father Sami (Noam Jenkins) deliberately killed his wife Rachel (Rachel Blanchard).
Morris had two children, Rachel, who died in the car driven by Sami, and Tom (Scott Speedman), once regarded as the family troublemaker. After his sister’s death, Tom raised Simon, supporting them through his tow truck business. He seldom stays the full time during hospital visits, leaving when the old man starts talking bitterly about the past. Rachel had been a concert violinist—an early, and recurring scene, is of her standing on a dock with young Simon watching her play a quiet melody on her instrument. Her legacy to Simon is the valuable violin, to which, Simon learns, his father, a restorer of rare violins, had replaced the scroll (itself an inferior one) with another one, possibly made by the same 18th century craftsman who had fashioned the body.
At his Toronto high school Simon’s French teacher Sabine (Arsinee Khanjian) reads a news account of a Palestinian who had sent his pregnant girl friend on a plane, supposedly to visit his family in the Middle East. Unknown to her, he has placed explosives in her luggage, which are discovered by Israeli security officers. As an exercise Sabine gives the class the assignment to translate the story into French. When Simon decides to write the story as if he were the surviving child of the woman, his teacher asks that he share his paper with the class. Simon, pretending that the story is true, sets into motion a series of reactions that reveal the prejudices of a variety of people—at first the student, and then, when he rashly shares the paper on the Internet, with people from all over the world. Even some of the almost-victims on the plane flight join in the debate, as well as at least one who thinks that such stories are like the myth of the Holocaust, stories made up by people who want the world’s sympathy.
Jumping back and forth in time, and featuring sometimes Simon’s parents and incidents from the story of the girlfriend of the explosives planter and security agents, the film is confusing at times. A further complication is the mysterious visit of a veiled Muslim woman who admires the large, colorful crèche scene that Tom and Simon are setting up in front of their home one evening—and whom the suspicious uncle orders off his property. The connection between her, Sabine, and, as it turns out with Simon’s dead father are woven together in a tapestry of the dark threads of prejudice and misunderstanding. As with the other Egoyan films that I have seen, this is a worthy exploration of past, present and the search for truth and one’s identity.
For Reflection and Discussion The following contains spoilers.
1. What did you think of Grandfather Morris during the first part of the film? How did this change as more of the facts about Simon’s parents were revealed? How is the grandfather’s view of Middle Easterners all too common in this country, and apparently Canada?
2. Why do you think that Simon apparently identifies with the pregnant woman and her unborn child in the story? Do you think his grandfather’s hatred of the boy’s father led the boy to merge his father with that of a terrorist willing to destroy the lives of 400 people for the sake of his cause?
3. What role does technology play in the film—Simon is very much a child of the Internet Age, isn’t he? How did you feel during the Internet sequence when, just after a Holocaust survivor shows her tattooed numbers on her wrist, a man shows his own wrist tattooed with its message of hate? To what does the “six million” refer?
4. Were you puzzled by the burka-clad woman who stopped by, supposedly to admire the crèche scene that Tom and Simon were setting up? How were you surprised to learn of Sabine’s involvement in Simon’s past? How is she the key to Simon’s coming to terms with his past and his Middle eastern heritage?
5. What do you think of Simon’s statement during the exchange on the Internet about terrorists, especially his words, “but if every life was precious we would multiply ourselves into extinction” ?
6. Who do you think matures the most in the story—Simon, Tom, or Sabine?
7. Why do you think that Simon sawed off the scroll of his mother’s violin? What does he keep and what does he let go (remember the money strapped Tom had asked about selling the instrument)? How is this symbolic of what all of us must do with our past as we seek to live in the present and move into a future that we hope will be better?
8. What do we learn about viewing the past: that is, how is it colored by those who inform us about it? What does Simon learn about his father that brings him to a truer understanding of his parents’ death than the twisted words of his grandfather? What does Simon’s burning the crèche signify about this? How might this film help in regarding your own past or heritage, especially some of its darker aspects?