Though the role of technology in the lives of ordinary people is a theme as old as the film medium itself, the 90’s saw some of the first forays into how home video, which was an enormous leap in terms of accessibility of film itself, could influence people’s perceptions. The most famous film that featured this examination of the role of home video is probably Sex, Lies and Videotape, (technically released in 1989, but hugely influential on 90’s American independent cinema) which was the first Sundance darling to be a huge hit. Many films during the 90’s would incorporate home video in one way or another, often superficially. But Atom Egoyan managed to use the medium not just as a cost-saving measure but as an essential component of storytelling in his film Calendar.
Calendar cuts between the past and the present. In the past, Egoyan plays a photographer who has been commissioned to take photographs of churches in Armenia for a calendar. His wife (Arsinee Khanjian) accompanies him, acting as his translator. They are driven around Armenia by Ashot (Ashot Adamyan), who also acts as a guide, filling them in on the history of the churches. In the present, Egoyan goes on a series of dates with escorts during which the women are asked to use the phone and speak in their native language – Russian, Lebanese Arabic, Farsi, etc. It soon becomes clear that Egoyan’s character is reconstructing this scene in remembrance of his wife, who he believes fell in love with Ashot during the trip to take pictures for the titular calendar.
We never really see Egoyan’s character (credited only as “the photographer”) on film while he is in Armenia. He is dedicated to his work and concerned mainly with getting the perfect shot. Any sort of spiritual or physical engagement with his subjects is decidedly secondary. We see this emotional distance when Ashot invites him to physically touch one of the churches and he refuses. In another scene, when Ashot offers to give additional information about one of the sites they are visiting, Egoyan asks his wife if Ashot is expecting money for his extra guidance. Though Ashot does not know English, he understands the word “money” and takes offense at Egoyan’s accusation that he is merely trying to weasel out a few extra dollars.
His wife is quite the opposite. She is much more comfortable with losing herself in the moment and striking up a friendship with Ashot that seems to grow deeper at least to Egoyan’s eyes. Calendar actually opens with a home video shot of what seems to be an endless procession of sheep. It is an image that doesn’t have an immediate practical purpose, but it is a startlingly poetic one, and it makes sense that it was his wife who caught the image rather than Egoyan.
While the scenes in Armenia are, at times, impressionistic tableaux of the Armenian countryside, the scenes in the present are oddly formal and deliberately repetitive mini-plays, which are fascinating in their subtleties. At first, it seems Egoyan is merely looking for companionship, presumably because of his separation from his wife. But his dates quickly turn into something quite different. After a little post-dinner conversation, the woman will go to the phone and make a call in their native language. The languages are from countries where there was an Armenian diaspora. We also hear old messages from his wife on his answering machine. It is as if Egoyan is trying to reconstruct his wife’s presence using technology. Yet having these women conform to something that pleases him is quite similar to what he did with his wife when he was arguing with her and attempting to manipulate her behavior either out of a need for control or jealousy. Even the women he hires realize this to some extent. One of them actually turns over a necklace representing an evil eye as a quiet way of cursing his house.
While Calendar is a fascinating experiment in form, it is also, at its heart, an immigrant story. Egoyan and Khanjian deny that the film was biographical (they did not break up like the couple in the film did), but their roles are reflective of their own relationships to Armenia, the country of their heritage. Egoyan did not grow up in Armenia. He was born in Egypt and moved to Canada when he was around two years old, where he spent most of his life. He has said that his main early perception of Armenia came from calendars of churches and other landmarks, which was the inspiration for this film. Khanjian grew up in Lebanon and had a greater familiarity with the Armenian language than Egoyan did, partly due to her natural ability with languages (she earned a bachelor’s degree in French and Spanish).
Egoyan did not intend to star in Calendar, but because the budget was so low and it was impossible to take out his voice (which was meant to be filler until the real actor took over) from the home video footage, he had to step in and his inclusion makes Calendar much more autobiogaphical than he actually intended it to be. Yet having Egoyan be a character in his own film makes the themes of expatriation and diaspora even more apparent. Many children of immigrants face the struggle of reconciling their ancestral country with their own upbringing. As they struggle to adjust to life in the countries where they grew up, they must also deal with what their parents and relatives have brought from their past lives and very often, the two lives will clash. For Egoyan’s character, he is disconnected and can only see Armenia as a construct, one made of pictures in calendars and recorded memories of brief vacations there. For his wife, she is willing to be in the moment and really appreciate her culture and her surroundings, which is ultimately foreign to Egoyan. Their experiences encompass the range of emotions that the children of immigrants can have about their ancestral countries, and few films have really captured these feelings in such a meaningful yet provocative way.