Atom Egoyan

Active - 1979 - 2019  |   Born - Jul 19, 1960 in Cairo, Egypt  |   Genres - Drama

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Biography by Rebecca Flint Marx

One of the most distinctive members of the film industry -- Canadian or otherwise -- to emerge in the 1990s, director, writer, editor, and producer Atom Egoyan has left an indelible imprint on audiences everywhere with his haunting, beautifully wrought work.

The son of Armenian refugees, Egoyan was born July 19, 1960, in Cairo, Egypt. His family moved to Victoria, British Columbia, in 1963, and Egoyan grew up consciously rejecting his own ethnicity in favor of assimilation into his adopted culture. During his teen years, he nurtured his interest in writing and reading plays, finding particular inspiration in the works of Samuel Beckett and Harold Pinter. It was also during his adolescence that Egoyan found unlikely inspiration for his future films by working as a hotel employee. He would later remark that preparing a hotel room and making a movie were similar in their creation of an illusion (an idea that would manifest itself most overtly in his 1989 film Speaking Parts, which takes place largely in a hotel).

After enrolling as a student at the University of Toronto's Trinity College, Egoyan studied international relations with the idea of becoming a diplomat. In addition to his studies, he began to reconnect with the heritage that he had previously rejected, joining an Armenian student society. Egoyan made his first film as a freshman, a short that received financial backing from the Hart House Film Board. He went on to spend the remainder of his education doing film work, culminating in his senior year with Open House, a film that he wrote and directed with backing from the Ontario Arts Council.

Following his graduation, Egoyan joined Toronto's Tarragon Theatre as a playwright. However, he soon discovered that his interests pointed him in the direction of film, and with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation's decision to broadcast Open House, he enjoyed his first taste of recognition. In 1984, he acted as editor, producer, screenwriter, and director for Next of Kin, a film concerning issues of identity and Armenian heritage. Funded by the Ontario Arts Council and the Canada Council, it was his first feature-length film. He proceeded to make Family Viewing in 1987, but it was 1989's Speaking Parts that garnered Egoyan his first dose of international recognition with a screening at the 1989 Cannes Film Festival's Director's Fortnight. Two years later, he made The Adjuster, a film which explored the dark sexual fantasies of an insurance adjustor (Elias Koteas) and his wife (played by Egoyan's real-life wife and muse Arsinée Khanjian, whom he casts in all of his films). After making Calendar (1993), which looked at issues surrounding Armenian identity and was partially filmed in Armenia, Egoyan returned to the twilight world of twisted sexual fantasy with Exotica (1994). An exploration of the interweaving lives of the various denizens of a strip club, the film was first shown at the 1994 Cannes Festival, where it won the International Critics' Prize. Exotica was the first Canadian film in ten years to take part in the festival's official competitio, and as such, it propelled its director a little further into the international limelight.

Egoyan finally attained widespread international recognition and acclaim three years later, with the release of The Sweet Hereafter. A sobering adaptation of Russell Banks' novel of the same name, the film was honored with the 1997 Special Grand Jury Prize at Cannes, and Egoyan himself received Academy Award nominations for Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay. Not content to bask in the glow of international adulation, he was soon back at work, first as a producer and then directing an adaptation of William Trevor's Felicia's Journey, the story of the relationship between a lovelorn young woman and an old man with a terrible secret. The film premiered at the 1999 Cannes Festival.

Egoyan's next project was one close to his heart: The story of the Armenian genocide of 1915, and how its aftershocks continue to reverberate through contemporary culture. Again involving a tapestry of divergent characters, the director's wife in a prominent role, and incorporating Egoyan's beloved film-within-a-film trope, Ararat was nothing if not ambitious, but critics and audiences found it curiously distant for such an ostensibly personal project.

In addition to his work as a director, writer, and producer, Egoyan continues to actively support Canadian culture through endorsements of sponsorship for young artists, the creation of artists' workshops, and the promotion of programs promoting national consciousness. His films themselves tend to showcase a wealth of his country's talent, both in front of and behind the camera: actors such as Sarah Polley, Bruce Greenwood, Elias Koteas, and Don McKellar are frequent collaborators, as are cinematographer Paul Sarossy, composer Mychael Danna, and producer Camelia Frieberg.

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  • His parents gave him the name Atom in tribute to an Egyptian nuclear reactor that had recently been completed at the time of his birth.
  • Graduated from college with a degree in International Relations, but became interested in film while making a short film his freshman year.
  • Met his wife, Arsinée Khanjian, when she was cast in his first feature film, Next of Kin, in 1984.
  • Became an Officer of the Order of Canada in 1999.
  • Named his son, Arshile, after the Armenian artist Arshile Gorky.