Aurora’s Sunrise is a fascinating and unusual documentary that combines animation, interviews and archival footage to tell the largely forgotten story of Aurora (Arshaluys) Mardiganian.

Aurora grew up in a loving and creative Armenian family. But when she was fourteen years old, Turkish troops moved in, and eventually her entire family was murdered except for a brother who was living in the United States. Forced to march 1,400 miles towards the Syrian desert, she was kidnapped by bandits and sold into slavery. The brutality of the Turks, and then the Kurds, is awful, even if it is portrayed in animation. With the help of resistance fighters, Aurora was able to escape through present-day Georgia, Russia and Norway, arriving in New York in 1918, when she was seventeen years old. She was “discovered” by Armenian-American journalists who spread her story and caught the attention of Hollywood. In 1919, a film was made about her life. In Auction of Souls (aka Ravished Armenia), Aurora played herself.

Interspersed with the animation are excepts from interviews with Margidanian, when she was elderly, taken from the archives of the Zoryan Institute and the Armenian Film Foundation. Aurora talks about feeling out-of-place in the glitzy world of Hollywood until she bumped into Charlie Chaplin, who made her laugh.

Henry Gates and others used Auction of Souls to raise money to help orphans and other victims of the Armenian Genocide. Aurora was sent on a year-long tour of the United States, speaking to select audiences, who then contributed to the aid group Near East Relief. Eventually, Aurora collapses from exhaustion and is placed in a convent to recuperate. She learns that Gates continued the tour, using doubles pretending to be Aurora. Not surprisingly, Aurora feels exploited. But she learns that the money that was raised really did go to an honorable cause, saving the lives of more than 132,000 orphaned survivors.

Aurora’s Sunrise also includes footage from Auction of Souls, which was thought to be lost, but eighteen minutes of which was found (and digitally restored) in Soviet archives after the collapse of the USSR.

Included in this restored footage is a glimpse of the most controversial scene in Auction of Souls, in which a number of naked women are crucified. The film was banned for a while in Pennsylvania for being too risqué. Its release in Great Britain coincided with Muslim-Christian peace negotiations, and the crucifixion scene was deleted.

And yet, in one of her interviews, the elderly Aurora Margidanian explains that the crucifixion scene was a tame version of what really happened because the true story was deemed too horrible for movie audiences. The women were not crucified, but impaled on shafts driven into their vaginas.

Directed by Inna Sahakyan, the production of Aurora’s Sunrise was put on pause in September 2020, when Armenia fought a war with Azerbaijan. All the men on the staff of Bars Media documentary production company went to the front lines until a ceasefire was signed in November.