Gariné Torossian has all the makings of a celebrity -- talent, beauty and an aura of mystery.
Ask anyone in the Toronto film community about her and the word "gorgeous" tends to crop up, either as a description of her tall, dark-eyed, dramatic looks, or as a way of trying to describe her unique films. But so far, despite critical recognition, Torossian's refusal to compromise her way of working has gotten in the way of mainstream success.
As the annual bacchanalia known as the Toronto International Film Festival got under way yesterday, the 30-year-old filmmaker, who has made 13 short films since 1992, was just back from a retrospective of her work at the Telluride Film Festival in Colorado. She's already had retrospectives at the Museum of Modern Art in New York as well as in Ottawa, Berlin, Buffalo and Yerevan, Armenia. And Eye magazine picked her as one of Toronto's "coolest" film people last fall.
Her films are dense, intricately created montages, using colours and textures in dynamic ways. She messes with the film stock, mixes up video and film, runs images side by side or over each other. She describes the process of creating her films as "meditative" and says it's an homage to the knitting her grandmother and other elderly women did in the Armenian quarter of Beirut where she spent her childhood.
She has worked with filmmakers Atom Egoyan, composer R. Murray Schafer and choreographer Cornelius Fischer-Credo and has made a video for the rock band Sparkle Horse. Last year, she was enrolled in the director's program at the Canadian Film Centre in Toronto. This would usually serve as a launching pad to a feature-film career, but so far that kind of celebrity has eluded her.
After several attempts at trying to "be commercial" in the last couple of years, Torossian says she has finally come to terms with who she is: "I've learned something in the last little while. I've learned what kind of filmmaking I shouldn't be doing. . . . I don't have to be like everyone else."
She shrugs philosophically. This habit of purity is one of those things that, like being Armenian, is both a burden and a gift, and not really possible to change.
Torossian came to Canada with her parents and brothers in 1979, fleeing the civil war. They were isolated by language and culture and it took a while for her to find her real means of expression. When her older brother enrolled in a film course at Ryerson Polytechnic University, Gariné immediately began playing with the photographic equipment.
"It was all accident, really," she says over an espresso. She's dressed in black, with patches of plaster dust from the house that she and her brother are busy renovating. "I didn't know about F-stops and all that. But then I didn't want to learn the conventional way, because I found myself more emotionally drawn to this way of working, this process of discovery. That's when I became happy to be alive, when I started manipulating film."
The photos led to experiments with Super-8 film and video. Because she was too shy to work with other people, she usually shot film of herself, in her room "or standing in front of a church by the side of the road." At 17, Torossian met Egoyan at the Armenian community centre, and he and his wife, Arsinée Khanjian, bought some of her photographs. Egoyan has remained a mentor and Arsinée recently acted in Torossian's short film Hokees ( Sorry), which Torossian directed while at the Canadian Film Centre.
"I wasn't completely happy with the film but I was very happy I got to spend more time with Arsinée. We shared a lot as Armenian women in this country, in this business." The connections, to the church, to that "pure feminine ideal" add up to a character who can be "so emotional and so stuck in your head at the same time."
There's a thread in Egoyan's movies about displacement and commemoration, themes which are also part of Torossian's experimental film. The Armenian genocide in Eastern Turkey in 1915 was something she was taught about at a young age: "When we went to Armenian schools in Lebanon," she says, "we were very aware we were living in a country that wasn't our own."
For Torossian, film is the language she speaks best. English is her second language, and though she speaks Armenian to her parents, she says she speaks it badly. The struggle for communication is one of her constant themes, and she has pursued it obstinately. In a first-year film course at York University in Toronto, she was told she could only make a Super-8 film in her first year, even though she wanted to make a 16mm film. So, she cut up her Super-8 film -- inspired by a series of angry photographs of nude women by York instructor Michael Semak -- and pasted the images onto extra 16mm stock she found in the garbage.
The film, entitled Visions, which included images of crucifixes in front of vaginas, did not get an enthusiastic reception from instructors, but it was accepted into the 1994 Toronto International Film Festival and her career began. Torossian says her films are still frequently responses to other artists' works: Girl From Moush was inspired by Egoyan's Calendar, and the work of Armenian director Sergei Paradzhanov. Another collage film, Drowning in Flames, was a response to the work of the Starn twins, photographers from New York, who also make collages of other people's work. She asked if she could work with their material and, when they saw what she had done with Visions, they readily agreed.
"I find these artists and I feel as though they're communicating with me in a way that I never imagined was possible. They change me with their work. A lot of what I do is a celebration of that," she says.
Her first narrative film, My Own Obsession, is about a mysterious young woman who is obsessed with Armenia. "Some people thought it was narcissistic, which . . . well, let them. I think it's a funny film. It is so much about me in a way. A girl who's trying to find her identity and who thinks she's connected to people, but actually there's nothing there. And in her mind, going to Armenia's going to solve all that."
In 1998, she finally made the trek to Armenia, which, of course, was not much like her imagination. Armenia is "deeply rich and mysterious to me," she says, "perhaps even richer because it exists largely in my imagination."