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Filmmaker Atom Egoyan says it’s difficult for people to understand how corrosive the denial of the Armenian genocide has been on generations since the actual event itself.

Tina Rowden

For Atom Egoyan, it was "quite remarkable" to hear Pope Francis condemn the mass slaughter and expulsion of Armenians at the end of the First World War as a "genocide."

But it was not just the pontiff's use of that controversial term that impressed Mr. Egoyan, a celebrated Canadian filmmaker and long-time activist for Armenian causes whose paternal grandparents were left orphaned by the calamity that unfolded nearly 100 years ago as the Ottoman Empire was collapsing.

It was Pope Francis's willingness to acknowledge that as long as the modern Turkish government denies that its Ottoman forebears tried to systemically eliminate as many as 1.5 million Armenians, a wound will continue to fester.

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"That's what I was most impressed by – he's able to locate the fact this is an ongoing wound," Mr. Egoyan told The Globe and Mail in an interview on Sunday. "I've never heard any world leader talk about it that way."

Pope Francis made his controversial comments on Sunday during a mass at St. Peter's Basilica marking the centenary of a tragedy he called "the first genocide of the 20th century."

The remarks drew an immediate rebuke from the Turkish government, which recalled its ambassador and accused the Pope of stirring hatred with "unfounded claims."

Turkey denies a genocide took place, arguing the death toll has been inflated and those Armenians who died perished in the general chaos and civil strife of the war.

Although Pope John Paul II used similar language – including the word genocide – in a 2001 statement written jointly with the leader of the Armenian church, Francis's remarks on Sunday were much more emphatic and included a call for the international community to formally condemn the massacre.

"Concealing or denying evil is like allowing a wound to keep bleeding without bandaging it," the Pope said.

"It's not just what he said, it's the way he said it," Mr. Egoyan added. "There was something very humane and very specific about what he was talking about. It's difficult for people to understand how corrosive the denial has been on generations since the actual event itself – this need to constantly explain, this need to situate it in people's minds."

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The writer and director, who was born in Egypt to Armenian parents and raised in Canada, has made more than a dozen films, including 1997's The Sweet Hereafter, which was nominated for two Academy Awards, and Ararat, a 2002 film about the Armenian genocide.

In the late 1970s, Mr. Egoyan began travelling regularly with Armenian survivors of the massacre to Ottawa to press the Canadian government to formally acknowledge the calamity.

In 2004, the House of Commons voted to condemn the Ottoman Empire's treatment of Armenians as a genocide. Stephen Harper, on behalf of the government of Canada, followed suit shortly after he was elected prime minister in 2006.

However, Canada's declaration remains controversial with the Turkish government and with some in Canada's Turkish community.

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