|In the middle of the summer of 1960, a son was born to Joseph and Shushan Yeghoyan, their first child. The parents, Armenian refugees living in Egypt, ran a furniture business in Cairo. Both had artistic aspirations, as they had studied painting earlier in life, Joseph as a teenager at the Art Institute of Chicago. They took a unique and symbolic approach in naming their son. In recognition of a newly completed nuclear reactor, the first in Egypt, Joseph and Shushan decided to call their son Atom.
Determined to leave political unrest behind them for good, the family, which now included a daughter, moved to Canada in 1963. Instead of choosing to live in a city such as Montreal, which featured a significant Armenian community, the Yeghoyans opted to settle in Victoria, British Columbia. They changed their last name to the simpler Egoyan, and opened another furniture store. They set about to make a new life for themselves in a new country.
Life in Victoria didn't provide for any external reinforcement of Armenian culture, and Atom Egoyan set out at an early age to reject his own ethnicity. He adopted the isolation that his surroundings symbolized, adamantly refusing to either speak or listen to his parents native language. As determined as he was to assimilate, the roots of his heritage remained. Later, as a college student in Toronto, Atom devoted himself to reconnecting with the culture of his family. The idea of being Armenian, especially at different levels and to different degrees, would be addressed most directly in his film Calendar, partly filmed in Armenia in 1992. Elements of Egoyan's cultural background are present in all of his earlier features as well.
As an adolescent, Atom Egoyan developed an interest in writing and reading plays. Some of the strange, stilted interchanges that occur in his films stem from an early appreciation of the works of Samuel Beckett and Harold Pinter, among others. His sense of the power behind the creation of imagery was also active early on. The entire content of a Christmas "skit" that Atom conceived at age twelve was to set up a camera on stage, point it at the audience, and ask them to smile.
In his later teens, Egoyan worked as part of the housekeeping staff at the swank Empress Hotel in Victoria. His employment experience there provided artistic inspiration for Atom. He has likened the preparation of a hotel room to filmmaking in that they both provide for "the creation of illusion". This symbolic connection was explored in Egoyan's 1989 release, Speaking Parts, which takes place primarily in a hotel. Atom also utilized hotel and motel locales in Family Viewing and The Adjuster.
Atom Egoyan immersed himself into various artistic endeavors while attending Trinity College at the University of Toronto. With designs on becoming a diplomat, he chose International Relations as his major. He studied classical guitar as well, and continued to write, contributing movie reviews along with conceiving more plays and screenplays. As part of his cultural renaissance, he joined an Armenian society on campus and brushed up on his native language under the tutelage of an Anglican priest. While still a freshman, Atom produced a short film with the assistance of the Hart House Film Board, a program under the auspices of an activity center at the university. That first film, Howard In Particular, earned Egoyan the first of many prizes awarded to his work when it was screened at the Canadian National Exhibition film festival. It led to the production of other short films, also made with equipment and financial aid provided by the Hart House program. As a college senior, Atom wrote and directed Open House, a half-hour long film for which he received further backing from the Ontario Arts Council. This would mark the first of many associations between Egoyan and various Canadian arts funding organizations.
After earning his degree, Atom joined Toronto's Tarragon Theatre as a playwright, but his attraction to the language of film proved to be too great. The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) purchased the rights to Open House, and broadcast it on television as part of a Canadian-themed program. With additional funding from the Canada Council, and again from the Ontario Arts Council, Atom Egoyan embarked on the production of his first feature-length film, Next Of Kin, released in 1984. The CBC then hired him to direct the made-for-television movie In This Corner, a political story concerning an Irish boxer. This led to other work directing episodes for Canadian and American television series shot in Toronto. After almost three years of directing these TV projects during the mid-1980's, Egoyan produced his second feature, Family Viewing. Released in 1987, this movie would make the film world start to take notice of his talent.
Atom Egoyan continued to write and direct his own work, making the rounds of film festivals to gain exposure. In this way, he built on previous successes with the release of each subsequent film. Speaking Parts was screened at the Director's Fortnight program as part of the Cannes Film Festival in 1989. The Adjuster was a regular entrant in the same prestigous festival two years later, and received a deal for distribution in the United States. Atom was able to fulfill a dream when, in 1992, he traveled to Armenia for ten days to shoot scenes for Calendar. That same year marked the airing on Canadian television of Gross Misconduct, a biographical movie based on the life of a troubled hockey player. The CBC hired Egoyan to direct this tragic Canadian story, and although the script was not his, Atom emphasized aspects of the story that equated with some of his own thematic concerns.
The importance of supporting Canadian culture is clearly a priority to Atom Egoyan. Since his own career was cultivated by several different film and arts organizations, Egoyan endorses the sponsorhip of young artists in his country. He has led workshops, and he readily promotes programs highlighting national consciousness. Atom's own work has showcased a wealth of Canadian talent, both in front of and behind the camera. At the 1994 Cannes Film Festival, Egoyan's Exotica was the first Canadian film in ten years to take part in official competition. The response to the film was enthusiastic, and it won the International Critics' Prize there, gaining further recognition for its director and his country. Atom Egoyan's association with Cannes has continued. In 1996 he served on the jury for the festival, and returned a year later to premiere, The Sweet Hereafter, the first film he has adapted from a novel. It earned a total of three prizes at Cannes, including the same award earned by Exotica three years earlier.
The success of The Sweet Hereafter culminated when Atom received Academy Award nominations for both directing and his adapted screenplay. Alhough his approach to films is unique, Egoyan is not one to shy away from branching out artistically. In the past few years, Atom has directed three different opera productions. He used his skills for creating arresting visuals in directing the Canadian Opera Company's production of Salome, which played in Toronto in the fall of 1996, and was revived a year later in Vancouver. Atom's short film, Sarabande, delves into classical music, and the various interchanges among the musician, the listener, and the piece of music itself. In a departure of a different sort, Egoyan was one of several movie directors to make a cameo appearance in the forgettable 1996 Tom Arnold vehicle, The Stupids. Another opera assignment gave Atom the experience of working outside of Canada for the very first time. Likewise, his next film production will take place across the Atlantic, as Atom will direct his screenplay adaption of an Irish novel which is set in both Ireland and England. In abandoning his familiar working environment, Atom Egoyan will certainly expand his artistic excellence by taking on new challenges.
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