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SPLITTING THE ATOM

"As long as you have the Albright-Knox, you have nothing to apologize for," says filmmaker Atom Egoyan. He is talking on the phone from Toronto, where he lives and where Buffalo is sometimes considered by others a distinctly lesser burg.

"We named our son Arshile after (painter) Arshile Gorky," says Egoyan. "Whenever I feel in need of inspiration I come (down to the Albright-Knox Art Gallery) and look at 'The Liver Is the Cock's Comb' " (the great and influential abstract expressionist masterpiece by Gorky that is a pillar of the gallery's permanent collection).

Egoyan is perhaps the great young Canadian filmmaker. He broke through to serious international recognition with his last film, "Exotica." His new film, "The Sweet Hereafter," is one of the sublime and truly beautiful and most-praised films of 1997. It opens on Christmas Day in the North Park Theater.

Therein lies a tiny misgiving some might have. The film -- which won the Grand Prize at the Cannes Film Festival -- is based on Russell Banks' novel about the aftermath of a horrible school bus accident in a "small upstate New York" town.

"The theme is a dark one," wrote Banks in a recent Village Voice article on his experiences with Egoyan. "The inner intent of the novel is to dramatize in parable form our culture's largely unacknowledged abandonment of its children -- a slow, deep, anthropological event, not a catchy sociological or psychological one taken from yesterday's headlines."

The film, though, is also about the tidal sense of community that is launched by the event. It is powerful but by no means depressing.

Says Egoyan: "People should know it's not what they think. . . . I know that there are people who'd say, 'I can't see a film about that.' But no one feels that way after they see the film."

It was Egoyan's wife, actress Arsinee Khanjian, who gave Egoyan the novel in the first place and ultimately led to his making what many think is his finest film.

"I owe a lot to her. It's not usually as graphic as this where she actually gave me the book. But she's the first person who actually reads my screenplays. She's been incredibly important to my career."

Egoyan reports that fame in Canada -- especially when it becomes international -- can be a difficult experience for a local celebrity of Egoyan's stature. At the Toronto Film Festival, for instance, his actress wife -- who appears in the film and was so instrumental in its creation -- wasn't even identified in one Toronto paper when their picture appeared together. Egoyan was vocal about his anger.

"I think she's a really extraordinary actress. . . . I found it really appalling that she wasn't identified by her name, that she's just seen as an appendage to me. It happens all the time. I think it's very difficult for a lot of my friends, too. A lot of my friends also work in films or are playwrights. I think I cast a pretty big shadow sometimes. I think I can see sometimes when it's difficult for her. I think I have a responsibility to deal with that."

Grievous personal loss is an overwhelming theme in Egoyan's work. He relates it to one of the century's greatest atrocities -- the not-very-well-known attempt at Armenian genocide by the Turks in the early years of this century. At least 600,000 people were killed.

"It's natural for any Armenian to deal with the notion of catastrophe. There's this event in our culture -- this tremendous genocide -- what does
it mean? How do we respond to that, we Armenians in this century? Some of my relatives were murdered. I think that does underline my sense of loss. From that, I also had a very complex relationship to my grandmother. . . . She was my only link to that language and that culture. It was very traumatic for me when she was taken away to a nursing home when I was about 8. That just tore me apart. I couldn't understand why that had to happen. I didn't have anyone I could speak Armenian with anymore."

"The Sweet Hereafter" is the first of Banks' highly regarded novels to make it to the screen. For his part, Banks wrote: "I felt with Egoyan that I had met a most unlikely kindred spirit, a man 20 years younger than I, from a very different background and a filmmaker to boot. . . . My desire was only to see a film that lived in the same moral universe as my novel. . . . What followed over the next three years turned out to be one of the most satisfying aesthetic and social experiences of my life."

Says Egoyan: "The great thing about Russell is that, from the beginning, he was nothing but generous. I understood from other directors that that isn't always the case (with writers). He's been so amazingly supportive of the need to reinvent it. He was never protective or insecure or threatened by the stuff that was left out -- or for that matter the stuff that was added in, either. He was just very open. He's a big film buff. He loves film and he really wanted to see a film made of one of his novels."

Banks' beginner's luck is that not only was a film made of his novel but a superb one. His luck may hold out, too. His novel "Affliction" is being filmed by Paul Schrader, author, among other things, of "Taxi Driver" and director of "Blue Collar," "Cat People," "Mishima" and "Patty Hearst."

"I almost made a thriller for Warners after 'Exotica,' " says Egoyan. "Then again the question of control came up. I have control over every project of mine. I walked away from it about two years ago, so I don't know what happened to it. It's a good script, but I was trying to get it to be something it wasn't."

It was the success of "Exotica" that helped Egoyan get the money to make "The Sweet Hereafter." " 'Exotica' did well and I was able to parlay that into finding a budget for this film. I don't know how I would have been able to make this film if it weren't for the success of 'Exotica.' "

Coupled with "Exotica's" success, says Egoyan, were his "modest" needs. "I think it's naive to go to the studios and find that you weren't able to do what you want. Well, of course. 'What were you thinking?' If you need $10 million or $15 (million) or $20 (million), you can't expect them to agree as if you were only asking them for a million or two.

"What's satisfying is being able to make the film outside the system and then bring it back."

How far "back" into the "system" "The Sweet Hereafter" goes will be in part determined by critical 10-best lists and Oscar nominations, two places where the film is reasonably certain to do well.

And maybe even more than well.

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