Armenian Genocide on Film: Barking Island

Like a Dog

Colin Dayan

Courtesy of Sacrebleu Productions

A sound of gulls, a sunlit port, human voices, barking dogs. In a city market, dogs are sitting, lying down, walking past. Dogs gather in the center of the screen. Night falls. A dog gives birth; she nurses her babies. A constable in sharp silhouette comes and looks on as, growling, she huddles over her young.

So begins Serge Avedikian’s fifteen-minute animated film Barking Island (originally Chienne d’histoire in French), which, in 2010, won the Palme d’Or as the best short film at Cannes. The images are paintings by Thomas Azuélos, made deep and weighty, contoured yet dissolving at the edges, almost palpable.

Once the music changes, the scene shifts to humans at a long table discussing how to eliminate the dogs. Newspapers announce that there are more than 60,000 dogs on the streets of Constantinople. The Turkish authorities appeal for an end to them. After exploring various options—gassing, incineration, turning corpses into meat for human consumption—offered by the Pasteur Institute in Paris and other European experts, the Turks decide to round the dogs up and abandon them on a deserted island in the Bosporus.

But we do not know this, not yet. We see the dogs and we hear growls. They sense the danger. Men arrive. The bitch tries to protect her young, as other dogs are grabbed, netted, and snared, dropped into wooden crates. A sputter of orange, splash of red, and dogs overlap, catch the light or obscure its glare. Dogs crouch, or bend into the upswing of their heads, mouths open, turned toward the men who have come to get them. Touches of white, yellow, light brown, black, even. It is difficult to watch this gouache of light and blood, presented against the sheer shape of dogs: their firm, jagged forms, the contours of bodies. Then we see crated dogs carried to a boat, and we hear the sound of gulls and the whimpering of dogs at sea. The whimpers become squeals as the boat nears the rock island. In a blaze of sun, in the yellow sky of the afternoon, the crates are thrown and crash against the rocks, as the dogs are left to die on crags that have no green, where nothing lives or grows.

Now, in the darkness, desperate cries are heard, while the forces of law and order, the Turkish officials, are shown in the city, sitting comfortably at their meal, these stern and approximate humans. Winds blow into the room, carrying howls and wailing. The men shut the window. In the last scene, spellbinding in its visual intensity, a cruise ship passes by the island of dogs. A painter sketches the desperate and the dying, the skeletons, the dogs. Some are still alive and barking. They jump into the water and swim toward the ship. A passenger hides her eyes. Another takes photos. The ship pulls away as the dog bodies become black specks in the water, and the sea soon covers them over. But suddenly we hear the barks and, again, the howls. Is this real or a haunting memory of what had been life? A shot of the rock island, the bones, the vultures. There is not even the shadow of a dog left. It is over. In 1910 more than 30,000 dogs were exterminated. Avedikian links the Armenian Genocide, carried out by the Turks beginning in April 1915, to these thousands of dogs cleansed from the streets of Constantinople and left to starve. Dogs were cast as perfect equivalents to those marked for displacement and death.



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