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Screenings and Meanings

By Gerald Schmitz


Tribeca puts spotlight on 20th century’s first genocide

Gerald Schmitz


Intent to Destroy (U.S. 2017)
The Promise (U.S./Spain 2016)

Among the strong documentaries presented by the Tribeca film festival, about which more next month, one especially stood out. Intent to Destroy by award-winning director Joe Berlinger is both a masterful look at the making of the period romantic drama The Promise, set during the Armenian genocide, which began in 1915, and a deep exploration of the issues surrounding this seminal wartime tragedy and its aftermath, which Turkish authorities still adamantly deny was a genocide. Indeed Turkey has actively worked to suppress any such internal or international recognition, including in Hollywood movies. That concerted manipulation of history is suggested by the documentary’s subtitle, “Death, Denial & Depiction,” and its dedication to “the estimated 1.5 million victims of the Armenian Genocide, and to all victims of mass slaughter around the world. May their suffering never be forgotten.”

The title is taken from the wording of the 1948 UN Convention on the “Prevention and Punishment of Genocide” which defines “genocide” (a legal term coined by Raphael Lemkin) as “acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.” The two million Christian Armenians living in what was then the Ottoman Empire at the time of the First World War certainly fit that description.

Beyond another purely historical investigation of what happened, what makes Berlinger’s work so compelling is its cinematic approach. As he explains: “The fact that a film like The Promise was finally being made gave me the unique position of both examining the appalling and intricate history of the Armenian Genocide along with Turkey’s manoeuvres to control the narrative, while also presenting the unfolding contemporary drama of bringing this long-ignored chapter of human cruelty to the big screen, providing the documentary with a present-tense feel to this deep dive into contested history.”

Intent to Destroy alternates between a penetrating analysis of that historical narrative — beginning and ending with moving testimony from an elderly genocide survivor — and a candid camera behind-the-scenes observation of the process of making The Promise, an expensive international production directed and co-written by Terry George (Hotel Rwanda) and financed by the late Armenian-American billionaire Kirk Kerkorian’s Survival Pictures. Given Turkey’s hostility to any film on the subject, that independent source of funds was obviously key to getting the 72-day shoot off the ground with locations in Portugal, Spain and Malta.

Symbolically significant, the first read through of the script for The Promise took place on April 24, 2015, the 100th anniversary of the start of the genocide. Able to embed with the crew of The Promise, Berlinger’s team had remarkable access to the filming as we see the setup of the early scenes when the protagonist, the small-town Armenian apothecary Mikael Boghosian, comes to Constantinople (Istanbul) to pursue medical studies.

Armenians and other Christian minorities within the Ottoman Empire had been viewed with suspicion even before the genocide. (The Armenian nation had been the first, before Rome and Byzantium, to embrace Christianity as an official religion.) Indeed there had been massacres of Armenian “infidels” in the 19th century. The outbreak of the First World War, in which the Ottomans sided with Germany and the axis powers, intensified that situation through an upsurge of pan-Turkish nationalism in which Enver Pasha, a leader of the Young Turks revolution, was a military driving force. Decisions were taken that amounted to ethnic cleansing. Those not killed as Armenian villages were attacked and destroyed were deported en masse into the desert toward Syria and Iraq. It was a death march for many.

A German soldier and medic, Armin Wegner, courageously took forbidden photos documenting this genocidal policy. (Berlinger also inserts several striking images of the current perilous refugee exodus from the Middle East toward Turkey and Europe as a reminder of millions caught up in today’s civil wars, forced to leave their homes and sometimes dying en route.) The genocide was not a secret to the outside world. There were numerous articles on it in major newspapers like The New York Times. But the U.S. never declared war on Turkey, and as the Ottoman Empire disintegrated by war’s end, the page was turned on its crimes against humanity. The modern Turkish state would become an ally of the West and later a member of NATO.

The geopolitics of that strategic alliance were a factor in killing movie projects showing the genocide. A key scene in The Promise is of the desperate stand made by Armenian deportees on the mountain of Musa Dagh. In the mid-1930s a Hollywood screen adaption of the novel The Forty Days of Musa Dagh was announced but Turkish pressure on the U.S. State Department succeeded in getting MGM boss Louis B. Mayer to scrap the project. (An eponymous low-budget 1982 movie was little seen.) Berlinger also has Canadian-Armenian director Atom Egoyan relate the many difficulties and threats encountered in the making and distribution of his 2002 drama Ararat.

Berlinger mentions a 2006 hour-long television documentary, The Armenian Genocide broadcast on PBS, which attempted to give a “balanced” perspective. He also gives some time to several contrarian historians who accept that millions died, including Muslims, during the war but dispute that there was an organized genocide. Still, the overwhelming burden of evidence points to genocidal intent, as documented in a 2006 letter to Turkey’s Prime Minster Recep Erdogan from the International Association of Genocide Scholars.

Unlike countries including Canada, the European Parliament and the Catholic Church, the U.S. federal government still avoids using the term “genocide” out of deference to ties with Turkey. Indeed after making outspoken references, the U.S. Ambassador to Armenia, John Evans, was dismissed by the Bush administration in 2006. (Not mentioned by the Berlinger documentary is that Israel also does not officially recognize the genocide.)

Evans was part of a panel that followed the Tribeca world premiere screening on April 25, moderated by Sarah Whitson of Human Rights Watch, that included Berlinger, Armenian-American actor Eric Bogosian, historian Peter Balakian, The Promise producer Carla Garabedian, and Eric Esrailian representing the Kirk Kekorian Foundation which is supporting creation of The Promise Institute of Human Rights in the UCLA School of Law.

History shows that denial and silence are an invitation to impunity. Remember what Hitler infamously said before invading Poland in 1939: “Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?” In the words of Bogosian: “The reason we must memorialize and understand the genocide is that anonymous death compounds the tragedy.” Berlinger has observed that, “history forgotten is often history repeated,” seeing “an even greater relevance in this Donald Trump alternative-facts era because of the film’s themes of the obfuscation of truth, freedom of speech and xenophobia.” Evans put it pointedly during the panel: “The denial of the Armenian genocide is the worst case of ‘alternative facts’ in the last 100 years.”


How does Terry George’s fictionalized drama The Promise ( measure up? The main elements of the story are as follows. In the village of Siroun, Mikael Boghosian (Oscar Isaac) is betrothed to Maral (Angela Sarafyan) before leaving to pursue studies in Constantinople where he stays with the family of a wealthy uncle and aunt. At the medical school Mikael is befriended by an influential Turkish Ottoman’s son, Emre Ogan (Marwan Kenzari), who helps him obtain a medical exemption from military service when war breaks out. But as latent anti-Armenian prejudice explodes into violence — they are regarded as a fifth column — the uncle is among the elite targeted for elimination. In the midst of this turmoil Mikael falls for the beautiful Armenian wife Ana Khesarian (Charlotte Le Bon) of intrepid Associated Press reporter Chris Myers (Christian Bale) who is determined to tell the world as atrocities spread.

The war swallows up Mikael and Emre. Mikael is pressed into slave labour, building the Berlin to Baghdad railway, but will escape and make his way back to Siroun where his mother, Marta (Shohreh Aghdashloo), forces him to marry Maral and hide out. Emre faces a grimmer fate for his role in an intervention by U.S. ambassador Morgenthau (James Cromwell) that saves Chris, who has been arrested and accused of being a spy. The fortunate Mikael is away when the genocide reaches Siroun. Coming upon the bodies of massacred villagers, he manages to save his mother and a niece. Eventually Mikael, Ana and Chris are reunited in a flight of survivors with a group of orphans. After a bloody but determined resistance at Musa Dagh they reach the coast where a French naval ship comes to the rescue. Mikael and others emigrate to America seeking a new life.

Unfortunately the romantic melodrama of Mikael and Ana as lovers tends to take precedence over the terrible history which, despite the movie’s 133-minute runtime, often seems sketchy. Also, in another concession to Hollywoodization, everyone speaks English with varying accents. (There are two brief exceptions: a hostile German officer early on, and a closing wedding celebration where the Americanized Mikael speaks a line of Armenian.) That dispenses with subtitles, no doubt aiming for a mainstream anglophone audience, but takes away from the sense of authenticity and dramatic realism. Movie scenes don’t have the same visceral impact when one is reminded they are being staged.

That said, The Promise is worth seeing. It has unduly suffered on ratings aggregator sites like from organized campaigns to drive them down. A century on, recognizing the Armenian genocide on screen still hits a nerve.