Promises, Promises: The Strange History of Film and the Armenian Genocide




THE SCREENING OF the first film about the Armenian Genocide was met with a mixture of praise and disappointment. Critics called it a film with a “noble” purpose about an “important topic,” whose romantic story had gotten in the way of meaningful engagement with a tragic historical event. Viewers who did not know the story of the massacre of 1.5 million Armenian civilians during World War I (1914–1918) by the Ottoman imperial government were left perplexed by the dramatic retelling of the event. The mobilization of a group of celebrities, public intellectuals, and human rights activists, who spoke out in support of the film’s historical truths and its warning against state-sponsored terror, fueled an increasingly nasty debate over the value of a film that few in the public had yet seen.

This reaction was not to The Promise, released nationwide on April 21, 2017, but to a film made one hundred years ago. 1919’s Ravished Armenia — or Auction of Souls, as it was known outside the United States — was the first atrocity film ever made. I was reminded of the response to Ravished Armenia as I followed the controversy surrounding the release of The Promise. The latter is a $100 million epic that tells the story of what happened to Armenians living in the Ottoman Empire through the eyes of a medical student named Mikael (Oscar Isaac), an AP reporter named Chris (Christian Bale), and a dancer named Ana (Charlotte Le Bon), who are caught in a romantic love triangle as war and massacres swirl around them. It is a beautifully rendered film, with some unforgettable performances and scenes. When Mikael escapes a forced labor camp by hiding on a train, he realizes that the human cargo is being taken to their deaths. It starts to rain as they cross a bridge, and a sea of ghostly hands reach out in the hopes of relieving their thirst. When they realize that he is hanging on the outside of the train, they plead with him to break the lock, which he does with his foot before plunging from the train into the water below. The narrow escape of a group of orphans being smuggled out of the country while pursued by soldiers on horseback is similarly striking.

The film was directed by Terry George (Hotel Rwanda) and funded by the late billionaire Kirk Kerkorian, whose family survived the 1915 Genocide. Eric Esrailian and Kerkorian’s production company, Survival Pictures, saw The Promise to its completion. The film was clearly a labor of love, a story Kerkorian and the rest of the team needed to tell. All profits will go to charity, including a $20 million donation to UCLA to start a Human Rights Center.

As in the case of Ravished Armenia, reviews have been mixed. Most applaud the film for focusing on an important and underrepresented event, yet, at the same time, many have complained that the love story blurs the lines between fact and fiction and diminishes the weight of the Genocide. This echoes the response to Ravished Armenia to an uncanny degree. Based on the true story of Aurora Mardiganian, who had escaped the Ottoman Empire as a teenager, the feature-length silent film promised audiences an “enthralling and terrible” depiction of wartime massacres against the Armenians, coupled with an invented romantic love triangle, which introduced a heroic young Armenian adventurer who ultimately delivers Mardiganian and her beautiful missionary companion to safety. Screenwriter Harvey Gates heard Mardiganian’s story and thought he had a blockbuster on his hands. The film’s controversial content — rape, murder, and relentless brutality, including a mass crucifixion scene — would be defended by human rights advocates and politicians who maintained that the historical facts on which Ravished Armenia was based “made it above reproach.” The film, supporters maintained, served a higher purpose, bringing real atrocities to light; it could not be considered mere “cheap sensationalism.” Humanitarian organizations used Ravished Armenia as a fundraising tool, and, in Britain, the League of Nations sponsored screenings to support its antiwar agenda.

Though only a fragment of Ravished Armenia’s original 8,000 feet of film still exists, the controversy surrounding its release is well documented. The film premiered in invitation-only venues in both the United States and Britain, hosted by philanthropists and politicians with definite agendas. The Allies had just won the war and the Ottoman War Crimes Trials were about to get underway in Turkey, under pressure from Great Britain. Supporters of the film believed — wrongly, as it turned out — that the dramatic portrayal of the massacres on screen would result in the prosecution of Turkish perpetrators for what were called “crimes against humanity” against Armenian, Greek, and Assyrian civilians during the war.

While American philanthropists, celebrities, and politicians gathered at the Plaza in New York City in 1919 for a private screening of the film, a similar crowd of British viewers met in Soho in London. While critics widely praised Ravished Armenia as a “superbly produced” and “vivid picture” of a “great tragedy,” the prospect of raising the topic of the massacres — especially with graphic depictions — before a mass audience made some distributors and legislators quite nervous. At first, the film was banned in Pennsylvania and taken to court. In Britain, the government allowed only a heavily edited version to be shown for a limited engagement. Some denounced the film for indecency, others for exacerbating Muslim-Christian tensions during peace negotiations. The British government’s answer was to cut out the crucifixion scene, as well as any mention in the subtitles of the context of the violence — that is, any reference to religion, politics, or ethnicity. The controversy made distribution almost impossible and resulted in huge financial losses. The edited version of the script, which is held in the National Archives, is a confusing mess, and must have left many viewers scratching their heads after leaving the theater.

The Turkish government never acknowledged the massacres as war crimes perpetrated by the Ottomans. The failure of the 1919 trials has haunted Armenians, and the popular depictions of the Armenian Genocide, ever since. Premieres of The Promise have exposed this tension once again. Fears of angering Turkey under the rule of an increasingly authoritarian and unpredictable regime have shadowed the recent controversy. Despite positive reviews at the Toronto International Film Festival, the film had to wait for an 11th-hour deal with Open Road for distribution in the States to over 2,250 theaters. Invitations to a screening at MGM, a company that Kirk Kerkorian formerly headed, described the film as “a romance set in Eastern Europe.” No matter that the Ottoman Empire was not geographically part of Eastern Europe at this time, or that the film was clearly about the Armenian massacres from almost the first frame. The film, one memo that circulated by email stated, was not about the Genocide and should not be advertised as such. This explains why perplexed friends and colleagues have asked me countless times over the past weeks what the film is about, and whether they should see it.

But regardless of misleading and confused official directives, the film continues to be shown in special screenings around the world by groups who are interested in it precisely because it is about the Armenian Genocide. In London, the premiere was held in Soho — right around the corner from where the British version of Ravished Armenia was shown almost 100 years ago. In attendance at the recent screening of The Promise was a group of distinguished members of the Armenian community and celebrities, including George and Amal Clooney.

Embracing any cause can be tricky in today’s world of internet trolls. The Armenian Genocide has long generated anger and disparagement, and it can put those who acknowledge it at personal risk. Recently, the Twitter-sphere came alive with pledges to “keep the promise” and included support from celebrities including Barbra Streisand, Andre Agassi, and Kim Kardashian. Despite these endorsements, critically acclaimed performances, and a big budget, The Promise was panned on movie review sites. Some have asserted that the number of negative reviews could not possibly come from people who had seen the film before its release. Instead, these reviews were part of a coordinated campaign to discredit the film by those who deny the Armenian Genocide happened.

Like the makers of The Promise, the team behind Ravished Armenia also sought to foster public support by mobilizing celebrities and assembling a cast of respected actors, which included Mardiganian herself. William Selig bought the rights to produce Mardiganian’s story and employed well-known director Oscar Apfel. Though detractors couldn’t pan the film as immediately as their counterparts can now, over Twitter, they certainly didn’t keep silent. The British Foreign Office kept a file of letters from those who believed that the film was explicitly anti-Muslim, “a work of fiction” that constituted “an indecent exhibition.” No doubt these letters — some from prominent political figures — influenced the decision to edit the film and limit its run in British theaters.

With all these obstacles in view, why keep making films about the Armenian Genocide?

Film long has been regarded as a potentially transformative medium, enabling people to learn of important events and to build bonds of empathy with those affected by them, whether it be through documentary or fictional depictions. But historical context matters. Without it, images lose their power to create a lasting effect. The failure to connect image, captivating story, and historical truth hampered the first attempt to bring the Genocide to the screen. The dramatization of Aurora Mardiganian’s experience did not convey to audiences the significance of the Armenian Genocide as a “crime against humanity.” On top of that, Ravished Armenia was undermined by detractors and misrepresented by the media and public officials. The Promise faces similar challenges. But it is a more successful film. Increased awareness of what happened in 1915 has allowed the filmmakers to depict, in a powerfully intimate way, the consequences of the failure to act. Both The Promise itself and the controversy surrounding its reception throw a spotlight on the Armenian Genocide and the story of the survivors one hundred years after the event. The film is both a historical drama and a cautionary tale.

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Michelle Tusan is professor of History at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, where she teaches and writes about human rights and humanitarianism.


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