Friday, July 28, 2017

The Promise to Never Forget the Armenian Genocide

This year’s Toronto Film Festival will showcase the latest film by Angelina Jolie, First They Killed My Father. It’s based on the memoir of Loung Ung, who described in harrowing detail the decimation of her family by Cambodia’s murderous Khmer Rouge regime. Jolie’s strong personal connection with the birthplace of her son led her to use an all-Cambodian cast, and then to premiere the film in Cambodia’s Siem Reap. 

Movies can be a powerful way of reminding viewers of injustices far beyond their shores. And it’s always invaluable when a filmmaker at the top of his (or her) game takes on the story of a genocide that the world would rather ignore. Think of the power of Holocaust movies, going all the way back to Stanley Kramer’s Judgment at Nuremberg (1961), the first Hollywood film to incorporate actual footage of emaciated Jews in Nazi concentration camps. Soon after came Sidney Lumet’s The Pawnbroker (1964) and other Holocaust-themed films, culminating in Steven Spielberg’s 1993 production, Schindler’s List. Sixteen years later, the persecution of Jewish civilians by Nazi Germany was still being explored, via Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds.

Which brings me to the plight of Turkey’s Armenians, whose years of suffering during World War I have still not been acknowledged as a genocide by the world’s political leaders. Armenians had lived in Turkey for centuries, but their Christian faith in a largely Muslim nation made them suspect, especially during the upheaval surrounding the Great War. Most Turks dispute what happened in 1915, but there’s plenty of evidence that under the Ottoman Turks, Armenians were rooted out of their ancestral homes and sent on a death march into the desert of neighboring Syria, where those who hadn’t fallen by the wayside were coldly massacred. It’s a terrible story, and one that the movie industry has barely acknowledged.

All that seemed about to change with the release of The Promise, a 2016 feature starring such major Hollywood names as Oscar Isaac and Christian Bale. This story of a tragic love triangle is set against the backdrop of the Armenian genocide, and several big-name celebrities of Armenian descent (Cher, for one) have given it their support. Mogul Kirk Kerkorian went so far, apparently, as to donate the entire production budget. Despite all this good will, The Promise was lambasted by many critics, and flopped at the box office, with some activists accusing Turkish genocide deniers of tipping the scales against it.

I didn’t see the film, but I’ve just finished reading the fascinating The Hundred-Year Walk by fellow journalist Dawn Anahid MacKeen. When Dawn discovered her grandfather’s meticulous journals of his fight for survival in the face of constant oppression, she knew she had to fly to Turkey and follow in his footsteps. She was well aware her journey was easy compared to his painful, stumbling path into the Syrian desert, where so many of his people were dying by the side of the road. But part of her goal was to search out, against all odds, the family of the Muslim tribal leader, Sheikh Hammud al-Aekleh, who’d given her grandfather safe harbor when he needed it most. Ultimately, this is a story of unexpected but well-earned salvation, but  Dawn’s last chapter brings us into the precarious present, wherein Syria’s civil war now threatens a clan that were once remarkably kind to a young man in need.    

Yet another message is Never Forget. In her opening, Dawn quotes Adolf Hitler, who told his followers in 1939, “Kill without pity or mercy. Who still talks nowadays of the extermination of the Armenians?”

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