Atrocity on Film: Movie-making and Genocide

by Michelle Tusan (University of Nevada at Las Vegas)

Filmmaking always has had a politics. Nowhere have the stakes been higher than in representing acts of atrocity, terror and genocide. It started with the dawn of film in the early twentieth century when the first atrocity film ever made and was released to transatlantic audiences in 1918. Ravished Armenia or Auction of Souls as it was known outside of the US told the story of the massacre of 1.5 million Armenian civilians during World War I (1914- 1918) by the Ottoman imperial government. It was followed by a host of other attempts to represent the massacres on film. This included MGM’s failure to turn Franz Werfel’s book The Forty Days of Musa Dagh (1933) into a movie because of lobbying and interference from Turkey. More recently, director Atom Egoyan’s critically acclaimed film Ararat (2002) depicted the genocide through stories of remembrance and denial. The Promise (2017), the $100 million dollar MGM epic gave the movie studio another chance to tell the story. Intent to Destroy (2017), a documentary about the making of The Promise and its historical context, is the latest in a series of attempts to get the popular cultural representation of the Armenian genocide right.

The history and reception of these films suggests that film watching always has had a politics also. Films rely on audiences to lend meaning to representation. In the case of representing history, such responses have a utility in shaping understandings of the past. Politicians, humanitarian organizations, victims and international institutions all have a stake in how a particular event is represented in mass culture. They create, in Lilie Chouliaraki’s formulation “imaginations of solidarity” that produce their own narratives. The story of the reception of films about the Armenian genocide over the past hundred years or so reveal some unexpected truths about the high stakes involved in representing atrocity on film. In a moment when the line between fact and fiction seems ever so tenuously drawn in public discourse, the question of how to depict the horrors of genocide and ‘crimes against humanity’ to audiences in a meaningful and candid way has a new urgency. The uncanny parallels between the reception of the earliest and most recent films made about the Armenian genocide and separated by a century is as good a place to start to address this problem as any.

A mixture of praise and disappointment met the screening of Auction of Souls immediately after the war. Based on the true-life story of Aurora Mardiganian who escaped the Ottoman Empire as a teenager, this Hollywood feature-length silent film promised audiences an “enthralling and terrible” depiction of wartime massacres against the Armenians with an invented romantic love triangle which featured a heroic young Armenian adventurer who ultimately delivers Mardiganian and her beautiful missionary companion to safety. Critics heralded it as a film 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 history of this event, however, were left perplexed by the dramatic retelling of an event mired in controversy. The mobilization of a significant and notable group of celebrities, public intellectuals and human rights activists who spoke out in support of the films’ historical truths and its warning against sanctioning state sponsored terror and mans’ inhumanity to man further fueled an increasingly nasty debate over the value of a film that few in the public yet had seen.

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 US and Britain, hosted by philanthropists and politicians who believed that the film would bring the massacres to the attention of the public on both sides of the Atlantic. There was another reason. 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 of what was 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. Worries over the shocking nature of some of the material prompted the initial invitation only events and provided a first glimpse of the film to the press. While critics widely praised it as a “superbly produced” and “vivid picture” of a “great tragedy,” raising the topic of the massacres in a mass popular forum started to make some nervous. In the US, Ravished Armenia initially was banned in Pennsylvania and taken to court. In Britain, the government allowed only a heavily edited version be shown for a limited engagement. Negative accusations against the film ranged from indecency to exacerbating Muslim/Christian tensions during wartime the peace negotiations. The Foreign Office made the distributor cut the crucifixion scene as well as any mention in the subtitles of the context of the violence which included eliminated references to religion, politics or ethnicity. The controversy made distribution of the film almost impossible and resulted in huge losses for the distributor. 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 Promise solicited a similar response. The film tells the story of what happened to Armenians living in the Ottoman Empire during WWI through the eyes of a medical student Michael (Oscar Issac), Associated Press reporter, Chris, (Christian Bale) and dancer, Ana, (Charlotte Le Bon) caught up in a romantic love triangle as war and massacres swirl around them. It is a beautifully rendered historical film with some unforgettable performances and scenes. The film was funded by the late billionaire, Kirk Kerkorian, whose family survived the 1915 Armenian genocide. Terry George (Hotel Rwanda) directed The Promise. Eric Esrailian and Survival Pictures, a production company founded by Kerkorian saw the film to its completion. This expensive and carefully crafted film was clearly a labor of love; a story that Kerkorian and those who supported his vision needed to tell. All proceeds will go to charity, including a $20 million donation to the University of California, Los Angeles to start a Human Rights Center.

The politics of acknowledging the massacres as a war crime perpetrated by the Ottoman government never was resolved, the trials held in 1919 ultimately failed, and has haunted popular depictions of the Armenian genocide ever since. Premiers of The Promise exposed this tension again. It started with the difficulty of getting a distributor. Despite positive reviews at the Toronto International Film Festival, it had to wait for an eleventh-hour deal with Open Road to distribute the film in the US to over 2,250 theaters. Part of the problem was the politics of representing a genocide on screen that is still denied by the Turkish government and not official acknowledged by the American and British governments.

Invitations to a screening at MGM, a company which Kirk Kerkorian served as the former head, 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 stated, was not about the Armenian genocide and could not be advertised as such or spoken about in these terms when the film was introduced at the event. But regardless of misleading and confused official directives, the film has drawn audiences interested in it precisely because it is about the Armenian genocide. In London, the premier was held in Soho right around the corner from where Auction of Souls was shown almost one hundred years ago. In attendance at this screening of The Promise was a group of philanthropists, distinguished members from the Armenian community and celebrity activists including George and Amal Clooney.

Critics who saw The Promise largely agreed that the central story of the genocide remains an important and underrepresented event. At the same time, some of these same reviewers complained that the vehicle of a love story as the central action of the film blurred the lines between fact and fiction and diminished the weight and importance of genocide itself. Then there were the internet trolls. After the Twitter-sphere came alive with pledges to “keep the promise” and included support from celebrities including Barbara Streisand, Andre Agassi and Kim Kardashian controversy erupted. Despite these endorsements, critically acclaimed performances and a big budget, The Promise was panned on movie review sites. It has been asserted that the number of negative reviews could not possibly come from people who had seen the film before its release. Many of these questionable reviews have been corrected and since then legitimate reviewers have weighed in on the film.

The reaction to films about the Armenian genocide has changed little over time- alternately seen as importantly provocative by one set of viewers and misguided by another. Yet, the need to make these films continues. The new film Intent to Destroy, directed by Joe Berlinger and released in the US last month, self-consciously upends the division between documentary and fiction to expose the narrative fault lines in making movies about history. Using historical footage, interviews with scholars and actors and photographs from archival collections from around the world, it explains what some audiences who never had heard of the Armenian genocide must have left the theater wondering about the events depicted in The Promise. At the same time, it documents the making of the film, giving the fictional story a history of its own. Audiences learn how the film was made and why it took the form that it did. It also questions Hollywood’s role in this process. By turning The Promise inside out it asks the viewer to see fiction as a vehicle for understanding historical truths.

Intent to Destroy gets at the heart of why film-makers keep making films about the Armenian genocide by changing what it means to document an event. Film from its earliest days offered the enticing promise that seeing is believing. Not unlike new technologies today, it claimed status as a radically transformative medium. At the movies, people would see events unfold on screen and be better equipped to engage their world. This utopian view of the unlimited possibilities of film to bring people together around issues that mattered informed the desire to represent events like the Armenian genocide as a ‘never again moment’ in the wake of the largest and most destructive war to date.

Rather than show and tell, films like Intent to Destroy seek to expose layers of meaning through contextualization and storytelling. The burden of depicting the reality of civilian as war victim, a relatively new phenomenon of the last century, takes on new meaning and needs new forms of representation where historical context matters. Without it, images whether on the small or large screen, loose their power. This failure to connect image, story and experience in a meaningful way has given birth to the belief that if people only knew what was happening they would do something help. But knowing does not easily produce solutions particularly in the face of large scale man-made disaster when the viewer can do little but watch.

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