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Atrocity on Film: Movie-making and Genocide

By Josh Allen - December 5, 2017 (0 comments)

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.

Past & Present Article Wins Syrian Studies Association Prize

By Josh Allen - November 21, 2017 (0 comments)

by the Past & Present editorial team

Dr. Benjamin Thomas White has won the 2017 Syrian Studies Association “Prize for the Most Outstanding Article or Book Chapter” for “Refugees and the Definition of Syria, 1920-1939” which appeared in Past & Present No. 235 (May 2017). Deeming the piece “remarkable”, the prize committee summarised the article’s contribution to scholarship in the most glowing terms:

“Examining the influx of refugees into the Syrian Mandate during the interwar period, Benjamin Thomas White convincingly argues that modern state formation in Syria was largely shaped by its response to the presence of these refugees and the attendant controversies over their place in the nascent Syria.  Combining Arabic newspapers with French colonial archival documents, White demonstrates that the flow of refugees brought state authority into many rural areas for the first time, while intensifying it in the cities.  Refugee flows also brought geographical borders into sharper definition and profoundly influenced the crafting of nationality laws.  White’s innovative and informative article sheds light on the complex interactions among various Syrian and foreign actors in shaping a national and territorial Syria.  This article greatly contributes not only to our knowledge of Syrian history but also to the present crisis in Syria and its repercussions in Europe and the Mediterranean.”

In addition to the prize itself White has been invited, as is the Syrian Studies Association’s custom, to join their prize committee for the next two years, meaning that he will play a key role in choosing the 2018 and 2019 prize winners. Honours that comes hot on the heels of last week’s announcement that “Refugees and the Definition of Syria, 1920-1939” had won the Khayrallah Prize in Migration Studies.

In further recognition of these achievements, “Refugees and the Definition of Syria, 1920-1939” will be free to read online through our publishers Oxford University Press until the 14th December 2017.  

Past & Present logo, 2017 all rights reserved

Benjamin Thomas White Wins the Khayrallah Prize

By Josh Allen - November 16, 2017 (0 comments)

by the Past & Present editorial team

We were recently pleased to hear that the University of Glasgow’s Dr. Benjamin Thomas White has been awarded this year’s Khayrallah Prize in Migration Studies. He received the prize-which recognises outstanding work in the field of Middle Eastern migration and diasporas regardless of discipline-for his article “Refugees and the definition of Syria, 1920-1939” which appeared in the May 2017 issue of Past & Present  (No. 235). Our congratulations to Benjamin.

To enable even more people to read this award winning piece of work, our publishers Oxford University Press Academic have made it free to read online until 14th December 2017.

Past & Present logo, 2017 all rights reserved

Chris Bischof Wins the Walter Love Prize

By Josh Allen - November 7, 2017 (0 comments)

by the Past & Present editorial team

We were delighted to hear yesterday that Chris Bischof was awarded the annual Walter D. Love Prize at this year’s North American Conference on British Studies Conference. He received the award for his Past & Present article “Chinese Labourers, Free Blacks, and Social Engineering in the Post-Emancipation British West Indies” which appeared in our May 2016 issue (No. 231, pp. 129-168). Our congratulations to him that the calibre of his work has been recognised in this way.

The North American Conference on British Studies describes the award in the following terms: “the Walter D. Love Prize in History, is a $150 award given annually by the North American Conference on British Studies for the best article or paper of similar length or scope by a North American scholar in the field of British history.  The prize journal article or paper, which may be published anywhere in the world, should exhibit a humane and compassionate understanding of the subject, imagination, literary grace, and scrupulous scholarship.  It should also make a significant contribution to its field of study.”

Past & Present logo, 2017 all rights reserved

A "Timeless" Depiction of the Craft?

By Josh Allen - November 6, 2017 (0 comments)

by Dr. Sam Wetherell (University of York)

Every historian, regardless of field or rank, should stop what they are doing and watch a mediocre NBC Sci-Fi drama released last year called Timeless. The hero of this show is Lucy, a young assistant professor of history at Stanford who has just been denied tenure. The same day she gets the news, government officials turn up at her house and whisk her away to a secret compound where she is told that a hubristic Elon Musk style billionaire has invented a time machine which has been stolen by “terrorists”. As an expert in the past, she is recruited to use a reserve time machine to chase them through history, catching them before they alter the past. Accompanying her is a wide-chinned military strongman (Wyatt) and a pilot-cum-scientific prodigy (Rufus). Each episode they go back to a different canonical moment in American (or occasionally European) history from the Alamo to the Moon Landing to (bizarrely) Houdini’s first performance. The show is sometimes forced into performing feats of counterfactual gymnastics to justify the historical significance of some of these heavily mythologised events (the moon landing must be completed, for example, so the Russians don’t win the Cold War).

Timeless is not necessarily great television, but it’s a wonderful compendium of information about how the wider public imagine the role of a historian. Needless to say, it is a spectacularly, gloriously inaccurate portrayal, which is part of the show’s immense entertainment. In the first episode, the trio go back to the Hindenburg disaster where Lucy reels off, from memory, the precise time and date of the explosion, as well as the weather, the wind direction and the number of turns the blimp will make in the air. When the gang go back to the Lincoln Assassination, Lucy notes that “Hundreds of books have been written about Booth’s movements today… [I] wrote one of them.” Over and over again Lucy is presented as a dispassionate chronicler of events, a walking Wikipedia article who can tell you the number of exits to the hotel where the serial killer H. H. Holmes murdered his victims or the exact time of day that Bonnie and Clyde were apprehended by the police. Just as House’s Dr. Gregory House is “the best” doctor and Sherlock is “the best” detective Lucy is “the best” historian, a flawless and patriotic empiricist who is often seen flirting in awed admiration with her flesh and blood subjects.

As the series progresses the trio learn of a shadowy organization called Rittenhouse, a secret society who have their fingerprints on all of the major events of American history. Rittenhouse is named after David Rittenhouse an eighteenth century American intellectual (who actually existed). The organisation have been a depthless and ubiquitous presence both throughout the past and in the present where they are quietly bankrolling the eccentric billionaire’s time machine project. The organization was conceived during the American revolution and shown to be led by figures such as Henry Ford and John D. Rockefeller. Would it be reading too much into the show to see Rittenhouse an allegory for American capitalism?

Probably the most interesting character in the show is Rufus, the ship’s pilot and resident scientist who, as an African American, has a very different experience of time travel to his companions. Despite his mathematical genius Rufus is repeatedly patronized by a parade of historical figures (include an insufferably drunk Hemmingway) and often forced to keep out of sight. In one episode, he hangs out with free black soldiers at the end of the Civil War lamenting their enthusiasm for a false dawn of racial justice. In another he awkwardly infiltrates a black panther sect.

Perhaps the best reason to watch Timeless, however, is for its central dilemma: what is the historian’s relationship to the past? Lucy’s companions, particularly the trigger-happy Wyatt, want to save the Hindenburg, kill all the Nazis and make small amends to the past that will better their own lives in the future. For them, time travel is an opportunity to improve the present. For Lucy, however, American history is a precious artefact in need of preservation. Although Lincoln was her childhood hero he must die in order to preserve the script of history. As well as being the most prominent pop-cultural representation of our own profession produced in the last few years Timeless inadvertently poses an essential question about how historians work. Is the past immutable, finished and primed for dispassionate analysis? Or is history a set of ethical questions that demand answers drawn from the normative vocabulary of the present? Watch the second season of Timeless to find out.