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The Promise – one country’s certainty is another country’s lie

May 9, 2017

The Promise is a movie about the Armenian genocide in 1915.

Publishing that sentence in Turkey would be enough to get you into deep trouble. You would be told that the death of half a million Armenians was the unfortunate consequence of war; that those who died were being moved away from the conflict zone in the east of the country, where Armenian separatists assisted an invading force – Russia. It was not genocide, say the Turks.

The Armenian version of the story was that 1.5 million of their people were slaughtered in a systematic series of massacres, through forced marches and in labour camps. That the killings were part of a plan by Turkey’s leaders to transform the Ottoman Empire into a land in which ethnic and religious diversity would be snuffed out and assimilated into a dominant Turkish culture. The First World War provided the opportunity to start that process away from the prying eyes of the world.

Reviewers have given The Promise a mixed reception. There have been criticisms that plot is weak, that the love story formulaic and that the actors are dwarfed by the action. As with all reviews, these are subjective opinions. If the subject is interesting, I ignore the critics and watch the movie anyway.

I found it compelling. It didn’t pluck the heartstrings, but it was well worth watching. Equally striking was the film’s backstory. It was funded by a billionaire who didn’t care whether or not he recouped his investment. Before it was released, it was trolled by voters on the IMDB film industry site. Without having seen the movie, over sixty thousand “people” gave it one star out of ten. Thirty thousand gave it ten. The industry assumption is that these voters were Turks and Armenians expressing their disapproval or otherwise that the film had been made.

The Promise is also noteworthy in that it’s the first effort from mainstream Hollywood since 1919 to portray the Armenian massacres. Why such a subject should be so long ignored is a mystery. Is it because unlike the Nazi Holocaust it’s faded from living memory, or has there been a lack of advocates willing to invest in telling the story? The events in Turkey were no less dramatic than those in Western Europe twenty five years later.

Movies depicting historical events on an epic scale are relatively rare these days. Hollywood tends to prefer serial blockbusters – Marvel heroes, Star Wars, X-Men and so forth. The Promise is something of a throwback to the days when the historical epic was the only big-budget game in town. I think it’s a shame that this kind of movie is in decline.

However inaccurate, stories based on real events have a good chance of arousing curiosity among mass audiences about the events depicted. They cn bring history alive in a way school curricula never could. How many people were inspired to discover Ancient Rome after watching Spartacus, Cleopatra and the Fall of the Roman Empire is anybody’s guess. The same goes for movies about Elizabethan England, the American Civil War and the Holocaust.

All of which causes me to wonder about the criteria critics and audiences use to rate these history fests. What makes an epic great in the eyes of the beholder? And when we look back to them, what do we remember most – the characters, the plot or the context?

A few thoughts from my perspective:

Some films focus on eternal human themes – of heroes, lovers, losers and martyrs. Of triumph over adversity. Without the protagonists, there would be no movies, because it’s their fate that moves us. The historical narrative takes second place, at least in our lingering memories.

When I think of Doctor Zhivago, I remember Omar Sharif and Julie Christie, and only then do I recall the tundra, the fighting and Tom Courtenay’s grim commissar in the armoured train. In Braveheart, the dominant image is Mel Gibson painted in blue, not the endless squabbles between the English and Scots. In Lawrence of Arabia, Peter O’Toole co-stars with the spectacular landscape of the Hejaz.

Then there are movies where the characters take second place to the context. Titanic is a movie about a doomed ship. The love story of Rose and Jack is there to keep us interested, but the ship is the star. In The Longest Day, the massive undertaking of the D-Day invasion is at centre stage, not the array of sub-narratives in which half of Hollywood strutted their stuff.

In others it’s a draw between the event and the characters. Schindler’s List, for example, is as much about Oskar Schindler’s humanity and Amon Goeth’s moral collapse as it is about the Holocaust. Likewise, Hotel Rwanda, in which the hotel manager’s efforts to save those threatened with slaughter, and the UN commander’s despairing actions to dampen the flames of genocide are the vehicle through which wider story of the conflict unfolds.

When I look back at films I consider memorable, it’s the small details that come to mind. In Schindler’s List, the girl in the red coat, a drunken Amon Goeth taking pot-shots at concentration camp inmates from the balcony of his villa, the pebbles on Schindler’s grave. In Saving Private Ryan, Captain Miller’s hands trembling as he rests in the church. In Gladiator, Maximus discovering his murdered family. T E Lawrence’s agony at having to execute the boy he rescued from the desert.

Characters, plot and context battle for supremacy, but another factor is also in play, though it’s often buried deep under the surface: the underlying intention of the movie makers. Often enough, the intention is pretty obvious – money, box-office success, awards. But producers and directors also use movies to educate, to persuade and to win hearts and minds. Or, if you want to be cynical, to manipulate our emotions. Whether they succeed without us noticing goes a long way towards the durability of the work.

Films that support political ideologies often use history as the backdrop to the message. Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin and Olivier’s wartime production of Shakespeare’s Henry V were effectively state-sponsored propaganda.

There are also movies that reflect the family histories of those who make them. Schindler’s List for example – Spielberg’s testament of the Holocaust. The main producer of The Promise was Kirk Kerkorian, an American billionaire of Armenian descent, who funded the movie to the tune of $100 million. He had previously donated $1billion to Armenian charities. He clearly wanted the story of his people to be told.

I struggle to think of a vignette from The Promise that will remain with me decades on. Yet for me, it’s still an important film. The story has present day resonance, which is presumably why it’s excited the trolls. A genocide denied by the descendants of the perpetrators. The Armenian story was a key way-point in the decline of the Christian tradition in the Middle East. It’s also a reminder that massacres inflicted in the region on ethnic and religious groups – such as the Yazidis – are nothing new.

Turkey is in a different place today. It’s industrialised, and it’s a democracy – of sorts. Yet just as a hundred years ago many Turks felt threatened by the Armenian separatist movement, it’s now the turn of the Kurds to assume the role of the enemy within. Ironically, Kurds were among the Ottoman citizens who took part in the Armenian genocide. Nobody in their right mind would suggest that the Turks would even contemplate the ethnic cleansing of their Kurdish population. But a nation whose government locks up thousands of its citizens on suspicion of supporting last year’s attempted coup, and regularly jails dissenting journalists, still has a strong authoritarian streak.

But here’s the counter-narrative: the same country provides a safe haven for three million Syrian refugees.

We may remember the Armenian genocide as the forerunner of the Holocaust and other mass killings that scarred the last century. We may disapprove of the Turkish state refusing to acknowledge the enormity of committed by its Ottoman predecessor.

But perhaps we should also ask ourselves whether the United States, Britain or France would allow three million people to cross their borders, and, if they did, what kind of impact the influx would have on their politics, cultures and economies.

Which goes to show that no matter how unambiguous the historical narrative presented by movies like The Promise, there’s always another side to the story. Unfortunately, in the age of fake news and limited attention spans, we don’t always go in search of it.

From → Film, History, Middle East, UK, USA

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