By Fr. Bedros Shetilian
“If we want to commemorate the hundredth anniversary appropriately, we have to do something to shake the world. Politically we do not have enough power to do that. But there is another field where we might be able to shake the world’s conscience. That field is the arts, to be more correct the movie industry – Hollywood. It is well known how big an impact the movie industry has on people. Actually, its impact goes far beyond what we can imagine. Actually, government officials, scholars and knowledgeable people know about the genocide. The genocide became well known for many people, and we had great achievements in order to tell the world about it. But it is not yet a widely known and wide spread issue for the people around the globe. We have to focus on this; to make the genocide recognized by the masses—to make it a top issue. Here the movie industry and to be more correctly, Hollywood, can do the job.”
This is a part of an article that I wrote in 2013 and was published in the Armenian Weekly and Armenian Mirror Spectator newspapers of Watertown, Mass. At that time I was concerned if we would be able to commemorate the hundredth anniversary of the genocide properly. By saying properly, I meant whether we will be able to make the Armenian Genocide and our cause an international topic. I am glad to say that although a movie was not done by 2015, we succeeded to break the silence of the mainstream media in 2015 with our efforts, and by public recognition by Pope Francis and others.
The other factor that helps us is Turkey’s opposition to any effort to recognize the genocide. How contradictory that may look, I believe that Turkey’s behavior helps us to get more publicity from the media. The media likes scandals; the media likes controversy, because that is what brings more audiences. And here, Turkey’s behavior creates that controversy.
Had Turkey recognized the genocide, I believe the media would be paying less attention to the issue. Actually, Turkey is trapped. Whether it is acknowledging the genocide or not, both options are bad for Turkey. I am not talking about Turkish intellectuals who are in the minority and who recognize the genocide and apologize. I am talking about the Turkish government, leadership, and most its people. The recognition by Turkey will not happen soon, as Turkey now is becoming a caliphate with its sultan, Erdogan. The question is, whether Turkey is capable of becoming a part of the civilized world. Looking deeper from historical perspective, I believe that it is in Turkey’s interest to recognize the genocide. That is how people of common sense think. But as I mentioned above, I don’t think this will happen soon.
The Promise: A Huge Step Forward
Coming back to the main purpose of this article and that is The Promise, I would like to emphasize that the film will have long lasting implications. As Armenians, we may have some objections about the movie. We can say that a hundred years ago it was not typical for an Armenian young man coming from the gavar (countryside) to a big city, to start a romantic relationship with another young lady, when he was already engaged to another woman in his village. If that was an exception we did not see a reason. At that time, people did not act based on their feelings since family ties were much important and stronger. We can say that the village of Siroun, did not look like an Armenian village, moreover, a church was absent from the scene. We can say that in Musa Dagh the Armenian Apostolic clergy were given a secondary role. And finally, we can say that it was not typical for Armenians of that time to be involved in a love triangle. If there should be a love story, it could be based on family values, which were more typical for us at that time. I hope in the future there will be more accurate picture to the realities of the Armenian life 100 years ago.
From another perspective, we can say that the movie as a work of art is not a masterpiece. But we have to understand that The Promise is the first big movie production done by Hollywood and by non-Armenians about the genocide, and for that reason it is a big success as a first step. We know that most of Jewish Holocaust movies artistically are not comparable to the Schindler’s List. Here we can point out some of the positive sides of The Promise. We can point out the successful choice of the actors. We can point out a logically and successfully connected story of the movie starting from Siroun, passing through Constantinople and ending in Musa Dagh and the U.S. We can point out a very good presentation of our nation (strong family ties, the beauty of our culture, our heroism and our significant ability to survive and to be recovered in a short time). Finally, and most importantly, we can point out a convincing and a clear revelation of the Turkish crime, based on documented stories. In the end, the main purpose of the movie is the genocide and primarily it is addressed to non-Armenians. It is also very important to mention the positive roles and presence of American characters, the high nobility of Chris Myers (Christian Bale) and the courage of Ambassador Morgenthau (James Cromwell).
I think the director Terry George made a smart move by downgrading violence scenes in the movie. He explained in his interviews that he wanted to make an educational movie, in other words to show it in the schools. For this reason, the movie is rated PG-13. People will be educated about the genocide starting from their teen years. Although the Armenian Genocide may be included in some states’ educational program, I believe it is more powerful to see a movie, rather than just talk and read about it. Our next task will be to show the movie in schools not only in the U.S., but around the globe. I think we will succeed in this. Imagine that generations around the world will be growing more educated about the genocide. We know that movies do not just go away. They will be released on DVD, be available on cable channels, YouTube, Netflix. etc. We must include also the media coverage related to the movie—television interviews, newspapers articles, etc. What an enormous impact on both the short and the long runs.
Another very important aspect of The Promise is its impact on our growing generation and youth, what we call it in Armenian hayabahbanum. I do not hear much about this point in the discussions surrounding the film. Actually, I think the internal impact is just as important as its external one. I believe The Promise is having and will have a major impact on many Armenian youth who have not decided yet about their national identity or they are in the process of figuring it out. Such people might be full Armenians or half-Armenians and different ages as well. I can already see that in my community here in Massachusetts.
However, perhaps the most important thing that we must remember is who was behind the film. We know that over the years there were several attempts to make a big genocide movie in Hollywood. There was information that Sylvester Stallone, Natalia Portman, and others were interested to act in a movie about the Armenian Genocide. No one succeeded and we know why—because of Turkey both openly and secretly blocked such projects and it succeeded. Not with The Promise. This time we succeeded because somebody fully financed the movie ($100 million), and that one person was Kirk Kerkorian.
After knowing this fact on April 23, we had a memorial service for him at our Church in Indian Orchard, Mass. It is unfortunate to say that it could take forever if we made it a public national project. It is our mentality; we have difficulty working as a team. Always somebody would oppose, would block, say something and do something else, make foolish accusations and or nationalistic slogans to gain personal benefits. We are a nation of individuals. We work together well when there is a threat to our physical existence and security. But in peaceful times, we are incapable of handling long term goals that need team work and patience. The current Republic of Armenia is an obvious proof of this. Our great achievements are done by individuals, or by a small group of people. The Promise is the same case. It is done by a group of devoted and enthusiastic people, like Eric Esrailian and others.
But, this is our history and our current dominant situation and I hope it is changing. As begin to learn how the things are done in the civilized world, I think we, or to be more accurate, an important part of our people, are starting to work in the right direction. One of the examples that show a change in the right direction is the Armenian National Committee in the US and elsewhere, where there have been great achievements well known to us, despite a well-funded opposition from the pro-Turkish lobbyists in the government. Another recent success is the Aurora project in Armenia, an international reward prize for people who had achievements in humanitarian efforts. George Clooney, Elie Wiesel (d. 2016), Leymah Gbowee (both are Nobel Peace Prize winners) and other non-Armenian renowned individuals are on the Aurora board, which makes it an international project. It is named after an Armenian Genocide survival girl, Aurora Mardiganian, who came to the U.S. In 1919, there was a movie done about the genocide based on her survival story Ravished Armenia, in which she also acted. So, the Aurora project was put together in a very good and smart way. Aurora” like The Promise was done by a nation who was a victim of genocide, to help to stop similar crimes from happening again. In other words, as a victim nation in the past, now we are helping others who are victimized. We are returning a favor to the humanity for helping as when we were in trouble. This also has a Christian connection and it is a strong statement about who we are in the front of the international community. The Auror initiator is a small team of highly educated and intellectual people: Ruben Vardanyan, a Russian-Armenian who finances the project, Vartan Gregorian, the President of Carnegie foundation in New York, and Noubar Afeyan, a businessman from Boston, and others. Vardanyan also built an international college in Dilijan, Armenia. He is a man who thinks globally, not narrow nationally. That is the right way to succeed and to gain friends and supporters and to make Armenia an international center.
I hope The Promise will have a continuation. We have some billionaires in Russia as well as millionaires in U.S. and elsewhere. No one can say that we lack the finances for the next movie or movies and other international projects. The issue is to find the right methods and the right people. We also have a big community in an area located near Hollywood and I believe we have connections, and we can work in order to break the taboo surrounding any idea to make a movie about the genocide and to make the topic a profitable idea for Hollywood. The genocide can provide many topics for possible future movies like American missionaries’ genocide stories, Armin Wagner’s story, Talaat’s assassination and Tehlirian’s trial, Aurora Mardiganian’s stry, Komitas Vartabed’s story, the Musa Dagh and Van self-defense stories, etc. It is crucial that we learn to work on the international level. The old methods we used to it will not be successful if we want the people around the globe to hear us. If The Promise is a successful project, but not enough to shake the world, our next project must shake it.
In conclusion, I would like to emphasize that the politicians know about the genocide. The main and final goal of the Armenian cause is to enforce Turkey to recognize the Armenian Genocide, to pay reparations, and to return our land. We are continuing to work on that front as well, but legal and political goals might take a long time to achieve, because they are not only depending on us, but mostly on global politics. I believe the day will come when it will be realistic for us to achieve our dreams, especially with what is going now in the Middle East, Turkey, and with the Kurds. Meanwhile, we must continue to work to get the support of the public opinion, because this is a field where we can make a substantial difference and we can do it ourselves or through our friends and people of good will. By working in this direction, we may put pressure on politicians and other decision makers in order to accelerate the change in policies and its effects on the ground, and/or at least to gain benefits when the time comes and it will come.
“We are, we shall be, and become many,” Paruyr Sevak.
Fr. Bedros Shetilian is the Pastor of St. Gregory’s Armenian Apostolic Church in Indian Orchard, Mass.