WATERTOWN, Mass. (A.W.)—On March 22, the National Association for Armenian Studies and Research (NAASR) organized the East Coast premiere of J. Michael Hagopian’s newest Armenian Genocide documentary “The River Ran Red,” which was followed by a panel discussion. The screening and panel were held at the Arsenal Center for the Arts in Watertown.
Panelists included Hagopian, Bedross Der Matossian, a lecturer in Middle Eastern history at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and Taner Akcam, chair in Armenian Genocide studies at Clark University. NAASR director of academic affairs Marc A. Mamigonian was the moderator.
NAASR Board chairperson Nancy R. Kolligian and Mamigonian introduced the event, with the latter saying of Hagopian’s 60-year documentary film career, “What he’s done in his career is truly extraordinary.”
Following the screening of the film, Hagopian said, “My journey actually began in 1923 at the age of nine when we arrived in Boston. The first words in English I ever learned were ‘cornflakes’ and ‘ice cream’ and I’ve been eating them ever since.” He added, “I return here very happily, because Boston is very close to my heart.”
Asked how he came to make “The River Ran Red” as part of his three-part “Witnesses” trilogy of documentaries on the Armenian Genocide, Hagopian responded, “There’s a saying in Hollywood that you haven’t made a good film till you’ve had to throw away all the good parts [in editing] to the point that you could make another film with them. With my first genocide film, I realized that the Kharpert parts [about his family’s own genocide experience] deserved to be another film, and that’s how it became a trilogy eventually.”
Speaking about his early film career, he said, “In 1965 I made the first film on the Armenian Genocide, titled ‘Where Are My People?’ It was done in six weeks and Professor [Richard] Hovannisian still considers it my best film. It also had more history in it than any of the others. So in that way I got into making films on Armenians through the backdoor, I was making movies on other subjects.”
Hagopian said that later, “in 1976, members of both Armenian political parties, the Tashnags and the Ramgavars, approached me as they were forming the Armenian Assembly [of America] and asked me to make a film about the Armenian Genocide; that was ‘The Forgotten Genocide.'”
Der Matossian spoke next, prefacing his remarks on the film by saying, “We’re dealing here with oral history, which usually goes unremarked upon by historians because of issues dealing with subjectivity.” He added, “If approached the right way, oral history and oral sources can be vital in history, and that’s what Dr. Hagopian has done by combining both oral histories and primary documents to reconstruct faces of the Armenian Genocide.”
Der Matossian noted, “It’s interesting that most of the survivors did not talk for years about the genocide until the 1960’s, 70’s, and 80’s. The other thing I noticed was the dichotomy of imagery, with the desert of Der Zor representing the place where life and hope don’t exist and the river representing life—but during the genocide, both were used as a means of annihilation.”
He concluded, “The march itself is a tool to annihilate. We know from survivors that caravans were taken on circular marches through the desert for days and days, not to certain destinations, but to exhaust and kill naturally the Armenian deportees. The modern [modes of killing] did not exist in Turkey so they used nature to kill.”
Akcam spoke next, beginning with the recollection that Hagopian had interviewed him more than 15 years ago, and said joking that “when Michael heard a Turk was talking about the Armenian Genocide he said, ‘I have to meet this Turk before something happens to him.'”
He said candidly, “When I watch such movies, I’m always speechless. I don’t know what to say to that. We here try to comprehend something that is incomprehensible. The question is always the same: Why?”
Akcam noted, “The first reason we have to deal with all these genocidal mass crimes in the past is we have to acknowledge the dignity of these speakers. We have to respect their life and their legacy.”
“Armenia, in order to be safe in the region, has to have good relations with Turkey. For that reason, Turkey and Armenia must heal the past to deal with peace and prosperity as neighboring states.” Akcam recently called on President Barack Obama to break the stalemate and to acknowledge the genocide (see “Obama Should Recognize Genocide and Liberate Turks and Armenians,” Armenian Weekly, March 24, 2009).
Akcam emphasized the need to explore and make known more of the basic archival sources on the genocide, such as the papers of Aram Andonian that were discussed in the film. “Can you imagine, we are fighting for acknowledging a historic injustice and the most valuable sources of this material are not known… We really have to make the sources known for everybody,” he said.
It is important to continue with the research that is being done, Akcam stated, because although the “general picture” of the genocide is understood, “we don’t know how the genocide really developed without starting from one village and ending in Der Zor or afterwards.” He noted the irony that Turkish is becoming “the leading language in genocide research,” since so many important Turkish and Ottoman sources are only recently being explored by serious scholars.
During the question-and-answer period, Hagopian explained that he has some 400 interviews with survivors including, incredibly, survivors of the 1890’s massacres and the 1909 Adana massacres, and that he plans to make one more film that uses this precious footage. He also expressed his pessimism on the prospects of a major shift in policy regarding genocide recognition under Obama.
In response to a question about the possibility of genocide reparations, Der Matossian suggested that there is important research to be done in this area. “At the end of the day,” he said, “the genocide was not only about annihilation, it was also about the appropriation and confiscation of Armenian properties,” a process that continued in the early years of the Turkish Republic.
Following the discussion, many of the nearly 300 people in attendance enjoyed a reception and continued their conversations about the film.