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The Art of Narrating a Trauma

Film Review: ‘The Promise’

Special for the Armenian Weekly

Reconstructing the history of a crime, reorganizing the narrative of a tragedy, resetting the scene of a murder, or simply pointing toward a criminal hidden behind the thick layers of the past. Those are some of the roles of a filmic category that one might call the “cinema of remembrance.”

The film “The Promise” fits into this category. It beautifully portrays an epic journey of an Armenian medical student (Mikael) who falls in love in Istanbul with Ana, an Armenian-born woman who in turn was engaged to an American journalist reporting from the capital of the Ottoman Empire. The plot merges the struggle of a threatened community with an intricate love story in the highly tense political context of World War I.

A still from ‘The Promise’ (Photo: Open Road Films)

The complex net of stories and genres provoked two distinct results: It gave the film a heavy and necessary emotional charge; but it also blurred the content, fragmented the message, and drowned the real motto of this genre of cinema. The motto being simply the following: “We were killed, and the world has to know this.” Instead, Terry George presents the movie as a history of struggle, of resistance, of a power negotiation between two unequal forces. Terry George transformed the story of a genocide into a history of a war. He implicitly turned the coldblooded murder into a regular conflict between an organized army and a rebellious militia. And by trying to attach a certain heroism to the resisting Armenian community, the movie missed the primary definition of a genocide—that it is not war, but an organized act of systematic murder of an entire community.

A war entails two opponents; a genocide is about a murderer and a victim. A war is a common responsibility; a genocide is one-sided, autistic, blind.

Armenians resisted the Ottoman army’s barbarity, and their heroism is undeniable, but historical accuracy and the narration of a trauma are two different matters. The goal of a cinema of remembrance is not to relate “all what happened” but “all we should remember,”—and, in this case, what to remember is the victimhood of the Armenians and not their resistance, the genocide and not the war. In other words, and to finish, a movie depicting a genocide should have revolved around a “this is what they did” and not a “this is all what happened.”

A movie resuscitating a crime should have more victims than heroes, and “The Promise” was a beautiful epic journey of too many heroes.

 

 

4 Comments on The Art of Narrating a Trauma

  1. I saw the film twice and cannot remember where the “rebellious militia” appeared. The resistance of Armenian villagers–not a militia–on Musa Dagh, escaping to the mountain with their hunting rifles before they were to be forced into the desert, is hardly rebellion. Please remind me of any scenes I may have forgotten.

  2. avatar Sylvie Howse // August 17, 2017 at 5:15 am // Reply

    I think it reached out to those who knew little or nothing of the circumstances of the genocide that remained hidden by the great conflict of WWI and the subsequent political events. It would be interesting to conduct a survey of the number of non Armenians who actually watched it. The film was not widely distributed. In my town in the UK, there was a huge poster at the station,but the film was not shown at the cinema. That was the weak link. A memorial, an annual commemoration, a vigil, are acts of remembrance. To appeal to a non Armenian audience, the approach has to be nuanced.

  3. avatar Hagop Varoujian // August 17, 2017 at 6:19 am // Reply

    A sincere and accurate analysis. The only plus to us as Armenians is that “The Promise” is the first and so far the best attempt to attract attention to the Armenian genocide. Hopefully it’ll be a stepping stone to many more such movie productions with more emphasis on the genocide theme.

  4. You seem to be rejecting Franz Werfel’s approach in The 40 Days of Musa Dagh. He was focussing on resistance, not on the likely more common phenomenon of the response of helplessness, resignation to one’s fate and so on.

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