The ANCA Eastern Region’s prestigious Freedom Award is given annually to an individual who has made extraordinary contributions toward issues that concern Armenian-Americans. Previous ANCA-ER Freedom Award recipients include: U.S. Ambassador to Armenia John M. Evans; Pulitzer Prize winning author and former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power; U.S. Senator Robert Menendez; the late U.S. Senator Edward Kennedy; U.S. Senators Robert Dole and Elizabeth Dole; Baroness Caroline Cox; author Chris Bohjalian, renowned lawyer Robert Morgenthau and the Morgenthau family; Former House Majority Whip David Bonior and lawyer, writer, and human rights activist Fethiye Çetin; President of Artsakh Republic Bako Sahakyan; U.S. Senator Mark Kirk; U.S. Senator Christopher Van Hollen, Jr; U.S. Senator Ed Markey and U.S. Congresswoman Niki Tsongas.
The Armenian National Committee of America-Eastern Region (ANCA-ER) will be honoring Eric Esrailian, lead producer of “The Promise,” with the Freedom Award at its 12th annual gala on October 13th in New York City.
Eric Esrailian, MD, MPH, is Co-Chief of the Vatche and Tamar Manoukian Division of Digestive Diseases at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA. He and the team at Survival Pictures were entrusted by the late Kirk Kerkorian to oversee the production of “The Promise,” thereby fulfilling Kerkorian’s dream of making a Hollywood film about the Armenian Genocide a reality. Despite the many obstacles in his path, Esrailian and his team persevered and delivered an epic film, helmed by fellow Freedom Award honoree, Academy Award winning director Terry George, that enlightened millions of theater-goers around the world about the history of the Armenian people, and continues to serve as an invaluable educational tool for viewers everywhere.
“I’m tremendously honored to be considered—I don’t feel deserving of any award, but I would just say that it’s an honor and very humbling for me to have any kind of association with this film, and with my friend and partner Terry George, and really, with the ANCA and how the organization rallied for the film… not just ‘The Promise,’ but ‘Intent to Destroy’ and the bigger concept of us trying to accomplish something that had really never been done before on this scale,” said Esrailian.
Esrailian gives most of the credit to his predecessor in this tremendous undertaking, saying, “I always believe that we have been standing on the shoulders of giants for this project. Mr. Kerkorian is the one who enabled this mission to be undertaken. He directed it, set everything in motion, and basically told us not to stop, no matter what… no matter what kind of opposition we would face.”
And that they did. Facing relentless opposition—something the ANCA is all too familiar with—the Survival Pictures team powered through. “Although we anticipated a lot of opposition, obviously, it was still pretty overwhelming. Particularly with the internet campaign against the film, which definitely had an effect, whether people acknowledge it or not, because movie-goers tend to use reviews and rating systems to inform their decisions,” said Esrailian, further acknowledging, “That, coupled with an organized intimidation campaign towards reviewers, entertainment writers, and studios—and we have extensive evidence of this—really had an impact.”
But despite the denialists’ best efforts, the film was seen by millions of people across the world, and continues to be screened across multiple networks and streaming services. That’s a big win in Esrailian’s book, and he credits organizations like the ANCA for helping to drum up support and secure audiences globally.
“To speak up for truth, you need an organization like ANCA to basically push back and highlight truth when others try to cover it up,” said Esrailian. “It’s been incredible to see how the ANCA has rallied, not just behind our film, but for Armenians everywhere, everytime there is an issue that requires organization and support, and I’ve been really impressed by the passion and dedication of the volunteers, as well as the staff, throughout the country.” said Esrailian. He continued to reflect, “I’ve had the privilege of seeing the team in Los Angeles and DC and the entire Eastern Region work together—they all have different skill-sets and areas of emphasis, but the core commonality is Armenian pride and wanting to do right by the Armenian nation, as a diaspora and as a Republic.”
Esrailian, like many diasporan Armenians, is a descendant of Genocide survivors, but has quite an uncommon story—his maternal great grandfather sang in the Gomidas choir alongside the legendary composer. As a result of being entrusted with this mission, Esrailian now feels further connected to his Armenian roots and thanks Mr. Kerkorian for that gift.
“I’m so grateful to Mr. Kerkorian for really taking charge and compelling us to make this film, because if it wasn’t for him, I’d have less of a connection to my heritage, being born in the United States and being very assimilated—even though I’m from a proud Armenian family,” said Esrailian.
That reconnection was one of Kerkorian’s main goals. Esrailian continues, “He basically wanted us to create that same spirit for everyone. He viewed the film as a living museum that would stand the test of time. People were always asking him to support a museum, but he believed the movie would be the museum—one that you go to as many times as you want, that will be there long after physical structures crumble.”
The filmmakers were also very mindful about the use of the film as a historic education tool. “It’s just a window into our history. It’s not meant to replace history books or further scholarship. It’s meant to stimulate interest and hopefully instill a sense of pride,” said Esrailian, underscoring Mr. Kerkorian’s wishes to reconnect Armenians with their heritage.
With countless young Armenians rediscovering their identity and connecting with one another more than ever before, Esrailian believes this is already taking place. “I really feel like the impact of ANCA is going to be even further amplified in the next generation. We have so many Armenians that are now becoming more engaged with their heritage—with the help of technology enabling people to better connect with one another and allow for more collaboration going forward, the potential for an organization like the ANCA is limitless… I think the best is yet to come.”
Having worked in lock step with the ANCA in the entire campaign surrounding both films, Esrailian has an even deeper respect and understanding for the organization.
“I see, now more than ever, how challenging the day to day work is for the ANCA. Truly, you can tell that there is a wall of opposition against Armenians. But I also like to see the glass as half full… we have clearly shown that we’ve made progress. A perfect example being the Smithsonian, and how several years ago the Armenian Orphan Rug was not allowed to be displayed. And now, we were able to be part of the Smithsonian Festival, with both films, with discussion and full elaboration on the facts of the Genocide. That’s a dramatic shift, and I have no doubt that everything the ANCA and Armenians around the world did to support the film has made a difference. People are talking about it.”
And while the back-to-back release of both “The Promise” and the subsequent documentary “Intent to Destroy” were the main focus of the public-facing awareness campaign, Esrailian was simultaneously also hard at work establishing The Promise Institute for Human Rights at UCLA with colleagues, at the behest of Mr. Kerkorian.
“One of the long term legacies of the film is the creation of what we hope to be the preeminent human rights institute for education, research and advocacy in the country. Right now, it’s the hub for all of these activities at UCLA, and it’s the perfect place to have that home as a public institution, one that Mr. Kerkorian supported in an incredible way,” said Esrailian. “And by sharing the name with the film, when people study human rights and learn about the treatment of others, and are conducting academic and scholarly work at the highest level, they’re always going to be reminded of where it all started—which was because of the Armenian Genocide, and the fact that we made a promise to never forget and we kept that promise to Mr. Kerkorian. And it’s only just beginning.”
With the establishment of The Promise Institute, UCLA is a hub of Armenian and human rights activity like never before. So much so that UCLA Chancellor Gene Block just visited Armenia for the first time with Esrailian, in an effort to formalize more collaboration with the Armenian people. Esrailian and Block met with the president, prime minister, and educational leaders in Armenia in order to discuss further collaborations with UCLA faculty, students, and the Los Angeles community.
“The Armenian nation will always have a special place at UCLA—there is a decades long tradition of Armenian Studies and a tremendous number of students, alumni and faculty, not to mention the location being in Los Angeles, home to such a prominent diasporan Armenian community—it’s the intersection of so many unique aspects that make our presence an organic reality,” said Esrailian.
According to Esrailian, the two films and the institute collectively have the same mission: To educate people about the true history of the Armenian people, to empower people to openly study and have a dialogue about all past and present human rights violations, and ultimately to prevent future atrocities from taking place. The films also spawned the #KeepThePromise campaign, and influencers from around the world rallied to support the film and the social impact messages around it. Esrailian believes that the work is just getting started.
“The concept of the ‘Freedom Award’ is tremendous because we really hope that the film will enable people to speak more freely about this subject, and human rights in general,” said Esrailian, continuing, “Our goals were very specific and it was to put the story out there on a major scale in a way that had not been possible before, and utilizing all of our relationships and collaborating with people in different industries to try to raise awareness about the Armenian Genocide—not focusing on ticket sales, reviews, and opinions of those who do not understand the big picture objectives—but really trying to appeal to people who may never have heard of, or cared about, the Armenian Genocide… That’s what enables a film to live forever and that, I believe, is part of the mission of this organization—to support the Armenian people, Armenian culture, and raise awareness of our issues while highlighting our strengths.”
The ANCA ER Gala will take place on Saturday, October 13, 2018 at the Grand Hyatt Hotel in NYC. To purchase tickets or for more information on our honorees please visit this link or call 201-788-5425.