Atom Egoyan

Commemorating Genocide: Capturing Genocide on Film



Eric Esrailian, left, with Oscar Isaac

There are many books, primarily works of non-fiction, as well as a growing body of fiction, on the Armenian Genocide and its many aspects — legacy, history, reparation, survivors and the dead. The authors try to reach audiences that are interested in the subject but more often than not, they reach people with a direct interest in the subject, such as survivors, descendants, or Turks just finding out about the subject.

A field that is growing is that of films about the Armenian Genocide. There have been a handful of films produced in North America, again both feature as well as documentaries.

The first major film on the Genocide was “Ararat,” released in 2002, written and directed by Canadian-Armenian writer/director Atom Egoyan and produced by Egoyan and Robert Lantos. The film, starring Charles Aznavour, Arsinée Khanjian, David Alpay, Christopher Plummer and Simon Abkarian, is about a young man stuck at customs after returning from Turkey where he is participating in the shooting of a movie about the Armenian Genocide. Much of the movie is about the film’s production, which focused on Arshile Gorky and his endless variations of his portrait with his mother.

The device of a film-within-a-film led to some controversy within the Armenian community with some suggesting that it could lead to a viewer construing that the Armenian Genocide was open to interpretation. The film won several Genie Awards in Canada, including for best motion picture, actor and actress.

Egoyan, who was nominated for an Academy Award for his screenplay for “The Sweet Hereafter” and has enjoyed much critical acclaim around the world for his unusual, non-linear and intellectual films, is proud of his film and its power on exposing the truth when the denialist narrative was much stronger.

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In a recent interview he said, “The year after ‘Ararat’ won for Best Canadian Film at the Canadian Academy of Film Awards, our government recognized the Armenian Genocide, in small part because of the special screening of the film held for the Canadian Parliament. As you’re aware, the film has been distributed in over 40 countries, and has won numerous awards, including the Freedom of Expression Awards from the National Board of Review in the United States, and Best Film and Best Actress from the Durban Film Festival in South Africa. I think ‘Ararat’ would be better understood now, after we have had three more traditional historical epics about the Genocide released. These include ‘The Lark Farm,’ ‘The Cut’ and ‘The Promise.’”

Carla Garapedian

He continued, “The world is definitely a different place in terms of Genocide recognition.”

He added that the device of the film-within-a-film has been incorporated in some of the other movies, and with his work paving the way, the reaction has been different for those that came afterwards.

Added Egoyan, “I definitely think people would have felt more comfortable with this device after they had seen these three other films. My intention with ‘Ararat’ was to make a film that dealt with the effects of denial over four generations. Gorky was just one figure, representing a Genocide survivor. Aznavour’s character (the film director) played the child of a survivor. Arsinée Khanjian [his wife] was the grandchild, and her son Raffi the great-grandchild. Throw in Raffi’s terrorist/freedom fighter father and a customs officer played by Christopher Plummer and you get a film that was way too complex for some viewers.

“On the other hand, ‘Ararat’ is now being taught in many universities and several academic papers have been written about the work. In recent retrospectives of my work, it always stirs debate. It’s not my easiest film, but I consider it my most important. A few months ago, we had a 15th-anniversary screening at The Pomegranate Film Festival here in Toronto to a packed audience and people seemed to respond even more strongly than they did at the time. I think most Armenian viewers had no idea what to make of it in 2002, but the film is my sincere attempt to deal with the transmission of trauma over generations. This makes it an unusual film, but I consider it an honest and sincere attempt at telling my feelings about my history. I am fiercely proud of this work.”


From left, Oscar Isaac, Eric Esrailian, Chris Cornell and Serj Tankian

A film that made a lot of noise in 2017 was “The Promise,” funded by the late Kirk Kerkorian. The film had been on his mind for years and before his death, he enlisted the help of Dr. Eric Esrailian, a friend of his who by day is co-chief of the Division of Digestive Diseases at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, to make sure that his vision happened. Thus, bankrolled with $90 million, “The Promise” got a cast of Hollywood A-list stars, including Oscar Isaac and Academy Award winner Christian Bale, and was produced by Esrailian, Mike Medavoy and William Horberg. The film was written and directed by Terry George, who won an Academy Award for “Hotel Rwanda.” As it gained momentum on social media with Armenian viewers eager to see it, it suffered by it too. It was notable for an overwhelming number of negative reviews on IMDB database, before anyone outside of a small group at the Toronto International Film Festival had seen and was clearly the work of saboteurs.

There was good reason to make the film, Esrailian said, especially in terms of making history visually available. “We have volumes of detailed text books, and the facts are irrefutable. However, in this day and age, using visual media to educate and enlighten is extremely important. We hope we have contributed to the tools that will be used for this purpose.”

Carla Garapedian, a producer on the film, and a filmmaker, director, writer and broadcaster, agreed that movies and documentaries offer a different way to bring the issue to the masses. “Movies help audiences identify with the reality of genocide — which is, at its root, the systematic murder of individuals. We have to see this personal side of genocide, I think, for it to hit home. We need to see how it affects families, friends, lovers. In ‘The Promise,’ we also saw the perpetrators and their ideology. We saw the journalist’s attempts to cover the story, and even friendly Turks who tried to do the right thing. Movies can capture the detail and complexity of mass murder, which is hard to imagine. Movies can take you into that horrific world, and let you experience it for two hours.”

The movie did not make much money at the box office.

“From the beginning, Mr. Kerkorian‘s plan and that of our team was clear. Of course, it would be nice to have more box office sales that could ultimately result in philanthropy, but the mission was to build a visual museum through the film that would live forever and that could be used to educate and enlighten people for generations to come. We wanted to build a movement around the film that could be used by educators and human rights activists but would also be dedicated to the Armenian people and for others suffering in the world today. How much is it worth to finally pull back the curtain on atrocities against your people after over a century of orchestrated and systematic denial? Mr. Kerkorian thought it was priceless. Long after these people that live in an alternate universe are gone, the film will still be watched and the movement will continue,” said Esrailian.

He added, “Mr. Kerkorian knew for decades going into the project that there is an extremely limited appetite in the marketplace given the subject matter, the time period, the way that only certain films have life now in theaters, and the long-standing denial and political pressure. These factors were only reinforced during the entire process of trying to make the film, distribute it, and market it. However, given the quality of the film, the people involved, and the influencers and the Armenian nation promoting the film and its mission, we feel that awareness was increased, and we hope that more people will continue to learn about the Armenian Genocide.”

Esrailian gave Egoyan a lot of credit for his film. “Atom Egoyan is amazing, and he made a beautiful and memorable film with his team. It was also truly artistic. He outlined many challenges and predicted the difficulties that we would face both from the denialists and the lack of appetite, fear from studios and distributors, and potential apathy in the marketplace. Seeing his tears and hearing his words after he saw ‘The Promise’ in Toronto are two things that I will never forget.”

“The Promise” is about a love triangle set in the early stages of the Armenian Genocide. A French-Armenian girl is torn between an American and an Armenian and in the meantime, the clear sense of menace for the Armenians keeps building. Mindless throngs chase Armenians and loot homes and kill anyone in their paths. Still, the violence was not graphic. According to Garapedian, that was a decision George made.

Said Garapedian, “We spent a lot of time working to get the details accurate for Ottoman Turkey in that period. Generally, I’m a proponent for showing more violence — but I think Terry George’s belief that a PG-rating was important to get, was also valid. Had we shown more violence, a lot of people would have switched off. There’s a healthy debate about this, I think. I’ve heard both sides of the argument — and for the non-Armenians, less violence is better, it would seem.”

An interesting aspect to the film was that during the promotional tour, the leads, including Bale and Isaac as well as Terry George, would often speak about the Armenian Genocide in clear, concise terms to reach a mass audience.

“These are incredible people and they were attracted to the script, the subject matter, and the overall mission. It is an honor to be part of this close group,” Esrailian said.

Garapedian agreed. The actors were very committed to the cause of genocide recognition. Eric Esrailian was a key motivator, from the beginning; the director, Terry George, and the other producers were equally committed. The actors did not all know about the genocide. They asked a lot of questions. One of my jobs was to give them the answers — through books, documents, and photos. The actors also saw testimonies from survivors. I’ve been a part of the USC Shoah Foundation project to digitize J. Michael Hagopian’s testimonies. The actors saw some of these interviews. I was impressed with our cast, to say the least. They felt they were part of something important — and I think they were.

Added Garapedian, “We were in an unusual situation where our financier did not require making a return on his investment. Whatever profits that came from the film would later be put into charitable missions. That’s the greatness of Kirk Kerkorian — he made such a difference, not only for this movie, but for the whole Armenian diaspora. We owe him a lot. The real question is, did the movie have an impact? While I think it’s fair to look at the box office figures, it’s hard for the number-crunchers to measure the effect this movie has had on the nearly 12 million people who are estimated to have viewed it (so far). That’s not counting the life it will have on cable (which is just starting this month) and its educational life. So this is the biggest movie we’ve had on the genocide; it’s the one that has the highest production values — including stars and crew.”

Garapedian added that the movie was for a wider audience, not necessarily Armenians. “I was on a flight last year, and saw someone watching the movie. He was not Armenian — he was just a guy on a plane, avidly watching a historic movie. He was gripped. It was ‘The Promise.’ Would he have known about the genocide otherwise? I wonder. … We made a cultural impact, that is for sure.”

“The Promise” led to “Intent to Destroy,” a documentary co-produced by Garapedian, which showed the making the film, intertwined with the story of the Armenian Genocide.

“I was very glad to be a part of it. I’m a little biased, of course, because I was in it and worked on it. I do think, though, it does an excellent job of showing the history of denial. The historical issues in ‘The Promise’ are laid out, relating the real issues to the way they were dramatized in the movie. You see the challenges of trying to show these horrific events on film. It was my job to advise on the historical aspects — in the sets, props, script. So showing the railway carriage where 100 Armenians were transported to their deaths — that was in the documentary. ‘Intent to Destroy’ shows the historical context of ‘The Promise,’ while standing alone as a documentary about the history of genocide denial. The director, Joe Berlinger, deserves a lot of credit for working through the issues and asking tough questions,” Garapedian said.

Esrailian was thrilled with “Intent to Destroy.’” “We love the film, and we are very proud of the role it will play in the bigger mission. From the beginning, we planned to make both films together so that we could address specific details and the educational components that would be clumsy or inappropriate to work into a major Hollywood film. In addition, the documentary details the depths of the denial and the orchestrated attacks. Nevertheless, both films nearly scratch the surface. As difficult as it was to make the films and overcome obstacle after obstacle over these many years, it is nothing compared to what our ancestors went through,” he said.

“The Promise” was not just emotional for those in the diaspora. “Seeing the reaction of Armenians in our homeland was truly moving. Many people said that they felt like their ancestors finally had a voice. Witnessing the fruits of the time and energy put into the performances by such talented artists in Armenia was inspirational,” Esrailian said.

He and George went to Armenia, where they showed it and met with the country’s leadership.

Other than those in the film, one person who was very vocal about the need for the recognition of the Armenian Genocide was singer Chris Cornell, who penned an eponymous song for the film’s soundtrack. The song was nominated for a Grammy and was Cornell’s last release before his untimely death. His death left many devastated, including those involved with “The Promise.”

“It has been devastating on so many levels. Of course, the most pain has been felt by his family. Millions of fans around the world are also mourning him and will continue to do so. He is truly a hero for many Armenians because of his beautiful song, his dedication to helping others, and the awareness he brought to a subject that is so personal to so many of us. We will never forget him,” Esrailian said. e

The song as well as the film have been parlayed to help shed light on other injustices. In fact, the Los Angeles Committee of Human Rights Watch had their most successful fundraising dinner to date, raising more than every year prior at a program honoring the film and the song in November.

As for Egoyan, he is still charting his own original path. “I’ve made many other films after ‘Ararat,’ including films starring Oscar-winning stars like Julianne Moore, Liam Neeson, Colin Firth, Reese Witherspoon and other stars like Ryan Reynolds, Rosario Dawson and Kevin Bacon. And the best news is that Christopher Plummer finally won HIS Oscar after he appeared in “Ararat” and I got to work with him again on my most recent film ‘Remember’ (also about the residual effects of historical trauma, this time the Holocaust). I’ll be hopefully shooting a new film in the fall, but I’m keeping very busy with opera these days”

Noted Garapedian, “In ‘Intent to Destroy,’ Atom Egoyan talks about the making of ‘Ararat’ and the Turkish government making their presence known during that production. While making ‘The Promise’ we had some pressure put on actors by the Turkish government, to not appear in the movie. But the real pressure was on the film reviewers in the United States, who were routinely sent letters denying the genocide. It’s hard to believe that still goes on, but it does. And if you know nothing about the issues, as a reviewer, you might be influenced by a long denier letter. Even I was surprised, although I shouldn’t have been. You may have also read about the “bots” which bombarded the internet hours after the first public screening. That says something for the new generation of denial that we are living in now.”

Garapedian is also known for another documentary on the Armenian Genocide, “Screamers” in 1995, which made a lot of noise. In the documentary, Garapedian followed System of a Down, one of the most successful American heavy metal bands all of whose members are Armenian. The band’s lead singer, Serj Tankian, is an outspoken proponent for the recognition of the Armenian Genocide and at all their shows, the band has tables which have information about the Armenian Genocide as well as other atrocities ongoing around the world. The film was very well received.

Garapedian explained, “They speak to different audiences. Heavy metal music definitely falls into the young person’s camp. Documentaries also speak to a different audience than a big feature film like ‘The Promise.’ Screamers had a particular voice in the pre-2007 debate about genocide recognition. We can say, though, after ‘The Promise,’ that the issue of genocide recognition now has many more allies, many more advocates, many more believers. We’ve come a long way, although it has only been ten years since ‘Screamers.’ I was at the official commemoration ceremony in Armenia, in 2015. I was very proud to see a Rwandan genocide survivor have a prominent role in that ceremony. Her presence in such an important state ceremony, I believe, would not have happened ten years earlier. But it did happen in 2015 — why? I think it is because Armenians understood the necessity to see our genocide as one of a series of genocides. That year, 2015, the Pope and Kim Kardashian also raised awareness. That helped us reach what I would call ‘critical mass’ — where suddenly, it seemed as if the genocide issue exploded.”

Currently Garapedian said she is working on another film on the Armenian Genocide. “I’m working on one now — a crime drama based on a true story. Watch this space.”

Garapedian said that she hopes — and is sure — that the film will continue to be seen by future generation. “I think it will age well because it was well made, is based on a true story that many people did not know about before the movie — and has very moving performances. It is an epic story, and for that reason, I think it will age well. The younger generation, now, likes epic stories, too — but epics more in the style of Marvel comics and super-heroes. I suspect, with the changes we are seeing in the world now, there will be a pendulum swing back to movies like ‘The Promise.’”

Concluded Esrailian, “The release of ‘The Promise’ and ‘Intent To Destroy’ were time zero for the bigger mission — to never forget and to never allow these atrocities to be committed again. The news from around the world shows us that the work is just beginning. We have an incredible network of caring people like your readers, educators, human rights activists, philanthropists, and influencers Who want to get involved and give back in their own way. The work is just beginning.”


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