The Armenian genocide is still being denied: "This human tragedy has been allowed to be treated as a debate rather than actual history"

Salon talks to the maker of a new documentary "Intent to Destroy," about the making of a film on Turkish atrocities

Published April 26, 2017 10:59PM (EDT)

Intent to Destroy (Tribeca Film)
Intent to Destroy (Tribeca Film)

What if, back in the '90s, the U.S. State Department had leaned on Steven Spielberg and asked him to not make his movie "Schindler’s List" because it would upset our NATO ally Germany?

Ludicrous, right?

But that’s the question director Joe Berlinger asked when he recently discussed his new film, "Intent to Destroy," a documentary that just premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival on Tuesday. The nonfiction film deals with the Armenian genocide perpetrated by Turkey in 1915, leaving more than a million people dead, as told through the making of the narrative film "The Promise," which hit theaters on April 21.

In referencing "Schindler’s List," Berlinger wasn’t being overly dramatic. He was talking about an actual event in history from the 1930s, when another Armenian genocide film, "The Forty Days of Musa Dagh," was in production but scrapped because Turkey pressured the U.S. State Department to lean on MGM to not make the movie. Berlinger ("Metallica: Some Kind of Monster," "Paradise Lost," "Brother’s Keeper"), a nimble and revered documentarian, has managed to construct an incisive, emotional look at the genocide itself, as well as its representation, and lack thereof, in the movies.

Before "The Promise," there had never been a mainstream telling of the genocide, thanks at least partly to pressure from genocide deniers aligned with the Turkish government. In "Intent to Destroy," Berlinger talks to Canadian director Atom Egoyan, who describes being cajoled and intimidated to not follow through with making his independent film about the genocide, "Ararat," which he released in 2002.

"The Promise," which is directed by Terry George ("Hotel Rwanda," "Reservation Road") and stars Oscar Isaac, Christian Bale and Charlotte Le Bon, tells of a love triangle during the run-up to World War I. It explicitly represents mass killings and forced relocations of the Armenians. The film was greenlighted thanks to the largesse of billionaire (and Armenian-American) Kirk Kerkorian, who passed away in 2015. Kerkorian provided the reported $100 million budget.

When Berlinger caught wind of the production, he realized its unprecedented nature. And it seems he wasn’t the only one. A rival film called "The Ottoman Lieutenant," with a strikingly similar plotline yet a more sympathetic position on Turkey’s actions leading up to World War I, also went into production, backed by a team of Turkish producers.

"The Ottoman Lieutenant," which was directed by Joseph Ruben ("Sleeping with the Enemy") and stars Michiel Huisman, Hera Hilmar, Ben Kingley and Josh Hartnett, could be construed as our current era’s iteration of trying to control the facts. Straight-up censorship wouldn’t fly these days, but the creation of alt-facts might confuse the masses.

But not so fast, according to an executive who worked on the film. He said that "The Ottoman Lieutenant" was already in production before "The Promise" — and that began shooting eight months before George's film — so the timing was coincidental.

There may be some shades of gray here. But Berlinger has a knack for cutting through the fog and drawing sharp lines where the truth previously had been blurry. And yet, tackling a century-old, international legacy of denial might be his greatest challenge so far. (No standing U.S. president has been willing to use the word “genocide” when referring to the mass killings of Armenians.)

What follows is an edited conversation with the director Berlinger.

Do you think your film could push the needle on official recognition of the Armenian genocide?

As a guy who has moved the needle on a few things, I do ask myself that question. It’s true that a lot of people don’t seem to care about what happened. And it’s shocking to me our government would rather sweep it under the rug than do the right, moral thing. Moving the needle means different things to different people. Acknowledgement that it was a genocide would make a lot of people happy. Reparations and land repatriation — that’s not realistic. What I hope the film does is that people of Turkish descent would look inward and that Armenians would feel some sense of closure.

I was just in Israel. Even they don’t recognize the genocide. I find that morally repugnant that a country that was born from the ashes of genocide is more interested in placating a friend in the region.

Do you see your film and "The Promise" as a package?

The two are related but my film stands on its own. They are complementary films and more people will see "The Promise." My film tells the historical underpinning of the genocide but my film also deals with the mechanism of denial. I don’t see them necessarily as a package. I don’t want people to think this is just a behind-the-scenes film. It’s not a glorified EPK [or electronic press kit].

No, that doesn’t sound like you. How did you come to making the film?

I heard "The Promise" was being made and I pitched the producers of the film. As a student of the Holocaust — I was a German major in college and I was obsessed with the Holocaust — I was always aware of the Armenian genocide. I was always perplexed why this human tragedy has been allowed to be treated as a debate rather than actual history. On the eve of the Nazi invasion of Poland, Hitler gave a speech to his generals, getting them psyched to be ruthless, by saying, “After all, who remembers the Armenians?”

Did anyone from the Turkish government mess with your production?

We flew under the radar, although I wasn’t shy about what I was doing.

In your film, you do have a scholar who doesn’t believe in calling it genocide in the film.

We have some anti-genocide people in the film. I thought it was important. If you are going to have a dialogue, you have to understand the arguments. My approach was to treat everyone on the denial side as if they truly believed their viewpoints and to allow them to have their say without a “gotcha” moment since the entire film is stacked against their views. I felt this was the best way to approach the “other side.”

There is a feeling amongst some genocide scholars that you don’t give the deniers a platform. And if we were making a straightforward film about the genocide, I could understand that point. But I am making a film about the aftermath and the denial as well. If you are making a film about holocaust denial then of course, you have to include the deniers.

What you think of Terry George and how was it being on his set?

He comes from a political background himself. He cares about this issue. He was the perfect director. We are filmmakers who care about social justice. "In the Name of the Father," [which George wrote,] and "Paradise Lost" came out at around the same time. They are both about abuses in the criminal justice system. We clicked. There was some healthy tension when I could be around and not around.

There’s a lot of pressure on George to achieve success with "The Promise" in the hopes of setting the record straight, no?

Terry and the entire team had a tremendous sense of pressure. It’s not just a film. I saw Terry wearing that pressure every day. What they are endeavoring to do is not easy — to find that balance between mainstream entertainment and historical revelation.

By Tom Roston

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