Hol­ly­wood takes on a tragedy of his­tory

‘The Promise’ and ‘The Ot­toman Lieu­tenant’ view the hor­rific fate of Ar­me­ni­ans in WWI Tur­key through dif­fer­ent lenses

The Washington Post Sunday - - ARTS & STYLE - BY VANESSA H. LAR­SON style@wash­post.com

Turks and Ar­me­ni­ans have been in a bit­ter, long-run­ning dis­pute over the deaths of more than 1 mil­lion Ar­me­ni­ans dur­ing World War I in the Ot­toman Em­pire. Ar­me­ni­ans call it a geno­cide; the Turk­ish gov­ern­ment says the killings were not sys­tem­atic, oc­cur­ring in the midst of war.

Now, the dis­pute has come to Hol­ly­wood. Two films this spring fea­ture an in­tense love tri­an­gle that un­folds in this his­toric set­ting — but their po­lit­i­cal agen­das are vastly dif­fer­ent.

“The Promise,” open­ing na­tion­wide April 21, is the first ma­jor Hol­ly­wood movie to por­tray what a con­sen­sus of his­to­ri­ans calls the Ar­me­nian geno­cide, which in­volved forced-march de­por­ta­tions and mass killings over sev­eral years start­ing in 1915.

Os­car Isaac plays a young Ar­me­nian man who moves from his small vil­lage to Is­tan­bul in 1914 to study medicine. There, as the pre­dom­i­nantly Mus­lim Ot­toman Em­pire en­ters the war on the side of Ger­many and turns on its own mi­nor­ity Chris­tian Ar­me­nian pop­u­la­tion, he meets and falls in love with an Ar­me­nian woman raised in France (Char­lotte Le Bon of “The Walk”), who is ro­man­ti­cally in­volved with an out­spo­ken Amer­i­can cor­re­spon­dent for the As­so­ci­ated Press (Chris­tian Bale).

Talaat Pasha, con­sid­ered the mas­ter­mind be­hind the killings, is one of the real-life fig­ures in the film, which spares none of the Turk­ish atroc­i­ties against the Ar­me­ni­ans, from the bru­tal la­bor camps for young men to the mas­sacres of women, chil­dren and the el­derly.

Though “The Ot­toman Lieu­tenant” ap­pears sim­i­lar on the sur­face, it of­fers a very dif­fer­ent in­ter­pre­ta­tion of his­tory. The film — which opened March 10 with a lim­ited re­lease — tells the fic­tional story of a head­strong Amer­i­can nurse (Ice­landic ac­tress Hera Hil­mar) who trav­els to eastern Ana­to­lia (now Tur­key) to work at an Amer­i­can Mis­sion Hos­pi­tal. Dur­ing the war, she is pulled be­tween two men seek­ing her af­fec­tions: an Amer­i­can doc­tor (Josh Hart­nett) and a Mus­lim Ot­toman lieu­tenant (Michiel Huis­man of “Game of Thrones”).

The film takes an ap­proach sim­i­lar to the po­si­tion of the Turk­ish gov­ern­ment, which has long held that there was no sta­te­or­ga­nized pol­icy of eth­nic cleans­ing against Ar­me­ni­ans. Rather, Tur­key in­sists, dur­ing the fight­ing on the Ot­toman Em­pire’s eastern front against the Rus­sians, Turk­ish and Ar­me­nian civil­ians alike died in the course of wartime vi­o­lence.

Taner Ak­cam of Clark Univer­sity, one of the few his­to­ri­ans from Tur­key to rec­og­nize the events as a geno­cide, says that the coun­try’s gov­ern­ment re­fuses to ac­knowl­edge Turk­ish cul­pa­bil­ity partly be­cause of the sen­si­tive is­sue of repa­ra­tions for sur­vivors and their de­scen­dants. But the stance also stems from deeper roots: the coun­try’s found­ing in 1923 on the ashes of the Ot­toman Em­pire.

“If you ac­knowl­edge the Ar­me­nian geno­cide, then you have to ac­knowl­edge that an im­por­tant num­ber of Turk­ish found­ing fa­thers were ei­ther in­volved di­rectly in geno­cide or be­came rich dur­ing the geno­ci­dal process” through the seizure of Ar­me­nian prop­erty, said Ak­cam.

Both films were in the works well be­fore the April 24, 2015, cen­te­nary of the tragedy, which helped in­crease aware­ness of the sub­ject.

“The Ar­me­nian geno­cide is one of the most well-doc­u­mented hu­man­i­tar­ian catas­tro­phes of the 20th cen­tury,” said Eric Es­rail­ian, lead pro­ducer for Sur­vival Pic­tures, which pro­duced “The Promise” — his first film, as he’s also a physi­cian at UCLA’s David Gef­fen School of Medicine. “It was, in real time . . . fre­quently writ­ten about in U.S. news­pa­pers. There was a huge hu­man­i­tar­ian re­lief ef­fort.”

It is largely due to Turk­ish pres­sure on the film in­dus­try that a movie like “The Promise” was not made sooner. In the 1930s, MGM ac­quired the film rights to “The Forty Days of Musa Dagh,” Franz Wer­fel’s best-sell­ing novel in­spired by the true story of sev­eral thou­sand Ar­me­ni­ans who sur­vived a moun­tain­top siege. But lob­by­ing by Turk­ish Am­bas­sador to the United States Mehmet Mu­nir Erte­gun (whose son Ah­met went on to found Atlantic Records) forced the stu­dio to drop the project.

Re­cent years have seen a cou­ple of small-scale in­die fea­tures that deal with the tragedy, in­clud­ing Ar­me­nian Cana­dian direc­tor Atom Egoyan’s “Ararat” (2002) and Turk­ish Ger­man direc­tor Fatih Akin’s “The Cut” (2014).

“The Promise” was also de­vel­oped out­side the stu­dio sys­tem, fi­nanced en­tirely by the late mogul Kirk Kerko­rian, who owned MGM for many years and later founded Sur­vival Pic­tures in 2012.

“The ‘promise’ means so much to us per­son­ally,” said Es­rail­ian.

“The promise is for us to never for­get . . . to do some­thing so that it never hap­pens again.” Eric Es­rail­ian, “Promise” pro­ducer

“The promise was from Mr. Kerko­rian to make the film. The promise was from us to com­plete the film. The promise is for us to never for­get. And the promise is for us to also vow to do some­thing so that it never hap­pens again.”

With a bud­get of nearly $100 mil­lion, the film is one of the most ex­pen­sive in­de­pen­dent films ever made, ac­cord­ing to Va­ri­ety. And the en­tire en­deavor is not-for-profit: Sur­vival Pic­tures has com­mit­ted to do­nat­ing all pro­ceeds to non­profit or­ga­ni­za­tions, in­clud­ing the El­ton John AIDS Foun­da­tion and “other hu­man rights and hu­man­i­tar­ian groups.”

“The Ot­toman Lieu­tenant” was also made with pri­vate fi­nanc­ing, in this case from a group of Turk­ish pro­duc­ers work­ing in film, TV and ad­ver­tis­ing. They teamed up with pro­ducer Stephen Joel Brown (“Seven”), as well as an direc­tor, Joseph Ruben (“The For­got­ten”), and screen­writer, Jeff Stock­well (“Bridge to Ter­abithia”), to make a fea­ture that would have high pro­duc­tion val­ues.

In an in­ter­view, Brown main­tained that their film was not seek­ing to pro­mote a par­tic­u­lar po­lit­i­cal agenda, de­scrib­ing it as “a clas­sic love story, set at a time and place that we re­ally haven’t seen in cin­ema.”

While fore­ground­ing the clan­des­tine ro­mance be­tween the Amer­i­can nurse and the Ot­toman lieu­tenant, the movie does not com­pletely shy away from show­ing the suf­fer­ing of the Ar­me­ni­ans, par­tic­u­larly in one cru­cial scene in­volv­ing Turk­ish sol­diers. “That [scene] seems kind of un­equiv­o­cally say­ing, Turks force marched Ar­me­ni­ans and then slaugh­tered them along the way,” said Stock­well, the screen­writer. “What­ever you want to quib­ble about, there it is. Now, is there enough? Is it soft-ped­aled?”

Nev­er­the­less, fo­cus­ing the acAmer­i­can tion on the town of Van and show­ing one of the few Ar­me­nian in­sur­gen­cies, which took place there in April and May 1915, has the ef­fect of pro­mot­ing the Turk­ish nar­ra­tive, which points to the Van re­sis­tance as a jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for re­pres­sion of the Ar­me­ni­ans.

“The of­fi­cial Turk­ish ar­gu­ment is that de­por­ta­tion of Ar­me­ni­ans was a re­sponse to Ar­me­nian up­ris­ings,” said Ak­cam (who has not seen “The Ot­toman Lieu­tenant”). “This is the rea­son the Van event is cru­cial in Ot­toman Turk­ish his­to­ri­og­ra­phy. This ar­gu­ment is not cor­rect, be­cause . . . we know that the de­ci­sion for de­por­ta­tion was already taken be­fore the Van up­ris­ing.”

(The stu­dio did not make the Turk­ish pro­duc­ers avail­able for in­ter­views.)

A sizable con­tin­gent of Turks, as well as many in the Ar­me­nian di­as­pora, have been aware of “The Promise” for some time. Last Oc­to­ber, out­lets in­clud­ing the In­de­pen­dent re­ported that it had more than 85,000 rat­ings on IMDb, nearly all of them ei­ther 1 or 10 stars. Given that the film had had just three pub­lic screen­ings by that point, it seemed clear that users who had not even seen it were “rat­ing” it based purely on their pol­i­tics.

Sim­i­larly, be­fore “The Ot­toman Lieu­tenant” had even opened, it was quickly dis­missed in Ar­me­nian Amer­i­can publications and in YouTube com­ments sec­tions as Turk­ish pro­pa­ganda.

While nei­ther movie is likely to set­tle the de­bate over the events of World War I, th­ese por­tray­als might prompt some Amer­i­cans to look into the his­tor­i­cal record — and draw their own con­clu­sions.


ABOVE: Char­lotte Le Bon, as an Ar­me­nian woman raised in France, and Chris­tian Bale, as an out­spo­ken Amer­i­can jour­nal­ist, in “The Promise.” BELOW: Michiel Huis­man, as an Ot­toman mil­i­tary of­fi­cer who seeks the af­fec­tions of a head­strong Amer­i­can nurse, in “The Ot­toman Lieu­tenant.”


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