Every April 24th is a day of remembrance for those lost in the Armenian Genocide, the systematic murder of ethnic Armenians by the Ottoman Empire (what is modern day Turkey) from 1914 to 1923.
The Armenian Genocide has a complicated history of recognition, specifically so within the United States. And it has everything to do with the fact that Turkey is an important political ally for the United States, and Turkey denies that the genocide ever happened. According to them, over one and a half million ethnic Armenians were simply carnage of war and not deliberate targeting.
It took until late 2019 for the U.S. House and Senate to finally, officially recognize the genocide. To date, a total of 29 countries have recognized it.
I am 1/4th Armenian. My great-grandmother on my father’s side, Hranoush Jara-hian (or Helen, as I knew her) escaped from the Ottoman Empire with her mother and sister; her father and brothers didn’t. As she died when I was seven, and I never knew her mother or her sister, my knowledge of her and of that specific familial history is frustratingly scant. All of what I do know is second-hand, retellings of retellings.
I’ve found a great solace in finding representation for myself in film and general media, but attempting to find this in specific regards to my Armenian heritage has been complicated.
Films about this genocide have been released periodically every few years (these films are all conveniently compiled on Wikipedia, as it so happens), but what I find glaring is the output by Hollywood specifically.
The first film about the Armenian Genocide was actually released in 1919, before the genocide was even over — Ravished Armenia. And, null documentaries, Hollywood would not touch upon the subject again until The Promise, released in 2017. 98 years later.
The reason for this is the same reason that it took so long for the United States to officially recognize the genocide: Turkish lobbying. And for the importance of The Promise to be properly conveyed, the context of Armenian-focused film in Hollywood, or the lack thereof, needs to be explained.
For The Promise to even exist at all is a miracle. And it’s all thanks to a billionaire.
We have Kirk Kerkorian, specifically, to thank for donating $100 million dollars toward the budget of the film. An Armenian-American himself, he died in 2015, a year before the film would be released, but he is the sole individual responsible for fully funding the picture. He donated the film’s budget for the explicit reason that he knew it would not get made any other way.
Ever since 1934, Turkish lobbying has been successful in suppressing any mainstream Hollywood film about the Armenian Genocide. Attempts to adapt The Forty Days of Musa Dagh had all been completely smothered by Turkish opposition and American spinelessness. Attempts by then-icons Mel Gibson and Sylvester Stallone also failed in the mid 2000’s, due to an intense email campaign by The Foundation for the Struggle Against Baseless Allegations of Genocide (ASIMED), a group whose purpose is stated and obvious.
— [A] similar situation occurred recently when Sylvester Stallone announced his plans to play a role in a new film adaptation of the book “The Forty Days of Musa Dagh. ” After a campaign led by ASİMED in which more than 3,000 emails were sent to Stallone, the actor declined the role. “Stallone decided not to act in this film after the email campaign we led … We have begun sending documents about the truth of the situation to Gibson. We started an email campaign to urge him to decline the role and to not allow this film to be shot at his production company. What we are facing is a new slander campaign on the level of the ‘Midnight Express’. Everyone needs to be sensitive and aware on this topic. We need to put pressure on this famous actor by telling him the truth of the matter.” (x)
This quote, in part from ASIMED president Savas Egilmez, echoes how the then-Turkish ambassador to the United States, Munir Ertegun, responded to the 1930’s attempt at adaptation:
“If the movie is made, Turkey will launch a worldwide campaign against it. It rekindles the Armenian Question. The Armenian Question is settled”
As the times have changed from print to digital, Turkish denial equally adapted to best push their agenda. Previously, I mentioned the email campaign that successfully shut down two film projects. Further still, though, with The Promise successfully funded and created, attempts at denial moved to review bombing.
After the film’s first screenings at festivals, wherein only a few thousand people might’ve seen it, The Promise’s IMDB page was suddenly hit with “almost 100,000” one-star, negative reviews. This then was countered by a wave of 10/10 reviews. It’s hard to tell if the website was subsequently able to clear any of these, but the damage is still evident, years later.
There’s no real study on if review bombing or general calls for boycotts impact films in any meaningful way, but there is undeniably impact.
Those behind The Promise have explicitly stated that their primary intent for the film was to make the atrocities of the genocide more widely known; they were well aware that they were not going to make back their budget (nor did they; box office reports state that the film turned about a $12 million dollar profit, compared to the ~$90 million production budget). While a shame that those numbers reflect a generally low turnout, I do believe that they accomplished what they set out to do. If nothing more than as a result of the IMDB ratings controversy, the film has created an easier, more public dialogue about the genocide.
If the Internet has taught us anything, though, it’s that you can’t judge a movie by its controversy. So while all of this context is important- I would argue it’s nearly mandatory- there is still a film to sit through and dissect.
I watched The Promise for the first time not in theaters, but back in February of 2019; a little shy of two years after its release date.
And I’m probably a Bad Armenian for not seeing the movie one hundred times over in theaters, but I couldn’t drive in 2017, and my parents weren’t and still aren’t keen on seeing “sad films” in overpriced IMAX (validly so). But even though I didn’t see it during the theatrical run, I certainly never forgot about it.
You can read my mini-review at the time here.
Coming back to this movie now three years after its initial release, I enjoyed it considerably more, though the same problems did continue to persist.
The Promise primarily follows the story of Mikael (Oscar Isaac), an ethnic Armenian who travels to Constantinople and meets fellow Armenian Ana and American reporter Chris (Charlotte Le Bon and Christian Bale, respectively) just prior to the Armenian Genocide; the rest of the film follows each of these three characters as they attempt to navigate and survive the atrocities. There’s love, death, and significantly less impalement than would be historically accurate.
Much of the criticism of the film comes from its focus on the love triangle that forms between the three main characters. It does take up a not-insignificant portion of the plot, often cropping up awkwardly in contrast to the genocide being portrayed. But where I would normally condone a movie for using a historical tragedy as the backdrop for a romance, The Promise doesn’t do that, not exactly.
Earlier in the year, my class on adaptations covered Brokeback Mountain. It is undeniably one of my favorite films, and one that I consider nearly perfect. That being said, the creation and production of the Brokeback film was heavily influenced by the society of 2005 America. In order for the film to be taken somewhat seriously and to be released to a general audience, the filmmaking had to be straightforward and simplistic. There could be nothing in the technicals or the story structure that might provide an excuse for audiences or studios to reject the film.
In this way, The Promise reminds me a lot of Brokeback Mountain. As previously laid out, the topic of the Armenian Genocide is touchy, if it is known at all. As a filmmaker, you’re fighting several battles at once — fighting against Turkish intimidation, educating a general audience, and being engaging enough to get that audience to spread the movie further.
One of the producers of the film, Eric Esrailian, has stated that the intent of the film was never to be an outright history lesson. And while I can think of other ways to humanize and personalize the genocide beyond a love triangle (I’m sure there’s countless true stories that could’ve been adapted, in the vein of Schindler’s List or Hotel Rwanda?), the film doesn’t execute it poorly. Clunkily, yes, but not poorly.
Ultimately, the film is at its best when it focuses on the genocide itself, and when it focuses on the Armenian response. While a lot is skimmed over and we usually only see the aftermath of things (in order to secure a PG-13, only so much violence could be shown), The Promise still doesn’t shy away from some haunting implications. At one point, Mikael finds safety on the top of a passing train; when it starts to rain, he realizes that the train is filled with Armenians being transported to their deaths. We never see where the train leads, but we know that Mikael’s failure to get the door open means that it’s not likely that anyone from that train survived.
The running theme of the movie, though, is the response of the Armenian people to the violence they come up against. In spite of the atrocities, there is never a moment where the characters truly consider giving up. They find family wherever they are gathered, no matter how dire the circumstance or how close to freedom they might seem. My favorite lines in the film come from Mikael and Ana as they grieve over the recent death of Mikael’s mother, who was one of only two survivors of the massacre that otherwise took out his entire village. As Mikael contemplates revenge against the Turkish soldiers, Ana’s response is simple: “our revenge will be to survive”.
Cheesy? Perhaps. Especially in a film whose screenplay doesn’t make much of an effort to stay on the subtle side of things. But I can’t help it, I was a sucker hearing it for the first time, and I’m still a sucker for it now.
To ask if The Promise is good or bad seems almost an impossible question, not to mention a question that I can’t help but find irrelevant.
Is the film good? I would tentatively say yes; a few more rewrites and tweaks and it might’ve been something great. But I don’t think whether or not the film is good as entertainment value really matters.
Those behind The Promise painstakingly checked themselves to be as historically accurate as they could possibly be. While the film presents itself as a Titanic-style romantic tragedy, that’s hardly what you’re going to walk away thinking about. The focus of the project was to bring attention to the Armenian Genocide, and how, at the time, it was still being ignored by some key world powers.
And while Turkey will probably continue to hold out until the end of known time and space, we’re making progress. When I read that the United States had finally officially recognized the genocide, I thought it was a joke. I didn’t think I’d really see the day where what had happened to my family would be recognized here. I wish Hranoush could’ve been here. She was 5 years old when the genocide began.
It’s too early to tell if The Promise will set off a multitude of other films about the Armenian Genocide, but I like to think that if nothing else, it’s set a very good standard to live up to and perhaps surpass. I want to see our stories told again, and not after another 98 year wait period. We broke through the front lines, now it’s just a matter of how long we can keep pushing further.
(Just don’t put Oscar Isaac in old man makeup again any time soon. Thanks.)