“The Promise,” starring Christian Bale, Oscar Isaac, and Charlotte LeBon, is the new film from writer/director Terry George (”Hotel Rwanda,” “In the Name of the Father”) and producer Eric Esrailian, about the Ottoman Empire’s ethnic murders of the Armenian people that led to the first use of the term “genocide,” just over a century ago. It is an epic story of love, loss, war, and survival. In an interview, George and Esrailian talked about
There were audible gasps in the theater when one of the characters made a reference to being relocated to Aleppo. So, tell me how what the film ties into what is going on in the world today.
TS: The film is a love story set in the first World War in Turkey at the beginning of and through the process of the Armenian genocide and a key part of the Turkish plan for the Armenians was to drive them from basically the Northern Turkey south across the deserts towards the area of Aleppo, basically the same area that we know today for the huge conflict between the Syrian rebels, Isis, and the Syrian government. What we re-created in the film were scenes that are so reminiscent of today, are so parallel to today, with huge numbers of refugees fleeing across borders under siege on a mountain. It is remarkably similar to what happened in northern Iraq and then people drowning in the Mediterranean Sea just as they are today. I think the dissimilarity is the reaction to refugees back then as compared to today in that the Armenians managed to escape and find refuge in France, in America, across Europe. They were treated as refugees whereas today as we know there is a growing movement against these people who can't be blamed for their situation and need to be treated with humanity and tolerance.
You point out at the end of the film that the Turks still officially deny that this happened. Is that why it is not better known?
TG: For sure. I mean at the time of the event it was probably the most covered and publicized event of the first World War in the United States. There were reports every day from Christian ministries in Turkey and from news reports and New York Times at the time and various papers is covered it fastidiously and then after the breakup of the Armenian Empire and the division of the Armenian Empire among the British and French and so forth and the foundation of the Turkish state, the Turkish government, successive Turkish governments began a campaign of disinformation and denial that is still going on to this day.
So the information was withheld or actively suppressed and while you had after the Holocaust Nuremberg Trials and so forth there were attempts initially at the end of the war to have trials by the British and I think some of the genocide perpetrators were hung. But in the end because of the desire by mainly the French and British to divide up the Armenian Empire the trials fell to the wayside and no one was held responsible for what took place.
EE: I think also Terry deserves a lot of credit because if it wasn't for Terry’s film “Hotel Rwanda” I don't think Rwanda would be as well understood or at least the awareness would be diminished so that kind of goes back to what Terry always has said: making a film has a sense of permanence and if it resonates with people then they're not going to forget it. That was a big part of the mission of making the movie.
TG: The genocide is a scar on the Armenian nation that it's almost impossible to get past.
EE: That speaks to the success of the Turkish government in repressing this. I always make the analogy that it’s like the Irish famine, the famine is burnt in the soul of all Irish people and this is very similar to it but given the politics of that region at the moment and how volatile it is an understanding of what took place and some sort of reconciliation and reparation to the Armenians could go a long way to stabilizing at least the northern part of that region.
And there's a second thing that needs to be remembered, genocide is the word that was invented to describe what happened to Armenians by Raphael Lemkin. This is probably the highest form of crime. If you're going to codify that then the first great genocide in the 20th century needs to be recognized by everyone as such.