'Screamers' and Genocide: A Talk With Serj Tankian From System of a Down

'Screamers,' a documentary by Carla Garapedian, just won the Audience Award at the AFI Film Festival. It uses archival footage, interviews, and live music to reflect on the Armenian genocide, its aftermath, and the effect that later denials of the atrocity had on history.

'Screamers' examines efforts to have the Armenian genocide internationally recognized, and ties it to other genocides, past and present - particularly Darfur. It's a powerful document, both politically and artistically.

The film centers around the highly popular Armenian-American rock band System of a Down and its lead singer, Serj Tankian, as they tour Europe and discuss the issues of Armenia, genocide, and human rights.

Last week I spoke with Serj about the film and his own political work.  Serj cofounded Axis of Justice with Rage Against the Machine/Audioslave guitarist Tom Morello, to mobilize musicians and music fans around progressive issues.

Here are some excerpts from our conversation:

What politicized you? As an Armenian-American, was it your family's memories of the Armenian genocide?

It was the denial of genocide, more than the genocide itself, that politicized me. I was troubled by the idea that this kind of violence could occur, only to be ignored or covered up.  It made me feel I had to act and react. There are so many things going on in the world today that are receiving the same treatment -  including, but not limited to Darfur and Rwanda. 

In a way, the hypocrisy of the denial is more politicizing than the act itself.  I think that the memory of Armenia's genocide opened my eyes
at an early age to the existence of political cynicism.

What's your definition of "genocide"? The diplomatic community has one, but does the word have a more personal meaning for you?


My thing is figuring out how to put things in a simple way, so here's my definition: If someone gets attacked because they look different, act different, or pray differently, that's genocide. And if  the mass execution of a people is organized and perpetrated by a government, that's definitely genocide.


But anytime people are made to suffer as a group because they're different from others - to me, that's genocide too.



A lot of political leaders, even well-meaning ones, might say that forcing Turkey to acnowledge the Armenian genocide would limit our ability to fight terror or do other good things in the world. What would you say to someone who argues that the genocide took place almost a century ago, and that they'd rather concentrate on what we can do today?


Look: Correct recognition of the past affects the present. It's as simple as that. If we're at the point where we're going to use genocide as currency to get something we want from another nation ... well, we're really fucked, aren't we?


Let me put it another way: You can't do the wrong thing for the right reason. It won't work. It never has.



The movie shows your efforts to get Denny Hastert to advance a resolution recognizing the Armenian genocide. The film's equally rough on the first Bush administration and Clinton's over this issue. Do you think the resolution will do any better now that the Democrats control Congress?


You mean, are they real reformers or just "corporate Democrats"? We'll see. So far everybody's enjoying the general feeling of optimism, but Congress hasn't even convened yet. Nobody's really "in" over there right now.



What do you say when people complain about musicians and other celebrities who speak out about politics?

I agree with them, in a way. What do musicians know that other people don't? Nothing. Plumbers can speak. Electricians can speak. Everyone can speak. They should speak.

Lech Walesa was an electrician, and he became the leader of Poland.


Exactly. Good for him. I don't want to spend all my time working as an activist. I don't get satisfaction out of it. I'd rather be doing something else. I'm a musician.

I've noticed something about people who say they don't like actors and musicians having political opinions, if you ask them who they think was the greatest President eve,r they always answer "Reagan." And what was Reagan before he went into politics?


(laughs) Exactly. If anybody wants to speak up, they should speak up. I don't want to be a politician ...



Serj discusses other topics, including the balancing act between music & politics and how it felt to become the target of jingoistic attacks after 9/11, here. "Screamers" opens in Los Angeles on December 8.