The Promise: A Love Story Set Against the Backdrop of the Armenian Genocide

The Promise: A Love Story Set Against the Backdrop of the Armenian Genocide
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Images courtesy of Open Road Films

Love is The Promise’s stock in trade. Set during the last days of the Ottoman Empire, this historical romance features epic, emotional stories — captured in 72 days across 20 locations throughout Spain, Malta, Portugal and New York — all set against the backdrop of the Armenian genocide. “Along with this heavy topic, we’ve created a very moving and emotional love quadrangle that carries us through the film,” says Terry George (Hotel Rwanda), the film’s director and co-writer. “We set out to create something that would appeal to a broader audience. This is a big, old-fashioned love story that takes place during a very dark period in history.”

Not only does the film deal frankly with the mass killings of 1.5 million Armenians by the Ottoman Empire between 1915 and 1922, it is also one of the most expensive independently financed films ever made — nearly $100 million. Bringing the story to the masses was a mission for Kirk Kerkorian, an Armenian businessman who once owned Metro-Goldwyn Mayer (MGM). He died in 2015 as the film was going into production. “One thing I would like to mention is that the proceeds of our film are all being donated to non-profit organizations,” says Eric Esrailian, one of the film’s producers. “That’s an unprecedented occurrence in a film of this scale, and it’s all thanks to the generosity of Kirk Kerkorian, who wanted us to not only tell the story but to give back to the world. Besides, just loving the story Terry had written, everyone involved with the film felt a connection to the bigger, altruistic mission.”

For many Armenians, the orchestrated campaign of denial for 102 years has been a weight that has been on their shoulders, because so many people have had experiences from their own families of atrocities being committed. “That pressure has always been on Armenians,” says Esrailian. “To develop a sense of awareness that doesn’t quite exist is a challenge. Having a film that allows people to finally have a window into the Armenian culture is something that has never quite happened on this scale.”

This comes to life with Shohreh Aghdashloo’s role as Oscar Isaac’s loving mother. There’s such a real purity and rawness to her, and there’s such a duality of this character. Like any mother, she wants nothing more than to see her child succeed, and there is nothing she won’t do to protect her family. “It’s not just in my role. It’s my real life as well, says Shohreh Aghdashloo, who plays Marta in the film. “It’s hard to keep the balance. Something interesting to add, a German psychologist has divided women into a few categories: Mothers, Geishas and Amazon women, who I personally identify with the most. Marta is a true mother — be it Armenian, Iranian or American — makes no a difference. I was raised in Iran, and in the good old days, Jews, Muslims and Christians were all together. I was raised with Armenians. Their story was told to me but I couldn’t grasp what exactly took place because I was so young. Later, when I started politics in the UK, I became more familiar with the cause. It wasn’t just a cause I wanted to portray, I wanted to be a part of it. When I left Iran, I promised myself that I was going to put my talent at the service of meaningful films and projects.”

Perhaps one of the most endearing characters in the film is performed by Marwan Kenzari (Emre). Best known for his role as Majid in Wolf, Kenzari takes on yet another diverse role in The Promise and delivers. “Marwan is a genius actor. He just is,” says Terry. “This was a relatively hard role to cast. It couldn’t be cliche. It couldn’t be stereotypical or over the top. There had to be a fine balance because it’s one of those characters who despite his animal, physical instincts, finds a better man in himself. You just love him. He’s a great actor and deserves a broad spectrum of roles. I hope to work with him again.”

Marwan’s love for the process of acting comes to life on the big screen. “I always try to imagine myself sitting in the audience and imagine what I would want to see,” says Kenzari. “I learn a lot from the actors that I work with. Apart from being extremely good and intelligent, they’re very funny human beings. We had a scene where we had to dance the tango. We took classes with a very kind but also very tough teacher. I remember Christian [Bale] was fooling around, Oscar [Isaac] was fooling around, and we were all just enjoying ourselves. I loved that moment.”

Despite the fact that the film focuses on the Armenian genocide, the commonality of these social issues to people of all backgrounds is profound. It’s a reminder and an unfortunate reality that man’s inhumanity to man has resulted in some of the most catastrophic events of our times and yet we can shift our focus from despair to actually do something and look at the situations in the world today and see how we can help people.

On the night of April 24, 1915 (Easter Sunday I believe it was in 1915) the intellectuals and the business community leaders in Constantinople and Istanbul were rounded up as the first move in the genocide and each year the Armenian community comes together to memorialize that moment and the start of this holocaust that befell them. “The first reading of the script actually started on April 24, 2015 — 100 years after the Armenian genocide started,” says Terry. “It was very relevant for us to release close to that date and also to encourage people to support this movement and have the genocide recognized.”

There are few films more powerful and important than The Promise, but that’s not why you should watch this film. Watch it for the brilliant storytelling, great acting, and its stunning message that love can make a difference in the face of great atrocity. The film may even prompt a discussion of genocide elsewhere in the world and what individuals can to do help put an end to it.

The Promise opens in theatres on April 21. All proceeds will benefit non-profit organizations and humanitarian causes. To learn more about this film, follow #KeepThePromise

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