by Emma Ohanyan-Tri
“Go ahead, destroy Armenia. See if you can do it. Send them into the desert without bread or water. Burn their homes and churches. Then see if they will not laugh, sing and pray again. For when two of them meet anywhere in the world, see if they will not create a New Armenia.” This is a quote by American-Armenian author William Saroyan, a son of survivors of the Armenian Genocide committed by the Ottoman Empire from 1915 to 1922. The quote appears on the screen as a closing caption and perfectly sums up the moral of the long-expected movie The Promise, which opened in U.S. theaters on April 21st.
Directed by Terry George, whom many know from his Oscar-nominated Hotel Rwanda, The Promise teaches us about the power of love, survival, humanity and hope. Most importantly, it educates American viewers about the forgotten history of the Armenian Genocide that has never been told in the United States before.
Turkey has been denying the genocide since the day it was launched in 1915. And while many countries worldwide, as well as 45 U.S. states, recognize the massacre of 1.5 million Armenians as an Armenian Genocide, the Unites States unfortunately has yet to officially call the Genocide what it is. Turkey’s strategic value to the U.S. has long prevented the country to appropriately address the issue of the recognition. Moreover, the Turkish lobby in the U.S. has suppressed again and again any attempts of Hollywood directors and studios to produce any movie about the Armenian Genocide. And even after The Promise was approved for screenings in the U.S., Turkish deniers decided to trash the movie on IMDb by giving it one star even before the movie was released. All these attempts did not, however, affect viewers who were long waiting for the premiere.
The Promise opens with picturesque scenes of an Armenian village in the Ottoman Empire of 1914. One of the main characters, Mikael Boghosian (Oscar Isaac), is about to leave for Constantinople (today’s Istanbul) to study medicine at the city’s famous Imperial University. We then see the breathtaking Constantinople, which “can be magical … at the grand bazaar you can buy the finest fashions from Paris and London and the latest automobiles from America.” In Constantinople, Mikael falls in love with a graceful Armenian dance tutor named Ana (Charlotte Le Bon), who is in a relationship with American Associated Press reporter Chris Myers (Christian Bale).
The relationships in this love triangle unfold as intensely as the First World War, in which the Ottoman Empire was Germany’s ally. The great city of Constantinople turns into a dangerous place not only for Armenians, but also for American or other foreign reporters who are risking their lives to tell the world about the systematic massacre of the Armenians. Following their government’s order, Turks wipe out Armenian villages one after another, slaughtering all men, women, children and even unborn babies. While the movie depicts the inhuman violence, it avoids graphic images and gore. There are almost no scenes with blood or cut body parts in The Promise. One of the rationale behind gore-free scenes is the educational nature of the film. The movie producers wanted it to be shown in schools and other educational facilities of the country.
The educational nature of the film is also revealed in the accurate depiction of the Armenian characters, who have true Armenian names, speak English with a true Armenian accent and do look like Armenians. This is a very rare phenomenon for Hollywood movies where Armenian characters (if any) are usually confused with Russians: they speak with a Slavic accent, have non-Armenian names and very often don’t even look Armenian. The clothes, manners, and traditions also accurately match those of the Armenians living in the Ottoman Empire. The collective spirit is also perfectly presented in the movie when a group of Armenians, losing all they have, decide that the best revenge to Turks will be to survive and thrive. Such detailed and accurate depictions demonstrate the deep historical research that has been done prior the production.
Besides accurately representing Armenian identity and the fate of the Armenians in the Ottoman Empire, the movie also makes us think about the consequences of the policy of Genocide denial and the silence. One of the most powerful moments of The Promise is when an American Ambassador, who happens to be a Jew, meets with one of the main organizers of the Armenian Genocide and accuses him of covering the atrocities of his government. The Turkish official, in turn, asks the ambassador why he, being not even a Christian but a Jew, cares about some minor Christian nation. This part of the movie makes us think about how the world’s silence and inability to hold Turkey responsible may have led to the tragedy for different nations a few decades later. The lack of consequences for Turkey and the policy of denial encouraged history’s most evil leader to commit the Holocaust. “Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?” Hitler said in his Obersalzberg speech introducing his plan on invading Poland and exterminating Poles and European Jews.
The Promise is the first major motion picture to address this long-ignored historical issue and viewers will not likely escape the emotional drama of watching a people lose everything.
Originally from Armenia, Emma Ohanyan-Tri graduated from Northern Illinois University with her Master’s Degree in Communication Studies. She currently lives and works in Minneapolis.