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The Promise: an historical-ethnographic film review

Sunday, 9 July 2017  | Mersina Papantoniou

A century of waiting

The Promise represents one of the most anticipated screenings in contemporary cinema. A similar filmic attempt was made in the 1930s regarding the plight of the historic Armenian Christian minority of the Ottoman Empire during WWI, but never made it to fruition. The entire budget of US$90 million for The Promise was donated by Armenian-American businessman Kirk Kerkorian before his death in 2015.

This indeed is the must-see film of the year. It has an M rating for a more general viewing audience. The lack of gratuitous violence portrayed on screen is testimony to the superb acting by the protagonists. The actor Oscar Isaac deserves

 an Academy Award for his portrayal as Mikael. The churches especially could organise group viewings for their congregations. I repeat, if you do not see any film on the big screen this year, it is worth braving our Winter just to experience this film. On any account do not miss it.

Τhe historic ‘treatment’ of Christian minorities of the late Ottoman Empire undergirded the creation of the modern Republic of Turkey in 1923. It’s therefore not surprising that the subject matter of The Promise is surrounded by contention, from Turkey’s teaching of ‘approved history’ to its continual worldwide campaign of denial. The film examines the plight of the Armenians in what was then called Anatolia or Asia Minor between 1915 and 1922, in which an estimated 1.5 million Armenians, 750,000 Pontian and Anatolian Greeks and 300,000 Assyrians died, with the deaths and displacement of massive populations causing survivors to flee for their lives. The statistics are only estimates because, unlike the records of the WWII crimes of Turkey’s 1915 ally, Germany, the Turkish documents relating to the period are far more elusive.

The film raises the inevitable question facing ethnic and religious minorities who, after centuries in their historic homelands, suddenly face destruction:

Do you stay or do you go?

The unfolding drama

The film revolves around the love interest and connectedness of three main characters. Ana (played by Charlotte Le Bon) is the Paris-educated daughter of a famous Armenian violinist. The Armenian apothecary, from Siroun in south-eastern Anatolia, is Mikael Boghosian (played by Oscar Isaac). Mikael is sent to study medicine at the historic seat of the world’s Orthodox Patriarchate, Constantinople (the historic Greek name would subsequently be changed to Istanbul by the victors). The off-and-on love interest of Ana, American Associated Press journalist, is Chris Myers (played by Christian Bale). The film is directed by Terry George (Hotel Rwanda). The subject matter of the film is one of the most horrendous and yet contentious chapters in modern history.

The film is tastefully produced, considering the heaviness of the theme. But it has also been praised for its historical accuracy by historians such as Ara Sarafian. The result is a film that serves as yet another reminder to the world of the letter in Revelation 2:8-11 to ‘the suffering church’ of Smyrna (since renamed Izmir, in Turkey). Christianity became Armenia’s official state religion in 301AD, making it the world’s first officially Christian nation, a decade before the conversion of Constantine. Its territory was subsequently divided between the Ottoman and Persian empires (that embraced differing versions of Islam), then partly annexed by the Russian Empire and then the former Soviet Union. Presently, the surviving (former Soviet) portion is landlocked between Turkey and Iran.

The plot centres around the heady mixture of cultures, with the east meeting west prior to 1915, when our main protagonist Mikael falls in love with Ana. He is already betrothed to marry Maral (played by Anna Sarafyan of Armenian heritage) back in his village of Siroun. As part of their betrothal, Maral’s family fortune had been used to send and pay for Mikael to study medicine.

A very wide net is cast over this Christian minority in the city, with pogroms on the streets, businesses ransacked and set on fire. Slowly but surely, the ‘Young Turks’ parade their unstoppable violent power, with the instruments of justice complicit as the defence forces round up and flagrantly execute Christian minorities. The historic round-up of the Armenian community on April 24, 1915 is shown in the film, when Mikael attempts to find his Uncle Boghosian, who has been taken. Mikael pays the remainder of his dowry to the police for the exchange of his uncle, but to no avail. Today, this black day is commemorated by Armenian communities around the world. It pre-dates the Australian ANZAC troops landing at Gallipoli (yet another Greek name: Καλλίπολη) by one day.

Historical corroboration

The film’s faithfulness to history is revealed through the character of the high-ranking Emre Ogan (played by Marwan Kenzari), who helps Mikael obtain a medical student exemption from being drafted into the army. Recently, attempts have been made to acknowledge Turkish rescuers of Christian minorities through projects such as The One Who Saved Me and the Turkish Rescuers Report. However, in the creation of the new ‘pure’, predominantly Sunni Muslim Turkish state, even sympathetic Muslims that tried to help such minorities were deemed ‘traitors’ and summarily executed as examples to others. The film convincingly portrays how the new nation sought to rid itself of its historic Armenian minority, pointing to later population exchanges between Greece and Turkey (1923). This would be the forerunner to the killing fields of the 1947 India-Pakistan population exchange.

Back to the film’s plot: when the American journalist Chris Myers is caught in the rounding up of ‘foreigners’ by the Turkish Militia, and his diarised accounts of the atrocities are scrutinised, the Turkish military officer mockingly declares to him:

… there is no war here!

The grandiose concealment of the persecution of Christian minorities gains greater strength and enduring notoriety as the film progresses. Along with the Armenian characters in the film, the inevitable question irrepressibly keeps haranguing the incredulous audience:

Surely … this can’t keep happening?

Mikael’s Mother, Marta (played by Iranian-American actress Shohreh Aghdashloo), makes plans for the family, including the pregnant Maral (whom Mikael has since married), to move high up to the mountains, where she makes the ill-fated remark:

They will never find us here.

While this remote setting provides the community with some hope, the continued massacres and forced deportations appear to be well-coordinated, determinedly proceeding village-by-village, despite the rugged, rural setting.

Map source: Armenica

One of the most telling sources from this period is Ambassador Morgenthau’s Story, the memoirs of Henry Morgenthau, Sr., who served as the US ambassador to the Ottoman Empire between 1913 and 1916. Morgenthau used his own money to rescue Armenians and kept diligent records of the unfolding shameful events. The quip in the film from Talaat Pasha (one of the leaders of the ‘Young Turk’ movement), asking Morgenthau (played by James Cromwell) to give him the names of Armenians who had American insurance policies in order for the money to revert to the foundling Turkish state, is sourced from Morgenthau’s account.

Our protagonist, Mikael, is captured and sent to a labour camp, where merciless overwork and starvation take their toll. Through an explosion, he falls into a ravine where he encounters a train and his own people tightly-packed in carriages, holding out their hands just to drink some of the rain. It is a stark reminder of another subsequent heinous, veiled episode in contemporary history, and of Hitler’s unashamed and unabashed remark to the Officers of the Wehrmacht on 22nd August 1939, one week before his invasion of Poland:

Wer redet heute noch von der Vernichtung von Armenier?

(Who still talks about the annihilation of the Armenians today?)

            (Quoted from the original documents supplied to the Nurnberg Trials through the American journalist Louis P. Lochner.)

First-hand accounts by survivors of the atrocities live on as oral history to this day. My maternal grandfather, Efstathios Hatziyiannidis, a survivor of the Pontian Greek genocide of 1922, would often explain that, of all the Christian minorities in Asia Minor, the Armenians were singled out for «απάνθρωπο», i.e. ‘not humanly possible’ treatment (my translation). As an ethnic group, they could potentially claim swathes of territory, more so than the other historic Christian minorities, and so the ‘Young Turks’ who led the uprising had more to lose had the Armenians declared their own sovereign nation.

One of the most harrowing scenes is when Mikael, upon returning to his village, sees the bodies of his murdered family by a stream in a forest and finds his pregnant wife among the dead. As a medical student, he inspects the injuries inflicted on her. Here, once again, the audience is spared the violence, and the film deserves praise for its acting and direction that spares the viewers the gratuitous bloodshed often associated with such productions. But we know that the same fate befell countless other pregnant Christian women at the hands of the Ottoman Empire. The barbarity of the practices of the Ottomans, used as an instrument of terror and debasement, is well known. In 1803, the Souliote women of Greece decided to dance and sing at the edge of a cliff, and then, in an act of mass suicide, hurl themselves along with their children off the mountain rather than being caught and/or sold into slavery by the Ottomans. Their heroism is commemorated in paintings and song, and a monument to their sacrifice stands at the Zalonggo mountain in Epirus.

The storyline concludes with Mikael going to a Protestant Mission to find Ana and Chris. When that refuge, too, is attacked, Ana and the orphans from the Mission, along with villagers, walk to Mousa Dagh Mountain, where the decision is made to dig in and fight instead of capitulating to the ‘re-location into the Interior’. Approximately 5,000 Armenians resisted the Turkish forces, and the survivors would later be rescued by the French navy ship, Guichen, because they first glimpsed the Armenian flag at the fortress. (See Franz Werfel’s epic novel, The Forty days of Musa Dagh, 1933, based on meticulous research by the author.)

Image source: Musa Dagh Project

The title of the film, The Promise, relates to the conversation between Ana and Mikael during the siege at Mousa Dagh:

What is our greatest revenge? Our greatest revenge is to survive.

Our other protagonist, the American journalist Chris Myers, witnesses the salvage operation by the rescue ship whilst the Turks continue shelling the rescue scene. Ana’s fate is also revealed.

The Australian connection

With over a century of denial of the genocide and no compensation for the Armenians, Assyrians and Greeks by the Republic of Turkey, the question needs to be asked: is there an Australian connection here?

In May 2013, the NSW Legislative Assembly unanimously passed a Bill recognising the Armenian, Assyrian and Pontian and Anatolian Greek genocides. ANZAC sources were cited from diaries and other eyewitness accounts from the time. A similar motion moved earlier by the Hon. Rev. Fred Nile in the NSW Legislative Council had also been passed unanimously. This motion alluded to 'the testimonies of Anzac servicemen who rescued Assyrians, Armenians and Greeks', a prelude to the large-scale humanitarian effort by Australian churches, humanitarians, political leaders and businesspeople that mobilised the nation in an effort to save tens of thousands of survivors from certain destruction.

In response, the Turkish Consul General, Ms Gülseren Çelik, in an interview with the ABC’s 7.30 Report (Broadcast: 21/08/2013), made her government’s position clear, despite the overwhelming historical evidence and consensus to the contrary:

There certainly is no scholarly consensus on the events of 1915. There are quite a few number of non-Turkish historians who do not accept the genocide thesis.

The last sting in the tail from the interview was Çelik’s revelation that attempts would be made to deny visas to the Centenary celebrations at Gallipoli for those NSW parliamentarians who supported the 2013 motion.

The film closes with the prophetic words of Armenian-American writer, William Saroyan (1908-1981), reminding us of the power of resilience in the face of such heinous crimes and their equally heinous denial:

I should like to see any power of the world destroy this race, this small tribe of unimportant people, whose history is ended, whose wars have all been fought and lost, whose structures have crumbled, whose literature is unread, whose music is unheard, whose prayers are no longer uttered.

Go ahead, destroy this race. Let us say that it is again 1915. There is war in the world. Destroy Armenia. See if you can do it. Send them from their homes into the desert. Let them have neither bread nor water. Burn their houses and their churches. See if they will not live again. See if they will not laugh again. See if the race will not live again when two of them meet in a beer parlor, twenty years later, and laugh, and speak in their tongue. Go ahead, see if you can do anything about it. See if you can stop them from mocking the big ideas of the world, you sons of bitches, a couple of Armenians talking in the world, go ahead and try to destroy them.

(From The Armenian and the Armenian, 1935)

Lest we forget.

Mersina Papantoniou (née Tonys-Soulos) has just completed her PhD at Macquarie University titled Multiculturalism's challenge to Sydney Anglican Identity, a study of a minority radical tradition (1987-2000).

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