Confronting the past and the denial.
This year marks the centennial anniversary of the Armenian genocide – or as President Obama euphemistically refers to it, a “dark moment of history.” Dark indeed – nearly 2.5 million Armenians dead at the hands of a Turkish government that sought their extermination.
Now 1915, a new feature film written, directed, and produced by Alec Mouhibian and Garin Hovannisian, has arrived in theaters to face that dark moment, and the continued denial of it, head on. “It is about denial,” the duo state on their movie’s website, “what happens when the past is ignored; what happens when it is confronted… With the centennial of the Armenian Genocide upon us, we are ready to face the past together.”
I recently posed to Mr. Mouhibian some questions about the film.
Mark Tapson: This is essentially the first film for both you and Garin Hovannisian, so congratulations on pulling everything together and getting this film off the ground. How did the project come about? What drove you to take on this controversial topic, and why did you frame it as a psychological thriller as opposed to, say, a documentary?
Alec Mouhibian: In 1915, under the cover of a world war, the Ottoman Turkish government orchestrated the efficient deportation and slaughter of its entire population of Armenian citizens, murdering not only millions of them but also erasing any trace that they had ever existed on their homeland of 3,000 years—dismantling their churches, extinguishing their entire culture, their ancient civilization.
By 1923, a nation of 2.5 million Armenians had been reduced to 200,000 orphans, many of them rescued by American missionaries. By miracle and charity and fortitude, these orphans survived. They were dispersed across the world. And once they found their footing in Boston or Fresno or Paris or Beirut, they were told that the annihilation of their families never happened. That their brothers and sisters and mothers and uncles, whose rape and slaughter they had witnessed, had in effect never existed. For modern Turkey has denied the genocide to this day, and conducted a century-long campaign to cover up the crime through which its state was formed.
A documentary can show you how this original crime was devised and carried out. It can even trace the precise ways in which the Armenian Genocide, closely observed by military officials of Ottoman Turkey’s ally, Germany, was a blueprint and inspiration for Hitler’s genocide of the Jews. But it can’t show you real 1915 is today, how it lives and breathes in so many people. It can’t show how 100 years of state-sponsored denial – bolstered by the indifference, amnesia, and diplomatic pragmatism of the civilized world – continues to affect the minds and souls of survivors and their descendants, whose memories alone have kept the Armenian story alive.
Recently, 130,000 people marched six miles on the streets of Los Angeles to commemorate the genocide’s centennial. It was the largest public demonstration in L.A. history. Hundreds of thousands in cities all across the world joined them in spiritual lockstep. They were not demanding a wage hike or boycotting a war. They were marching, crying, over something that happened 100 years ago – on the other side of the world. How is this possible? How can the past, be it hidden or overt, have such power over us in the present, and what are the secret ways in which we deal with it? What happens when the truth is denied, and what happens when it is confronted?
These are the mysteries at the heart of 1915. The story is set in 2015, on a day much like this one, exactly 100 years after the genocide. It is about a haunted man who stages a controversial play in a haunted theater – the historic Los Angeles Theatre in downtown, founded in part by Charlie Chaplin – to bring the ghosts of his past back to life, and to somehow change the course of history.
MT: The Hollywood premiere of the film drew a large crowd. What kind of response is 1915 getting, pro and con, from audiences and the media? Is the movie meeting with any resistance or protest from the Turkish government or pro-Turkish elements?
AM: The Los Angeles Times, in a very comprehending review, called the film “a creative way to do justice to such a monumental topic,” though of course justice through art is impossible. Some other reviewers have completely missed the themes and meanings of the film; for hipsters with no sense of historical stakes, Simon, the main character and mastermind of 1915, is a bit too strange to relate to, much as the Armenians have been for the last century.
But real audience reaction has been overwhelming. This is a layered and provocative story; it is full of secrets and surprises and even humor. If it works, it should awaken something in you, a new way of thinking and feeling about your own past. I have seen 16-year-olds and 90-year-olds, people of all backgrounds, respond with such emotional depth and intellectual engagement to the complexities of the story. After some screenings, where I appeared for Q&As, debates broke out among the entire audience. I didn’t have to say a word.
Some people, seeing only the title and not the trailer of the film, and expecting a documentary or an Armenian Schindler’s List, have been confused by the unique nature of the story. But they are a minority so far. On its opening weekend, 1915 was the 2nd best performing new film in the U.S., in terms of per-theater box office. It is still playing in some theaters, and anyone in the U.S. or Canada can buy it in digital HD download from www.1915themovie.com and iTunes.
Something called the “Turkey Cyber Army” hacked our website, and there has been a relentless campaign by Turkish elements to lower our rating on film websites. We plan to bring the film to Turkey very soon.
MT: In an open letter to Warner Bros. recently, you had harsh words regarding their new movie The Water Diviner, starring Russell Crowe and set in Turkey in 1915, which ignores the genocide altogether. You called it “the highest profile piece of propaganda ever produced in the service of genocide denial.” Can you talk about that? Did Crowe or Warner Bros. respond?
AM: The Water Diviner is a standard, sentimental Hollywood war story that disguises its shallowness with a feel-good, love-thy-enemy-who-is-now-an-ally message. The problem is that the enemy being loved and glorified is a Turkish military that was busy executing the first genocide of modern history, against the Armenians, Assyrians, and Pontic Greeks, who are referred to in the film as “Satan’s Army.” And in a lovely touch, the film was released in the U.S. on April 24 – the very date on which the Armenian Genocide commenced and is commemorated around the world.
In our letter to Crowe, we had charitably assumed that he made this historically obscene tearjerker as a byproduct of Turkey’s successful campaign of denial, not as a tool for it. We figured that he developed a schoolboy crush on Turkish culture, and probably Turkish financing, and stepped into the project clueless to its sinister context. Perhaps we were too charitable. Neither he nor WB have responded directly to the letter, but since it went public countless outlets and critics have confronted him on the issue. His language has been evasive, and editorials from the film’s screenwriter have affirmed an intention to glorify the genocidal Turkish military of 1915.
Let’s put it this way. I’ll bet $10,000 cash that you will not hear the words “Armenian Genocide” come out of Russell Crowe’s mouth any time in the near future. If I had a gentler bookie, I’d bet even more.
MT: What impact do you hope this movie will have, not only on audiences but in terms of official recognition for the Armenian genocide?
AM: The target of 1915 is you, the viewer, whoever you are, whatever your background. Everyone who steps into the mystery will experience it in one’s own way. We hope you come out of it with a richer connection to your own past, and new way of feeling history.
When it comes to official recognition, the number one obstacle is the casual belief that this is an old, classroom, ethnic issue with no true relevance to actual lives today. We hope 1915 can prove otherwise. Denial has afflicted an ongoing psychic assault on 10 million Armenians – and an even deeper curse on all those in Turkey residing upon the ghostlands of 1915. Recognition alone will not restore the victims, or the lands, but it will introduce a measure of the humanity that has been deprived for one hundred years.
And that is at least a beginning.
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