BY ARMEN T. MARSOOBIAN
The 12th annual Golden Apricot International Film Festival concluded last month in Yerevan. With commemorations of the centennial of the Armenian Genocide taking place this year, it is understandable that one of the themes of the festival would be the Genocide and its consequences.
In the documentary category there were many films, both new and old, exploring the theme. Two films stand out amongst those I was able to view, Blood Brothers and Morgenthau. In the feature film category, I saw two quite different films dealing with the long-term consequences of the last century’s violence in Anatolia. 1915 directly takes up the trauma of the Genocide within individuals living in the diasporan community of contemporary Los Angeles, while Snow Pirates, subtlety echoes the continuing violence within a Turkey devoid of its former Armenian inhabitants. Snow Pirates sets its drama in Kars in the winter of 1981, the year following the violent and repressive military coup of the year before.
Blood Brothers (original Dutch title, Bloedbroeders), unlike more conventional film documentaries that combine historical footage with interviews with experts and witnesses, is crafted around two protagonists whose interactions and inner thoughts create a dramatic tension that engrosses the audience till the film’s final climactic scene. The more conventional Morgenthau examines the lives and activities of three generations of the Morgenthau family beginning with Henry Morgenthau, Sr. whose diplomatic efforts opposing the genocide and his subsequent leadership in the relief efforts for its victims are well known, at least among the Armenian community. Both films are excellent within their very different approaches to documentary making.
Morgenthau, produced and directed by Max Lewkowicz, succeeds in capturing the high moral standards and commitment to public service exemplified by Henry Morgenthau, Sr., the U.S. ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, 1915-1917, his son Henry Morgenthau, Jr., the Secretary of the Treasury under President Roosevelt, and his grandson, Robert Morgenthau, U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District and long-serving District Attorney for Manhattan. While Henry Sr. was a champion of the Armenian cause, his son was a champion of the underclass who suffered the most during the Great Depression. Henry Jr. was the chief “doer and maker” in Roosevelt’s New Deal. Yet, as the film makes abundantly clear, his moment of truth came when he stood up against the anti-Semitic elements in his own government, especially the State Department, and convinced Roosevelt to implement a plan to provide refuge to the Jews fleeing the Nazi terror in Europe. While seen in retrospect by some as too little too late, many Jews were saved as a result. Father and son were instrumental in saving lives during two of the most horrific genocides the first half of the twentieth century. Ironically it is no coincidence that an entrenched and bigoted State Department played a major role in facilitating the government of Turkey in its efforts to deny the Armenian Genocide. The film is nicely bookended with the life of Robert Morgenthau, the grandson and crusading attorney who set the highest standards of integrity as he fought corruption in government, the Mafia, violent street crime, and white collar crime that aided international criminality and terrorism. As the film effectively argues, his moral compass had been set by the models provided by his father and grandfather.
Blood Brothers, produced by Anja van Oostrom and directed by Kees Schaap, takes a different approach, one that injects a dramatic element into its storytelling. Turkish-Dutch investigative journalist Sinan Can and the Armenian-Dutch musical theater actor Ara Halici set out to research how their families were involved in the Turkish mass-murder of the Armenians in 1915. This film was originally produced in six parts for Dutch television. Normally films made for television are not accepted into film festivals, but given its thematic relevance, it was accepted into the non-competition documentary category of the Golden Apricot.
Neither Sinan Can nor Ara Halici know much about the events of 1915 when this six-part documentary begins. Filmed in episodes that leave you wondering how all this will turn out, the narrative unfolds as a road-movie, both literally and psychologically. With high production standards and a contemporary feel that should appeal to the younger generation, this is a film that deserves a wide distribution, especially within Turkey and Armenia. Sinan, who I met at the festival, came up with the idea of confronting this past in partnership with an Armenian descendent of the genocide, preferably one who would be open-minded about what actually happened. 38-year-old Ara is the perfect foil for this project because he has never self-identified as Armenian but is willing to go on this journey of discovery with Sinan. The positive chemistry between the two develops into a friendship that bodes well for a positive outcome yet soon the friendship is tested by what they discover. Ara quickly identifies with his Armenian heritage, fully embracing his Armenian identity and the burden the genocide entails. This will prove a stumbling block, at least in the eyes of Sinan, as they try to reach the “truth” of what happened back in 1915.
Some in the potential audience for this film, both Turk and Armenian, might find it difficult to go on this journey with Sinan and Ara, but this is clearly their loss. As one who has extensively studied the events of 1915, I found the attempt to give a fair hearing to the Turkish side of the story painfully discomforting, but the discomfort is well worth enduring given the payoff the film provides, a payoff that reinforces our belief in the basic goodness of humankind – a belief that is challenged everyday when we read headlines about the cruelties still being perpetrated on people due to their ethnicity or religion. Ara and Sinan learn much about their family’s pasts as they journey through the former multicultural landscape of today’s Turkey from Istanbul to Kayseri, Erzincen and the borderlands of Mount Ararat. Sinan and Ara’s trip ends in Yerevan but hopefully for others such journeys of a truthful and just reconciliation still lie ahead.
Snow Pirates, produced and directed by the Turkish filmmaker Faruk Hacıhafızoğlu, is an endearing coming of age movie with a dark underside. This is made clear from an opening sequence in which young students are harshly punished by their fanatical nationalist teacher, especially when they transgress the boundaries set by the state-enforced Turkish identity, an identity that forbids the speaking in their native Kurdish tongue. Filmed with mostly local first-time actors, the film has a heightened realism that is augmented by the fact that it was shot in Kars during an actually harsh and snowy winter. The local population is suffering through one of Turkey’s coldest winters and a scarcity of coal, a scarcity not experienced by the state apparatus of torture and control. We see state violence in the background but soon it touches the lives of the film’s young protagonists. The former Armenian church of Surp Arakelots (Apostles) looms large in this landscape, a reminder of the extreme consequences of a state policy of enforced ethnic identity. The cinematography of Türksoy Gölebeyi stands out in this superbly crafted film that should appeal to wide range of movie-goers.
The creators of 1915 have chosen an approach that has echoes of that Atom Egoyan’s ground-breaking film Ararat. Directed and written by relative newcomers Garin Hovannisian and Alec Mouhibian, the film takes the approach of a play-within-a-film (rather than Egoyan’s film-within-a-film) to tackle the traumatic memory of the genocide in the current generation of Armenians. Simon (played by Simon Abkarian), a director of a Los Angeles theater company that has long stopped performing because of a tragic accident by one of its actors, is determined to put on a play titled, “1915.” The performance is to be for one night only, April 24, 2015. The play revolves around the decision of one Armenian character, Ani, to save herself by agreeing to run off with a Turkish soldier. In doing so she must abandon her family, her child and her nation, a scenario that evokes strong objections from the Armenian community. With a staged dramatic reenactment, the ghosts of memory, both personal and communal, will be purged that night. This is an ambitious film whose interpretation may provoke vastly different responses. The film’s creators must be lauded for their ambitions even when they do not always hit their mark. This film also deserves a wider audience than it so far has garnered.
Armen T. Marsoobian is Professor and Chair of Philosophy at Southern Connecticut State University and is editor of the journal Metaphilosophy. He has lectured and published extensively on topics in philosophy and genocide studies. He has edited many books, including The Blackwell Guide to American Philosophy and Genocide’s Aftermath: Responsibility and Repair. His most recent book, Fragments of a Lost Homeland: Remembering Armenia, is based upon extensive research about his family, the Dildilians, who were accomplished photographers in the late Ottoman period. Photography exhibitions of the collection have been mounted in Istanbul, Merzifon, and Diyarbakir, and soon in London, Ankara, Yerevan, and Watertown. Dildilian Brothers: Photography and the Story of an Armenian Family in Anatolia, 1888-1923, a bilingual English-Turkish photography book, will appear later this year. He has received the Hrant Dink Foundation Prize for Historical Research for his work on the Armenian Genocide.