BY HOOSHERE BEZDIKIAN
Special to Asbarez and The Armenian Weekly
NEW YORK— New York City Acclaimed filmmaker Joe Berlinger’s documentary feature about the Armenian Genocide, entitled Intent to Destroy, premiered on Tuesday night at the SVA Theater during the Tribeca Film Festival.
On the heels of the nationwide release of The Promise, Berlinger’s Intent to Destroy takes the viewer behind-the-scenes of the making of Terry George’s epic feature and expertly weaves the modern day depiction of the genocide with scholarly—as well as eye-witness—accounts of its full history and continued denial to this day. By shining a light on the mechanism of denial over the past century—and the aggressive suppression of genocide depiction—he aims to extinguish the notion of any “debate” by revealing the absurdity of denial against the irrefutable facts he comprehensively lays out in the film.
While several documentaries about the Armenian Genocide have been produced over the years, Intent to Destroy distinguishes itself by diverging from traditional documentary format and creating an extraordinary, multi-faceted vehicle that not only tackles the history and the continued denialism by the perpetrators—while uniquely taking the viewer onto the set of a Hollywood feature—but also delves into the many efforts of depiction that had been thwarted over the years by insurmountable Turkish influence. And as such, both The Promise and Intent to Destroy determinately break that cycle and triumph in delivering, through film, the true history of the Armenians that has been hidden for so many years.
Academy Award and seven-time Emmy nominated filmmaker, Joe Berlinger, is a storyteller at his core—his films include the highly acclaimed Brother’s Keeper, the Paradise Lost Trilogy, and Metallica: Some Kind of Monster. He typically creates films that follow a story as it’s unfolding, and the making of The Promise presented itself as the ideal way to do just that. “I heard Eric [Esrailian] was producing The Promise, and I have long felt that it’s a shame that Hollywood has been afraid of making movies about the genocide, because of U.S.’ complicity in helping Turkey not acknowledge it. So when I heard the film was being made, I thought it was a historic opportunity to use that as the present tense thread to tell the underlying story of the genocide.” He continued to stress, “And more importantly, not just the genocide, but the legacy and aftermath of denial, and the mechanism of denial.”
With the feature film as his foray into telling this story, Berlinger also delves deeply into the suppression of depiction and draws parallels to what is happening in the world today.
Berlinger explains that “By embedding with [The Promise], I could tell the whole story of how as early as 1935, Irving Thalberg’s attempt to do ‘Forty Days of Musa Dagh’ was shut down, and ever since then there’s never been a mainstream Hollywood film. So I think that’s important to understand, how there are certain stories we are pressured into not telling. And in this age of alternate facts and fake news, I think that lesson has never been more important.”
While the peek behind the curtain of a feature film is certainly alluring, executive producer Eric Esrailian (Survival Pictures) stressed that the documentary is much bigger than an inside look at the making of The Promise. “It’s much more significant than behind-the-scenes, because we basically describe the depth of the denial—to some extent. I think it’s actually deeper than is even reflected in the documentary, but this is as close as a documentary has ever gone into the denial. And then it also talks about the depiction of atrocities, and how it’s been handled over the years, and the attempts to suppress the depiction… so I think it’s really important for people to see that.”
Angela Sarafyan (The Promise, Westworld)—who poignantly shares her perspective with Berlinger on the set of George’s feature film—unequivocally addressed the issue of denial. “There’s no question about the genocide happening. It is not even up for debate. It is just the truth. Period. And there’s nothing else to talk about… the documentary itself is just an opportunity for people to observe why it’s been this controversial.”
Award winning actor/author/historian Eric Bogosian, who lends his expertise to the film by way of adept narration and astute historic insight, spoke candidly to the singularity of the project. “I’ve seen a few movies that cover the Armenian Genocide, in terms of giving the information, and I really think this is the most deft one I have seen. Nothing against the others, some of which were done by friends of mine—and I really think they’re wonderful—but in terms of the evolution of trying to give so much information to the viewer in a quick amount of time, this movie really does a terrific job. There’s a lot to understand here—it’s World War I, the Ottoman Empire is 600 years old, so this isn’t stuff that just happens overnight. I think Joe did a great job on it.”
Peter Balakian, renown poet/author/historian, who also ardently contributed his expertise to the project, noted “Intent to Destroy is an impressive film for its multi-layers and its moving between art and history and witness.” The Pulitzer Prize winner went on to affirm that, “No film has ever dismantled the Turkish denial campaign of the Armenian Genocide as this film has. Berlinger takes us into the absurdity of Turkish denialism and brings us as well insights into the complexity of Terry George’s making of The Promise. It’s a film that should be seen widely by general audiences and should be used in the academic curriculum.”
With the one-two punch of The Promise and Intent to Destroy, the world is now forever equipped with two complementary works that will educate people about the Armenian Genocide for years to come. Although opening weekend box office numbers were soft for The Promise, this fact doesn’t rattle the filmmakers whatsoever. “I have to tell you, I’m so honored by the outpouring of support,” assures Esrailian. “We did this as a visual museum. And when you build a museum, you don’t start counting the box office on day one. It’s not for 2 days. It’s for a 100 years. And so, we’re honored.”
Bogosian further mitigates any apprehension over the initial performance of the movie. “I don’t have concerns. It’s a great movie and it’s certainly gotten a lot of attention. If they want to talk about box office and talk about the movie more—good. Because every time we talk about the movie, we talk about what happened. At the end of the day, the story that Turkey has been selling for a long time now is that there’s some sort of debate as to whether or not this happened. So the more we can get the information out that there’s no debate, then that’s a success… and this movie does that. Both movies do that.”
Intent to Destroy, Berlinger’s first film to premiere at Tribeca Film Festival, opened to a sold out theater and was followed by an extensive panel discussion with Berlinger, Esrailian, Bogosian and Balakian, as well as Carla Garabedian, producer of The Promise, and John Marshall Evans, former U.S. Ambassador to the Republic of Armenia, both of whom were also featured in the film. The discussion was moderated by Sarah Leah Whitson, Executive Director, Middle East & North Africa Division of Human Rights Watch.
There are four sold out festival screenings this week, and according to Berlinger, plans are underway for a theatrical release this summer, as well as eventual on-air broadcasts of the documentary feature.
Berlinger is hopeful, yet pragmatic, about the impact his film might have on this issue. “I hope I open people’s hearts and get people to start talking about it… Do I think a movie is going to change the overall dynamic? Probably not, but it will help people to have a dialogue about it, and that’s always useful and healthy.”