Thursday,23 May, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1343, (4 - 10 May 2017)
Thursday,23 May, 2019
Issue 1343, (4 - 10 May 2017)

Ahram Weekly

A promise to survive

Nora Koloyan-Keuhnelian identified with the message of Terry George’s new film

Directed by Terry George (Hotel Rwanda), The Promise received a major marketing push in the past couple of months. This huge production was the longtime dream of the billionaire, 17-year-long owner of MGM studios of Armenian origin, the Las Vegas mogul and philanthropist Kerk Kerkorian. After providing the movie’s massive $100 million budget, Kerkorian, passed away in 2015, before he could see the production.

The Promise, which is one of the most expensive independently financed movies of all time, is a 2016 Hollywood production that premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival last September. It has been in theatres around the world since April 21.

The film is a heart-wrenching tale of love, loyalty and survival set against the tragic backdrop of the Ottoman Empire’s systematic plan to exterminate its Armenian minority which, carried out in the period 1915-1922, left over 1.5 million Armenian men, women and children dead.

Oscar Isaac, a Guatemalan-American actor plays the role of an Armenian medical student, Mikael Boghossian. Christian Bale, the English Academy Award winner, plays the role of Christopher Myers, the American AP journalist, while Charlotte Le Bon, the Canadian actress plays Ana Kassarian, the Armenian dance instructor and painter who lived most of her life in France but was settled in Constantinople, with whom both men fell in love.

The film opens with the name of Kerkorian’s production company, Survival Pictures; in itself a telling reminder of the forget-me-nots half buried in the sands which, when the wind blows, reveal themselves as the centennial badge commemorating the genocide. The sand and desert symbolise the long marches Armenians were forced to endure during their deportation.

The film opens with a general scene of Siroun village in Southern Turkey where the Boghossian family lived and were the first to bring medicine to its people. Mikael’s first appearance is in the pharmacy where he sells medicine while narrating, “We Christians and Muslims used to live peacefully with each other.”  Christian Armenians, who lived with Muslim Turks for centuries, were driven out not by religion, but by a modern ideology: Nationalism.

Mikael is engaged to a girl from his village, Maral (Angela Sarafian), the only American actress in the film of Armenian origin. Mikael must continue his medical studies in Constantinople but he intends to keep his promise to return to Siroun to marry her. In Constantinople, Mikael stays with his uncle, a textiles trader named Messrob Boghossian, in whose house he also meets Ana, the dance instructor who is the journalist Christopher Myers – Bale’s partner. They fell in love with each other. At the Imperial Medical School, in the meantime, Mikael meets a Turkish colleague, Emrai Ogun. They soon became loyal friends. In the next two scenes the Armenian propensity for talent and hard work is amply demonstrated.

When the teacher asks both Mikael and Emrai to remove parts of a cadaver, only Mikael is able to carry out the request while Emrai, who isn’t very fond of medicine, cannot; Emrai faints when he sees blood. Mikael, who believes in his abilities, having told his father, “I will make you proud papa” before leaving for Constantinople, helps his Turkish colleague to disentangle the cadaver’s spine. Emrai takes to introducing his Armenian colleague as “my friend and mentor”, showing that many Turks perceived Armenians to be better educated and more astute in commerce and trade. At a night club when Ana is invited by a Turkish dancer to accompany her in a belly dancing performance, she proves herself the Turkish dancer’s equal.

When World War I erupts in 1914 while Turkey is allied to Germany, Armenia aligns itself with its neighbour Russia; Armenians are fed up with Turkish mistreatment, especially now that Turkey has declared war on all Christians not allied with it. Medical students are exempted from joining the Turkish military but Armenian students who are also Ottoman citizens are not. Emrai bribes the police officer with a gold coin to prevent his Armenian friend Mikael from joining the Ottoman army, something for which he is punished and later forced to join the army instead of going back to his studies. Emrai hates that, describing the military costume he wears as “ridiculous”. His father, often described by his son as “a fanatic” is the one who, later in the movie, orders the execution of his own son for being a traitor: An example of Turkish brutality of the time.

The director does not omit Gomidas Vartabed, the Armenian priest, musicologist and singer who is considered the father of Armenian music. Gomitas is among the intellectuals arrested on the eve of April 24, 1915 by the Ottomans. In one short scene the priest is seen conducting a mass in which he performs one of his compositions, Kohanamk when violence erupts outside the church. While Turkish gendarmes are firing and destroying Armenian shops, the camera focuses on Gomidas’s candle-lit face, but soon the picture fades and blurs over. Gomidas has stopped singing and composing forever.     

Oscar Isaac gives a masterful performance. When the Turkish gendarmes arrest Mikael among thousands of men for imprisonment and torture at a labour camp on the Thaurus Mountains, he manages to catch a train and escape in heavy rain under the cover of darkness. In this powerful scene he fights to survive the weather conditions and the fatal speed of the train carrying the Armenian slaves who beg him to “open the door, save us, we need water.” While trying to open the door for them he has no choice but to throw himself into the river to be saved.

Mikael is seen kissing the cross around his neck while trying to catch the train, indicating that he still believes in God unlike some others who lost their faith during the genocide. And sure enough God saves Mikael, who reaches Siroun, marries Maral and then goes off to look for Ana and Chris at the Protestant Mission, where he requests help to save his family and take them out of the village. This is the night of the great escape when Armenian orphans were carried out of the mission in a cart in the process of an evacuation prompted by prior warnings of an impending attack.

In the forests Mikael notices the Turkish gendarmes riding his family’s horses. Another powerful, yet sad scene: While hiding, Mikael’s suspicious and fearful expressions indicate that he can guess that his family has already been attacked. Walking down the river he finds a mass of corpses near the shore. As he approaches the bodies, Mikael identifies his family members there, including his pregnant wife Maral, his father, and his mother who is still alive. The way he weeps over the corpses calling their names is truly heartbreaking.

In the meantime the Turkish police have arrested Chris and confiscated the notebook in which he has been documenting all that he is witnessing. At the police headquarters Farouk Pasha investigates Chris’s notes and asks him to confess that his reports are fabrications. Chris refuses and ends up in jail. As a journalist Chris is keen that people outside Turkey should be informed of what the Turks are doing to the Armenians. Christian Bale’s role shows the unique importance that war correspondents play in war time, documenting violence in both words and images, listening to the accounts of survivors and observers, and sharing news with the masses. The attempt to silence Chris in the movie resonates with what Erdogan has recently been doing to his own people – with government actions against freedom of expression constituting a throwback to the time in the film.

In an ironic conversation with Mikael, while Chris is uncomfortable about Mikael’s love affair with Ana, Chris shouts, “Without reporters the Armenian people will disappear and no one will know about them.” In another scene at the lobby of the hotel where Chris and Ana are staying and also where Ana and Mikael are seen together, unable to express his anger to their faces, Chris shouts at the telegram clerk helping him to report the news, “Armenian men are being taken and murdered and their women and children are being taken to the desert. Send that.” Here as elsewhere, though it hurts him, Chris never blames Mikael and Ana for their relationship.

Chris is always there to report the truth and to help Armenian refugees overcome their tragedy. He is also reporting news to the then US ambassador to the Ottoman Empire Henry Morgenthau. Played by American actor James Cromwell, who looks like the real Morgenthau’s twin brother, Morgenthau’s role in the movie is very small, but it is nonetheless essential. In one short but crucial scene Morgenthau goes to see Talaat Pasha (Aaron Neil), the Ottoman Empire’s minister of interior and the main architect of the genocide, to make a formal request to release Chris to be deported to Malta. “You want to silence him, he is telling the truth,” the ambassador says. In return Talaat Pasha makes the shocking request that Morgenthau should turn over the names of Armenians who have American life insurance policies so that the state can collect the payouts. The ambassador denies the request and leaves.

For his part Emrai Ogun, who was forced to serve in the Ottoman army after his father discovers he was trying to help Armenians in their distress, is the one who sends a telegram to Morgenthau informing him that “American reporter Christopher Myers is at the army headquarters, he will be executed”. The Turkish police discover Emrai’s treason and shoot him. AP journalist Christopher Myers and ambassador Henry Morgenthau are considered eyewitnesses to the atrocities. Other similar characters did exist at the time who provided important and valuable insights into the events during and after the genocide. There are for example the English writer, political officer and archaeologist Gertrude Margaret Bell and the German soldier and human rights activist Armin Wegner.

One of the battles Armenian refugees fought bravely was the battle of Musa Dagh at Mount Moses on the Mediterranean caost. Before the end of the movie, the audience watches 4,000 Armenian refugees using their own rifles and what few cannons they have to fight for 53 days. A huge flag with a red cross is sewn by women refugees and placed by the side of the cliff facing the sea. Chris arrives on a battleship of the French Navy to look for Mikael and Ana and rescue them with the rest of the refugees who were transported to Port Said, Egypt on September 15, 1915. Unfortunately Ana drowns when the wind overturns her boat. Chris and Mikael settle in the United States.

During the Musa Dagh battle, when Mikael is holding his rifle for self defence, apparently he is unable to use it “I couldn’t pull the trigger,” he tells Ana, and it is unclear whether it’s because his character cannot take revenge – even on the Ottoman gendarmes or because, being a doctor, he can only heal fellow human beings – or simply because he cannot technically operate the rifle.

According to The Hollywood Reporter, the profits from The Promise’s theatrical run are going to be donated to non-profit organisations, including the Elton John AIDS Foundation and other humanitarian and human rights organisations.

The movie closes in Massachussets with Mikael raising a toast in Armenian at the wedding of Yeva, the Boghossian girl he adopted. “May God bless and protect our children,” he says, then he addresses the orphans who are invited to the wedding and makes a great speech: “They’re here, your parents and all those families lost in an attempt to wipe our nation from the face of the earth. But we’re still here, we’re still here…”

In the end there is not one but several promises: The promise Mikael makes to the woman he is engaged to; the Armenians’ promise never to forget; and the filmmakers’ promise never to stay silent.

After 102 years, officials in Turkey continue to deny the systematic killings, and a propaganda campaign was created to discredit The Promise after its first screening in September. The film’s IMDb (Internet Movie Database) page has received more than 86,000 user votes with one-star ratings, but reaction on social media has been equally intense.

American musician and singer Chris Cornell’s closing song The Promise too is a masterpiece. Performed and written by Cornell himself, it says, “If I had nothing to my name, but photographs of you rescued from the flame. That is all I would ever need, as long as I can read what’s written on your face. The strength that shines behind your eyes, the hope and light that will never die. One promise you made, one promise that always remain, no matter the price a promise to survive, persevere and thrive, as we’ve always done…”

Although The Promise has fewer scenes of brutality than any other film on the genocide, it brought tears to my eyes perhaps more than any other. My ancestors’ struggle to survive is something I am still going through, and it makes me both sad and proud.

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