Essential documentary fact checks Turkey’s sinister record of historical erasure.
“Who, today, remembers the annihilation of the Armenians?” is a quote attributed to Adolf Hitler as the Nazis prepared for the total destruction of the European Jews. Yet an online search for the exact wording of this 1939 quote reveals numerous websites either claiming Hitler never spoke these words or that the Armenian Genocide didn’t actually occur.
One hundred years after 1.5 million Armenians were murdered by the Turkish Ottoman Empire, Academy Award nominated documentary filmmaker Joe Berlinger (Metallica: Some Kind of Monster, Paradise Lost) uncovers the profoundly bitter truth behind Turkey’s continual campaign of genocide denial.
The authoritarian regime of Turkish leader Recep Erdogan routinely spends millions in public relations fees to deny the Armenian Genocide, a carefully planned mass killing that calls into question modern Turkey’s very existence. Berlinger’s Intent to Destroy chronicles the systematic elimination of the Christian Armenians, and the manner this highly charged history has been depicted (and sometimes not depicted), particularly in the movies.
The film’s opening third comprehensively details the calculated deportations and death marches that nearly wiped out Turkey’s Armenian population from 1915 to 1923, the first time twentieth century means were utilized to eradicate a population. Berlinger’s assortment of historians makes the compelling case that the seizure of Armenian property and wealth paved the way for the creation of a Turkish upper and middle class.
Intent to Destroy structures this complex narrative by very effectively framing it within the making of a big budget Hollywood film about the Armenian Genocide. Joe Berlinger managed to embed himself on the set of The Promise, a one hundred million dollar dramatic epic, ambitiously touted as the Armenian Schindler’s List, directed by Oscar winner Terry George (Hotel Rwanda) and starring Christian Bale and Oscar Isaac.
Owing to Turkey’s powerful denial machine, The Promise was shot in Spain, Portugal and Malta substituting for turn of the twentieth century Ottoman Empire. Though director George tried to keep the production low profile during filming, Turkey still does its best to make its menacing presence known. After Spanish actor Daniel Gimenez Cacho casually announces in a red carpet interview he’s been cast to play an Armenian priest in The Promise, Spain’s Turkish ambassador summons Cacho for a meeting in order to present him with a few handy volumes of denialist propaganda.
Intent to Destroy charts the fledgling Turkish state’s early attempts to erase any trace of the Armenian Genocide. Beginning in the 1920’s, Turkey used its strategic geopolitical position in the Middle East to obtain American acceptance on their version of history. Berlinger cuts from hand-held video footage of idealistic candidate Barack Obama’s recognition of the genocide in an early campaign speech to later news feed of President Obama patting the back of his ally, the visiting Turkish leader Erdogan.
The documentary also presents a fascinating series of cables between the US State Department and Turkey’s former ambassador to the United States, Munir Ertegun (his son, Ahmet, went on to co-found Atlantic Records). In 1935, the Hollywood movie studio, MGM, was in pre-production on The Forty Days of Musa Dagh, an adaptation of a popular novel by Austrian writer Franz Werfel.
Intent to Destroy gives time to several scholars who deny the genocide yet feel uncomfortable been labeled as genocide deniers. For years, Turkey’s hard line has been to claim the massacres occurred mutually within the confines of a civil war, and that even the word genocide cannot be used since the term did not come into use until 1948. Berlinger’s film within the film conceit is most striking when the filmmaker cuts between a cacophony of deniers (one Turkish professor accuses the Armenians of ‘Holocaust envy’) and George’s fictional recreation of the Ottoman assault at Musa Dagh. This might be the documentary’s only drawback. Berlinger relentless cascade of interview testimony and information is occasionally exhausting.
Bankrolled by the late Armenian-American movie mogul, Kirk Kerkorian, The Promise, the most expensive independent film ever made, is scheduled for a wide release this year. Not surprisingly, Turkey’s sophisticated apparatus of denial began gearing up even before the films 2016 Toronto International Film Festival premiere. After only a few festival screenings in a theater of only 900 seats, some 50,000 votes were cast on IMDB giving The Promise a one-star rating, negative ratings apparently coming from voters who had not been able to see the film. It seems Armenian Genocide denial has entered the age of social media.
It’s been a few weeks since a controversial referendum gave Recep Erdogan additional powers which could find him remaining in power until 2029. Many Turkish immigrants living in France were photographed casting their ballots dressed in 16th century Ottoman costumes, an era of empirical supremacy often invoked by Erdogan. A wildly popular television serial idealizing the empire’s founding, Resurrection: Ertugrul, not only fills screens in Turkey, but in most former Ottoman territories from Bulgaria to Bosnia. Two highly publicized Turkish sponsored films were released in the build-up to the dramatic vote – Reis (The Chief), a loving biopic of Erdogan’s early life and The Ottoman Lieutenant, a glossy First World War melodrama that whitewashes the Armenian Genocide. No doubt the denial will only deepen.
The late Nobel laureate and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel often called Turkey’s attempted erasure of the Armenian extermination a double killing, the eighth and final stage of genocide. Vital and necessary, Joe Berlinger’s Intent to Destroy aims to overturn this equation.