Filmmaker Terry George, sadly, knows something about genocide. He tackled the subject in his searing, unforgettable 2004 film Hotel Rwanda, and while immersing himself in the horrors of the 1994 mass slaughter of that country’s Tutsi by the majority Hutu government, he soon became conscious of a previous extermination carried out earlier in the 20th century — pre-dating and allegedly providing the template for the Holocaust. That unspeakable tragedy, the murder of some 1.5 million Armenians by the fading Ottoman Empire of Turkey during World War I, is the subject of George’s new film, The Promise, which is the first major Hollywood production to deal with the tragically underreported subject.
“The opportunity came to me rather than me searching it out,” said George when we spoke with him recently in a Los Angeles hotel about the chance to direct and co-write the picture. “Even though I had become aware of the story itself and the history of the genocide through researching genocide at the time of Hotel Rwanda, particularly in a book called A Problem from Hell, Samantha Power’s book. I knew of it and then being given the opportunity to direct and rewrite the script was for me a gift from heaven. These are the kind of stories and films that I gravitate to and hope to be able to get made.”
The film was, unusually, fully funded mostly by billionaire Kirk Kerkorian, an investor, philanthropist and former three-time owner of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Kerkorian, the child of Armenian immigrants, contributed vast sums to various charitable efforts in that country and tried for years to get a film made about the genocide — even when he owned MGM, he couldn’t push it through. Part of that was because the subject matter was deemed uncommercial; part of it might have been due to the overall reticence of the U.S. itself to touch the subject for fear of alienating its strategic ally Turkey, which to this day refuses to acknowledge that the genocide actually happened.
The film, which began production shortly after Kerkorian’s death in 2015, uses the traditional plot device of focusing on a handful of characters in the foreground while historical events play out behind them. In this case the characters are Mikael (Oscar Isaac), an Armenian medical student who leaves his small town to study in Constantinople; Chris Myers (Christian Bale), an American reporter for the Associated Press who becomes aware of the Turkish plans to drive out the Armenians, or worse; and Ana (Charlotte Le Bon), an Armenian dance teacher raised in Paris who is romantically involved with Chris but soon finds herself drawn to Mikael. As the three of them collide emotionally, events around them begin to take a darker and eventually more nightmarish turn.
“Initially it was a love story between Mikael and Ana, followed by their experience in the genocide,” says George about the original script, which he rewrote. “I needed to open that up. I wanted to tell a bigger picture of the genocide because the two of them suffer, but they suffer in microcosm. So I introduced Christian’s character, Chris Myers, for a couple of reasons. First of all here was a character that could see this on a macro level, who could report on and knew about the secret German alliance with Turkey. He sees the death march and the villages being destroyed. We were able to introduce the retreat to Musa Dagh and then the French rescue at the end. Those were key events that I wanted to get into the film.”
Musa Dagh was a mountain in the southern region of Turkey on which 4,000 Armenians made a stand against the Turkish army until they were rescued by French warships. The event is recreated in The Promise but George told us that the sequence — which takes up the final third of the movie — was eerily paralleled by events happening in the real world.
“We were literally filming scenes that we were watching on television,” he recalled solemnly. “The Yazidis (tribes in Northern Iraq) were being trapped up a mountain surrounded by ISIS when we were doing Musa Dagh. People were drowning in the Mediterranean when we’re filming people drowning. It was to the point where that little Kurdish Syrian boy who washed up dead on the beach in Greece, I recreated that. It just seemed that we had to pay homage to what was going…This is a film about refugees and about their escape and how they’re treated. Don’t be demonizing these people now who are fleeing for their lives with no choice.”
The intense feelings on both sides when it comes to any discussion of the Armenian Genocide — an organized campaign was seemingly launched recently to bring down the “score” of The Promise on IMDB, with tens of thousands of users voting it down before it was even released — led George commit himself to making sure that his film had as high a degree of accuracy as it could without being a documentary.
“There’s just a volume of documentation, research, historical commentary on this,” he explained. “I went to Armenia and into Istanbul. We had several consultants. I knew the documentation. I went over all the books — there are huge books on it — and plunged myself into that. The one thing you’ve got to get right is the historical events. The veracity of the film is going to be challenged on the basis of ‘that didn’t happen’ and ‘that didn’t happen.’ Well, if it didn’t happen here’s the two events that I compressed to make it happen.”
For George — who would like to make a smaller-budgeted and lighter film next just to clear his head — the importance of bringing a film like The Promise to life is to make it painfully clear just how easily atrocities such as the Ottoman slaughter of the Armenians can happen and how quickly they can happen again. “That’s the relevance of it,” he said with a shake of his head. “And I hope that gets across.”
The Promise is out in theaters now.