The viewing of Joe Berlinger’s Intent to Destroy will likely be a revelatory experience for moviegoers as it winds its way through the festival circuit in the coming months. An eye-opening documentation about the history of the Armenian Genocide—as well as a companion film to Terry George’s sweeping melodrama on the same subject, The Promise—it makes for an efficient and precise record on a grim topic many Westerners have been deprived of learning about for the better part of the last century.
Yet the most fascinating aspect of the film is not a recollection of where the bodies were buried (both in reality and on the Portugal set of George’s narrative fiction), but rather how a multi-generational campaign by the Turkish government, and with an increasing complicity by the U.S. one, has attempted to erase this devastating crime against humanity from the history books.
One man with direct knowledge of such details was on hand when Intent to Destroy premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival Tuesday night. John Marshall Evans was a career diplomat in the U.S. Foreign Service when he was appointed by President George W. Bush to be United States Ambassador to Armenia in 2004. And as the film shows, the beginning of the end for his short tenure in that position started after he broke with at least 25 years of American foreign policy and called the Armenian slaughters for what they were: a genocide. Now, 11 years and several administrations after his departure from the State Department in 2006, Evans was ready to make an ironic correlation between this twist of language and a new term created by the current counselor to a U.S. president.
“The denial of the Armenian Genocide, I think, is the worst case of alternative facts of the last hundred years,” Evans told a theater full of filmmakers, journalists, and descendants of Armenian survivors. “Governments do tell falsehoods from time to time for reasons they think outweigh the ethical considerations.” And that includes 102 years of denials first by the Ottoman Empire during World War I and then by its Turkish successor.
As the Oscar nominated documentarian Berlinger shows in his film, the Republic of Turkey has denied that the deaths of 1.5 million Armenians between 1915 and 1923 either occurred, or would technically qualify as a genocide after that term was created in 1948. This is likely further muddied since the Treaty of Sèvres, signed between the Allied Powers and the Ottoman Empire in 1920, required part of what is modern day northeastern Turkey be annexed into an independent Armenian state.
Nevertheless, a century later, the Turkish government not only fails to acknowledge that its predecessor committed genocide, but it actively fuels propaganda to discredit research on the travesty—not to mention pressures the U.S. government (which frequently uses the Turkish Incirlik Air Base as a vital strategic point for all military incursions in the Middle East) to ignore this history. The irony is not lost on the folks present for the Intent to Destroy Q&A, as the United States was one of the greatest humanitarian supporters of Armenian refugees and survivors during the early 20th century.
“It has everything to do with the alliance with Turkey, with all the things we saw in the film about Turkey’s position in the Middle East,” Evans said during the premiere. “We’ve invested great hopes in Turkey over the years, and after the recent referendum, we’re very worried about the direction in which Turkey is going. But it’s significant in 1951, in a written submission to the World Court at The Hague, the United States characterized the Turkish massacres of Armenians as one of the outstanding examples of genocide in human history, along with the first Roman persecutions of the Christians and the Nazi massacres of Jews and Poles in World War II. In 1952, a year later, Turkey joined NATO. Since that time, the United States has not used the word genocide.”
And as Evans alluded to, this geopolitical argument over the facts has taken on new wrinkles in the purported “post-truth” world that was ushered in by major elections in Western states in 2016. For instance, even in the advent of The Promise—a film that is intended as much to educate as entertain—a primarily Turkish financed alternative called The Ottoman Lieutenant was released in February. That film depicted its own grandiose love story during the First World War, albeit in a Turkish landscape where the Armenians were belligerent dissidents, and not rounded up victims of mass murder.
For producer Eric Esrailian, who through Survival Pictures spearheaded both the simultaneous productions of The Promise and Intent to Destroy, the release of these films is the beginning of what appears to be a lifelong political and media campaign against such “alternative facts.”
“The truth is already out there now,” Esrailian said at the Intent to Destroy premiere. “And what we have to do is call attention to the kind of insidious influence of the denialists [in] the Turkish government, the people who are complicit in the denial and, I think, accomplices with respect to people who have blood on their hands, not only in the Armenian Genocide but allowing the influence of foreign governments in what happens. Particularly with art, culture. Joe and I have dealt with this, Terry and I dealt with this with The Promise. People want to control what you see, people want to control what you watch, you don’t even know about it; it’s so disgusting, the depths of it all, but it will come out.”
Indeed, the fact that The Promise and Intent to Destroy are just beginning to enter the film world conversation is the kickoff of an effort to mainstream information that Hollywood studios have been strong-armed and pressured to ignore since a failed attempt to make an Armenian Genocide film in the 1930s. Peter Balakian, author of Black Dog of Fate, also noted this cultural transition during the Intent to Destroy Q&A.
Says Balakian, “There’s been a seismic change in the way the media has covered the Armenian Genocide in the last decade. And you can see right now that the Turkish state’s counter-film, The Ottoman Lieutenant, is being trashed by the mainstream media as a tawdry piece of propaganda and it’s really helping The Promise.”
Perhaps it is, but it will be Intent to Destroy that may do the most in helping American audiences fully understand what has been a century of “fake news” about one of the worst atrocities in modern history.
Says Evans, “There is no court that is going to give anything like justice, which is why this film and The Promise matters. [The] only court that matters is the court of public opinion.”