Armenians and 'The Promise': our revenge is our survival

By Harry Hagopian
May 18, 2017

I was somewhat unsure what to expect of ‘The Promise’, despite the huge amount of publicity as well as the numerous international reviews that I had read earlier. But here was a film directed by Terry George that had cost US$ 90 million and highlighted the dreadful story of the Armenian genocide perpetrated by Ottoman Turkey under the cover of the First World War.

But the film was not only a story of pain and horrors: rather, by wrapping those atrocities into a love triangle and the rivalry of two men over the affections of one woman, it had become a tad softer and also much more audience-friendly. Three powerful and charismatic actors – the apothecary turned physician (Oscar Isaac), the Associated Press photojournalist (Christian Bale) or the dance artist turned humanitarian worker (Charlotte Le Bon) – vivified this movie and tugged at many heartstrings. 

But why was the film entitled ‘The Promise’? One reason becomes evident as the story unfurls, but I do not wish to spoil the sense of anticipation for those who will go to see it later. Another is that Kirk Kerkorian, an Armenian-American billionaire businessman, investor and philanthropist, who was also a movie studio mogul in Las Vegas, had wished to produce this film for almost a decade but had been thwarted by various Turkish pressure lobbies. So his promise to realise this dream eventually came true only after his death in 2015.

I can of course, sit down in front of my laptop and nit-pick over things that did not work for me. But that is a niggardly attitude that will defeat the purpose of the film. Instead, I will say that I found it compelling as it conveyed the reality of what I had heard my maternal grandparents recount time and again of their own family’s hopes, fears, experiences and deep loss as they fled Ottoman Turkey in 1915. If anything, it made me sad that such abominably human-made horrors have not yet been recognised by a modern-day Turkey that refuses to accept the responsibility for its predecessor regime. Almost two million Armenians lived in Ottoman Turkey before the end of the First World War, but only 60,000 live in Istanbul today. So did they all simply vanish into thin air as successive Turkish governments have chauvinistically abdicated their responsibility to recognise this crime?

Two ancillary thoughts though ran through my mind as I sat in front of the big screen for over two hours and watched this genocide unfold its life-sucking tentacles. The first thought was an affirmation of those righteous Turks who went out of their way – and out of their comfort zones – to save Armenians. No matter how few, they provided assistance and refuge to some Armenians and we should always recall their courage. Yet, their story is, alas, never fully told when dealing with this blood-stained chapter of history.

My second thought is almost tantamount to a confession that would surely surprise many Turks and by the same token rankle with many Armenians. I do not hate Turks despite their crimes that gutted not only a whole Armenian people but also killed many members of my own family and led to the loss of many lives and properties. Nor do I hate them because they refuse to acknowledge their acts. They are afraid just as they are proud, but there are in fact quite a few similarities between those two peoples and I am confident they can live peaceably as neighbours once the festering wounds of the genocide are overcome by both peoples. One people, the Turks, should put their proud and at times overweening refusal to one side and accept that their predecessors committed those heinous crimes. Simply put, they should admit their guilt. Another people, the Armenians, should then accept to turn the cathartic page.

It is of course easier said than done for both peoples. There are many Armenians and Turks who refuse to go down this road of atonement. It is easier to hate and to feed one’s grief than it is to move forward, and it takes courage and nerve for both peoples to free themselves from this yoke. For me personally, and as Ana Kassarian says poignantly in the film when she tackles Michael Boghossian’s spleen, Armenians achieved their revenge by their sheer survival despite every organised effort to annihilate them.

I have already mentioned two reasons why this film was entitled ‘The Promise’. Yet a third promise stands out for me. It is a reaffirmation of life after death and of new dawns overtaking painful dusks. This is not merely a matter of survival for me: it is a reconquering of life and a rebaptism of hope that make us human after all.

-----------

© Harry Hagopian is an international lawyer, ecumenist and EU political consultant. He also acts as a MENA and inter-faith advisor to the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales. He is an Ekklesia associate and regular contributor (http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/HarryHagopian). Formerly Executive Secretary of the Jerusalem Inter-Church Committee and Executive Director of the Middle East Council of Churches, he is now an international fellow, Sorbonne III University, Paris, and author of The Armenian Church in the Holy Land. Dr Hagopian’s own website is www.epektasis.net - follow him on Twitter here: @harryhagopian and on Facebook here: https://m.facebook.com/MENA.analysis/

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.