Armenia and Turkey’s Genocide Row: Battleground Hollywood

Turkey/Armenia (EAN) – The long-lasting battle between Turkey and Armenia over the acceptance or denial of the Armenian genocide has gone to Hollywood, which has wheeled out two historic epics to offer competing perspectives on the World-War-I-era massacre.

The Promise and The Ottoman Lieutenant are both panoramic love stories set in the chaotic twilight of the Ottoman Empire, but worlds apart.  The first, which opened in the US on April 22, shows Turks deliberately exterminating ethnic Armenians; the second, released about a month earlier, downplays the killings as collateral war damage.

Even before The Promise opened, two days ahead of annual genocide commemorations in Armenia and by ethnic Armenian communities worldwide, thousands of Turkey-based commentators took to the Internet Movie Database (IMDB) to berate the PG-13 film.  Armenian Diaspora groups in North America described the criticism as a politically motivated campaign of sabotage.

The lavishly mounted, $100-million picture, the last big project of the late Armenian-American real-estate mogul Kirk Kerkorian, is meant to help advance the international campaign to secure recognition of the massacre as genocide — something that a string of US administrations have declined to do, lest they antagonize Turkey, a key American ally.

The Ottoman Lieutenant is seen as a Turkish-sponsored effort to undercut the campaign’s objective.  The R-rated, Turkish-American co-production lacquers over the atrocities against ethnic Armenians “in favor of a generalized ‘Whattaya gonna do . . . war is bad’ aura,” as Variety put it in a review. “It’s a sort of mirror image of our film, but with a totally denialist perspective,” The Promise director Terry George, of Hotel Rwanda fame, told The New York Times. 

The two movies share a three-way love theme, a tendency for soapiness and, at best, a tepid critical reception.

The Promise tells the story of the affection of Mikael, an ethnic Armenian apothecary (Oscar Isaac) in Ottoman Turkey, for the French-educated Ana (Charlotte Le Bon), an Armenian dance instructor who happens to be betrothed to American reporter Chris (Christian Bale). The 132-minute movie employs the full arsenal of historic drama clichés to get the drama across. And has gained a promo from film star George Clooney for good measure.

Yet remove the backdrop of the Armenian massacre, and what’s left is a love triangle formulaic in the way it is written, filmed and acted.

Screenshots of The Ottoman Lieutenant and The Promise

“There’s something rather dusty about The Promise as [Terry] George pushes his characters through a string of soapy machinations that feel incredibly familiar,” wrote The Guardian, giving the movie a rating of three out of five stars.  The consensus on Rotten Tomatoes, a film-review aggregator website, is that “The Promise wastes an outstanding cast and a powerful life-story on a love triangle that frustratingly fails to engage.”

But critics mostly see The Promise as well-intentioned, while The Ottoman Lieutenant has been described as its B-rated, evil twin, found guilty of not just rote melodrama, but also revisionism. The movie opens with bromides — “I thought I was going to change the world, but, of course, it was the world that changed me.” —  and does not get much better. The protagonist, an American nurse (Hera Hilmar), arrives in war-torn Turkey to make a difference and choose between an Ottoman army lieutenant, Ismail (Michiel Huisman), and American doctor Jude (Josh Hartnett).

The story “never achieves its aimed-for grandeur and intensity, and the striking Turkish locations prove far more interesting than the characters,” The Hollywood Reporter wrote.

In scenes of love and war, both movies employ the beaten technique of the camera zooming in and music swelling to cue the desired emotion and, as it appears, the desired version of history.

Anyone looking to learn more about this dark, haunting episode in Turkish-Armenian history should perhaps choose instead to listen to the voices of the real survivors. Those need no audio-visual embellishment to make a point.

This report prepared by Giorgi Lomsadze for Eurasianet.org