The release of Terry George’s The Promise has been awaited around the world with great anticipation. So much so, that before the film was even made available for public viewing, it had tens of thousands of reviews online, many of which were one-star ratings with comments including “F**king liars made a movie about so-called Armenian genocide” and “This is a lesson that you don’t f**k with Turks”. But it was never going to be smooth sailing, rehashing such a controversial point in history.
For Armenians, Greeks, and Assyrians the world over, the film’s release was a relief. Familiar with the atrocities of the Armenian Genocide through the memories of Pontic Greeks, I understood what it would mean for those who had grown up hearing about their relatives losing their homes, their way of life, and loved ones at the outset of World War I, seeing 1.5 million Armenians, 750,000 Pontic Greeks and 500,000 Assyrians killed between 1915 and 1922. While horrors such as these can never, and should never, be forgotten, the memories are particularly raw a hundred years on as the Turkish government continues to deny it ever happened.
The historical drama, written by Terry George and Robin Swicord, starts off in the lead-up to the genocide at the turn of the century in the small Armenian village of Sirun, where Mikel (Oscar Issac) is negotiating a betrothal with a local girl in a bid to move to Constantinople with the money from her dowry to pursue studies in medicine.
Once in the city, he meets with his uncle, a wealthy merchant, through whom he is introduced to Ana (Charlotte Le Bon), an intelligent and beautiful Armenian woman who was mostly raised in France. There is an undeniable energy between them, which quickly sees a love triangle develop; Ana is involved with Chris (Christian Bale), a Paris-based American journalist who is passionate about documenting the mounting tensions between the Turks and local Armenian population.
When tensions truly break out with the start of the First World War, Mikel is exempt from joining the military but is taken prisoner in a labour camp.
One thing leads to another – it’s a drama after all – and Mikel finds his way back to Sirun where he is urged by his mother to fulfil his promise to marry his betrothed. But just as he appears to be adjusting to village life, the Turkish military continue to make their way through sites once peacefully inhabited by Armenian families, tearing them apart.
While the romantic plot is consistent throughout and the aesthetic is Hollywood-esque, for those aware of the film’s historical significance any argument that the ‘romantic saga’ overpowers the true narrative at play seems more so to call into question the viewers’ ability to feel empathy.
The pain, loss, confusion, uncertainty, and pure fear communicated on screen, namely by Issac’s strong onscreen performance, are undeniable.
While the history is of the early 1900s, it is as relevant as ever when it comes to the displacement of people. One cannot help but draw parallels between the minority of Armenians who escaped and are seen being saved on boats by their French ally, with the recent ongoing refugee crisis that has seen some 200,000 Syrian refugees arrive on Greece’s shores.
The romantic complexity hasn’t rated highly amongst critics, and while admittedly unoriginal, it does well in bringing the storyline closer to home for those who cannot identify with the migrant experience. Everyone has fallen in love at least once no? (If not, see point one about empathy.)
It’s questionable how long it would have taken for a film of this calibre to be made about the genocide, had it not been for the late Armenian American philanthropist Kirk Kerkorian who donated the entire $90 million budget.
While only grossing US$8 million at the box office, it’s evident that the large budget, along with the involvement of A-listers like Bale, was not in vain but rather worked to garner as much attention as possible to the history, and the cause.
So far more than 20 countries, and two Australian states, have recognised the massacre as a genocide, and while not adequate, The Promise as a film – admittedly with its imperfections – has already proven useful in spurring dialogue about the atrocities carried out against the Armenian, Greek, and Assyrian peoples; a painful reality passed on through generations.
When it comes to historical memory, much can be taken from the German approach, where the willingness and open approach to discussing the Jewish Holocaust is striking. In my own experience with guides and locals, the reason cited is that by being completely transparent about the wrongdoings of the past, by recognising them, and choosing to never forget, that it will help in moving forward and prove as a reminder for future generations of a time they would not want to repeat.
While The Promise is a film and not in fact a historical record, as the credits roll and authentic photographs from the time depict people being killed and others on boats being transferred to safety, you can’t help but wonder; how can each successive Turkish government have continued to deny such atrocities? And what will people continue to be capable of if this denial continues?