This Friday, Angela Sarafyan can be seen in The Promise, a love story set during the Armenian Genocide on the Ottoman front during the first World War. Much like her role as Clementine in HBO’s Westworld, Sarafyan isn’t playing one of the leads, which include Oscar Isaac as Armenian medical student Mikhail Pogosian, Christian Bale as an American reporter trying to expose the genocide, and Charlotte Le Bon as his wife. But Sarafyan, whose parents came from Yerevan to LA when she was four, is the most recognizably Armenian of the cast, which is presumably why the producers have her out doing press. It would be hard to separate promotion from politics in The Promise, and its backers aren’t pretending to.
This makes it a little hard for an interviewer. We see a movie and naturally want to engage with the ideas presented. But should we treat an actor as ambassador for those ideas? Sarafyan certainly seems to be being put forth as one. The Promise is reportedly one of the most expensive independently financed movies ever made, with most of the money put up by Kirk Kerkorian, an Armenian businessman who at one point owned MGM. Kerkorian financed The Promise through his Survival Pictures, and the film reportedly cost close to $100 million to make before tax breaks. That the subject matter was close to his heart is clearly a big part of why he went to such lengths to get it made.
Kerkorian died in 2015 before the film was completed, and The Promise initially struggled to find a distributor before landing with Open Road Films. A Variety piece from October pointed at the Armenian Genocide-themed subject matter as one of the main sticking points. The film’s producers have implied that business interests in Turkey and a well-organized denialist lobby have made their work that much more difficult.
“I’ll just say that there are some studios that have business interests in Turkey, and you can form your own opinion,” says [producer Eric] Esrailian.
There were no public protests at the Toronto premiere, but there is already evidence of a propaganda campaign to discredit “The Promise.” The film’s IMDb page has received more than 86,000 user votes, the bulk of them one-star ratings, despite the fact that the movie has had only three public screenings. That’s more user reviews than appear for “Finding Dory,” the highest-grossing film of the year. The filmmakers say reaction on social platforms has been equally intense.
“The day after we screened the movie, 70,000 people went on IMDb and said they didn’t like the movie,” says Mike Medavoy, one of the film’s producers. “There’s no way that many people saw the movie after one screening. There aren’t that many seats in the theater.” [Variety]
Genocide recognition is baked into the promotional tour for The Promise, whose final title card notes that Turkey has never acknowledged it. While Sarafyan doesn’t have an especially big part in the film, she is the cast’s most visible representative of the Armenian diaspora (what with the patronymic name — the “ian/yan” suffix originally meant “son of’), a group to whom The Promise is now being overtly marketed. (Cher — née Cher Sarkisian — attended the LA premiere, as did, ugh, Kim Kardashian, who left early.)
At the risk of stating the obvious, it’s a complicated issue. Armenians in the US have long lobbied the US government to pressure Turkey into recognizing their country’s part in the genocide, in which the Ottomans killed upwards of 1.5 million ethnic Armenian Christians between 1915 and about 1923. Denialist arguments out of Turkey have included that the casualty numbers are inflated, that the killings were spontaneous events and not official government policy, that Armenians sided with Ottoman enemy Russia and were thus enemy combatants, etc. Historians not in Turkey’s employ largely dismiss those counter arguments, but the US government has been reticent to press Turkey about it to avoid alienating a NATO member and Middle East partner who has allowed the US repeated use of its airspace. Barack Obama’s position seems representative of the US’s delicate balancing act, supporting recognition to appease the large Armenian-American population in the US while he was a Senator, and then retreating to avoid alienating Turkey once he was president.
With a film raising the issue once again, the obvious question becomes, is official recognition of an event that happened 100 years ago worth losing a strategic partner over? From the US government’s perspective, the answer has clearly been no. And then there’s the more philosophical question of whether it matters that a perpetrator acknowledge his own guilt if everyone else in the room already agrees that he’s guilty (an oversimplification in this analogy, even aside from the question of whether it’s fair to assign nation states personhood). Many would argue Germany having to come to terms with their Holocaust guilt was key to its growth, and these days they often seem like Europe’s last bulwark against fascism. On the other hand, if you ask my 99-year-old grandfather about recognition of the Armenian Genocide, which his own parents fled when they came to the US, he usually shrugs and says something like “History is history.”
Neither position seems invalid. I’m not a professional historian, but having read a few books on the subject recently (The Vanquished, They Can Live In The Desert But Nowhere Else, The Hundred Year Walk, 1453) I wonder if the problem isn’t entirely denialism but partly of context. The “brutal Turk” has been a Western stereotype since the fall of Christian Constantinople in the 1400s, but it’d be hard to argue that the Ottomans were any more brutal or ruthless than Christians of the time. In fact, part of the reason that the Ottoman Empire was such a polyglot of Muslims, Jews, and Eastern Christians at the time of the genocide in the first place is that it was initially much more tolerant of religious minorities than Christian Europe — who’d had plenty of smaller-scale expulsions and exterminations of their own. So even if Turkey’s claims (now and historically) that the genocide wasn’t an organized campaign of extermination are mostly bogus, it’s also possible to see how a focus on that genocide could buttress an age-old, unfair stereotype of the Turk as bloodthirsty savage.
There’s a truth in the Armenian Genocide that Turkey is trying to ignore, but also perhaps a larger truth that all of us are trying to ignore: that maybe genocide isn’t so anomalous. That maybe trying to wipe out some feared “other” is much closer to the norm throughout human history than we give it credit for. There were a whole lot of ethnic massacres in the first half of the 20th century and, while perhaps less organized, there isn’t really a shortage of them now.
As a sweeping, Gone With The Wind-esque tale of love and loss set against the backdrop of the Armenian Genocide, The Promise doesn’t do a great job contextualizing that genocide (or cover any of the Armenians’ retributive massacres against Muslim civilians) . Of course, it’s also fair to ask whether it needs to. There have been a million movies about the Jewish Holocaust during WWII and we never ask if they’re being fair enough to the Nazis.
All of which is to say, it was a lot to have on my mind when I was about to interview an actress about a movie she didn’t write. But if Sarafyan was at all uncomfortable with her role as visibly Armenian-American representative of an Armenian-themed movie that she only had a small part in, it didn’t show. She was as prepared to discuss politics as she was to discuss herself, and didn’t seem like she was out of her element doing so. Career-wise she seems to be having a moment, or at least is on the verge of one, and if our interview is any indication, she’ll be prepared.