Oscar Isaac, Christian Bale, Charlotte LeBon, Angela Sarafyan, James Cromwell and Terry George
Keeping the Promise
by Jay S. Jacobs
The Armenian Genocide in what is now Turkey happened over 100 years ago, but it is still a political hot potato all these years later. In the days during and after World War I, the Ottoman government rounded up and slaughtered 1.5 million Armenian residents. To this day, the government (which was overturned to Turkey in the years following the genocide) not only refuses to apologize for the atrocities, but actively deny that they even happened.
Amazingly, for such a massive occurrence in modern history, there has not even been a feature film on the subject made in Hollywood. There have been several documentaries and some foreign features – the best known probably being Atom Egoyan’s Ararat, but nothing in the US. Not that there were never any attempts, but most were scuttled due to political pressure.
Until now. With The Promise, writer-director Terry George – who also made a film about a similar genocide with Hotel Rwanda – has finally gotten a film about the subject made with The Promise. A tragic romance based on the backdrop, the film tells the story of a love triangle between an Armenian med student (Oscar Isaac), a Parisian dance instructor with Armenian family (Charlotte LeBon) and an American journalist (Christian Bale) who try to save as many innocent Armenians as possible and get the word of the atrocities to the world at large.
Of course, the film has not been without backlash. The film was the victim of an internet smear campaign, with their Rotten Tomatoes and IMDB ratings being attacked before the film was ever seen. There is also The Ottoman Lieutenant, another film on the subject – but told from the opposite perspective – set for release soon after The Promise.
A few days before the release of The Promise, cast members Oscar Isaac, Christian Bale, Charlotte LeBon, Angela Sarafyan and James Cromwell and writer/director Terry George met with the press at the Whitby Hotel in New York to discuss the film and the still controversial historical event.
Why did you decide to make this movie? What approach did you take to it?
Oscar Isaac: To my shame, I didn’t know about the Armenian Genocide before I got the script and spoke with Terry [George]. It was new to me. To read about that, to read that 1.5 million perished at the hand of their own government, it was horrifying. Not only that, but to this day, it is so little known. [There is] active denial of it. That really was the big interesting part of it. Also [I wanted to work with], the cast they put together. And the fact that 100% of the proceeds will go to charity. That’s an extraordinary thing to be a part of.
My approach was to read as much as I could. To try to immerse myself in the history of the time. Also, in LA, there’s a small museum that we were sent to. For me, the biggest help was I had these videos and recordings of survivors, who would recount what they witnessed as little children. Seeing their grandmother bayoneted by the gendarmes, or their mothers and sisters crucified. Horrible atrocities. To hear them recounted almost felt like they were little kids again. It was heartbreaking. I did feel some responsibility to try to tell their story.
Christian Bale: Continuing off what Oscar was saying, the documentaries where you would see survivors talking about horrific experiences. Loved ones, families, were very barbarically killed. [I tried to] get into that mindset. To try even in a very small way to understand the pain they must have gone through. The fact that people were telling them that they were lying about what had happened. They had witnessed it with their own eyes, had all of that emotion, but there were people who refused to call it what it is – genocide. Still, people today refuse to call it that. We have yet to have a sitting US President call it a genocide. Obama did before, but not during [his time as President]. The Pope did recently, but it is this great unknown genocide. The lack of consequence may well have provoked other genocides that have happened since.
For me, it became startlingly relevant, because as I was reading the script – and in the same way as Oscar, was learning about the Armenian Genocide as I was reading, embarrassingly – I’m reading about Musa Dagh [an area in Turkey], Armenians who were being slaughtered, under siege, on a mountain. [At the same time] I’m watching on the news, it’s the Yazidis, under siege, being slaughtered by ISIS. It’s so relevant. Tragically sad it’s still relevant.
Charlotte Le Bon: I learned a lot as well by watching documentaries. I talked a lot with Armenian friends in France just to get their take on the story and their families’ stories. Also – just like Christian was saying – a couple of months before the shooting I was in Greece, just on a holiday. I was on Lesbos Island, which is close to Turkey. It was the beginning of the massive arrival of refugees. They were coming like 1,000 per day. I didn’t know about it then. I just remember being in the car and watching hundreds and hundreds of people walking by the street trying to reach the capitol of the island. It was really, really moving to see that. The only thing I could do was give them a bottle of water. You don’t know what to do. A couple of months later, I was on set and we were recreating the exact same scene that I saw, just a couple of months before.
Angela Sarafyan: I had known about the Armenian Genocide, because grew up hearing stories from my grandparents, the stories they had heard from their parents about their grandparents. So, doing this film was very, very close to my heart, because it was a chance for me to give some light to that world in a very different way. It’s never existed on film. It’s a very controversial issue. What I got to do was really look at the time. Look at what it must have been like to live in that time. The simplicity of what that village was. The survival and romanticism of living in a small place. Learning how people survive within the atrocity. I didn’t really have to go through some of the horrendous things that you see, but I loved being able to investigate that simple life. I read more, because Terry had introduced so many books and scripts, a lot of material.
Did the Turkish government give you any problems? Somebody hijacked Rotten Tomatoes for a while, who couldn’t have possibly seen the movie. The Turkish government has done all they can to not let a movie like this get made. Did you get any pushback?
Terry George: I had a very healthy exchange with a Turkish representative in LA who represented the Hollywood Foreign Press. He presented the Turkish perspective that a genocide couldn’t have happened. There was a war and bad things happen. Lots of people die on both sides. I said that was exactly true, but in the case of the Armenians, it was their own government that was killing them. So, we talked that out.
We had that thing where IMDB was hijacked. We had the sudden appearance of The Ottoman Lieutenant movie four weeks ago, where it was like the reverse mirror image of this film, right down to the storyline. There is a particular nervousness in Europe, I think, about the film and about the situation, particularly the way President Erdoğan has campaigned across Europe for a for lifetime referendum. So, yeah, it’s an extremely amorphous subject.
Our idea, as always, is get it out there. Let’s discuss the thing. I’d be more than willing to sit down with any representative of any Turkish organization and talk this out, in terms of different perspectives, and present our perspective of it. We’d rather air the subject, rather than hide away and deny that any of it happened, or that one side is right and the other side is wrong. Let’s have this discussion.
Christian Bale: I don’t know if I should say this, but don’t you think also that there’s a false debate created – a bit like climate change – as though there’s as strong evidence on one side as on the other? But there isn’t. There isn’t as strong of an argument. Where the evidence really just points to the fact that it was genocide.
Terry George: Well, the Turkish journalist’s perspective was, “Let’s have a convention about this, and everyone sit down.” Yeah, 100 years later, the evidence has been shredded. Pretty much every respected historian in the world recognizes it was a genocide. Almost every government that isn’t swayed by Turkish strategic position recognizes that it’s a genocide. So, let’s sit down and figure out what went wrong? It’s a bit late, guys.
The whole world acknowledged what took place. [Let’s] find a way toward reconciliation and some sort of rapprochement in the region itself. Until this issue is… not resolved, but at least some sort of reconciliation comes about… there can’t be a real peace in that area. You have a country where three of the borders have been closed since its existence.
What was your favorite scene in The Promise?
Christian Bale: Favorite is the wrong word. Terry and Survival Pictures made a decision not to show the full extent of the barbarity and violence enacted during the genocide. There were multiple reasons for that that I’ll let Terry explain. There was one scene where Mikael, Oscar’s character, he sees many of his family members and also members of his home town who have been slaughtered. That was very emotional for many people that day. Also, seeing Armenians whose family members had gone through that, it was a very affecting day for every single one of us on the film.
Terry George: Just as I did on Hotel Rwanda, I was determined that this be a PG-13 film. That teenagers, schools, people who might be squeamish about the notion of seeing an R-rated genocide movie, that the horror be psychological. That put the burden – and carried magnificently by both Oscar and Christian on that scene – the horror of the genocide. It is told through how Oscar conveyed those moments of what he found, in his face.
Oscar Isaac: Yes, that scene was really why I wanted to do the film. Every time I would read the script, it would impact me deeply. Throughout shooting, knowing that moment was going to come, it was going to fall on us to convey the reaction, there was a challenge. For me, it wasn’t the most challenging scene physically. It was a wild shoot. But emotionally, at that point, the culmination of all the reading and watching the videos of people recounting the tragedy, to do that justice. Of course we’re just actors, but you can’t separate yourself from politics totally. There was something liberating about that moment, being able to share it with everyone. We can all mourn together through the act of imitation.
There’s also a scene in a tank. We had to do all of this underwater stuff. That was difficult, especially with a fake beard. (Laughs) Beard number two, beard number three, there were some challenging evenings. But again, we were watching on the news, a man jumped in the water to save his wife and kids… they all drowned. Here we are doing that. Seeing the same thing happening over and over again, it took its toll.
Christian, your character is a journalist questioning everything that you’re reporting. Did the relevance of that today go through your mind?
Christian Bale: Of course. That was developing during filming and then obviously has become much more present in the news. What’re we calling it now? The Post-truth era? [This shows] just how important it is to have a free press for any democracy. That’s another aspect of the film that’s become much more relevant.
There is a scene where Oscar’s character chastises you, as the journalist, for being able to leave and go back home.
Christian Bale: That line is countered by Chris, my character. That line is, of course, absolutely valid and truthful. But equally truthful is when Chris says, “Without the press, nobody would know what happened.” That’s why it’s so important to have the press, so we can really know what’s happening. Especially now, in this era, where we have to filter through what’s real and not. People are claiming fake news, when it’s clearly not. It’s getting chaotic.
One other thing that was very surprising and inspiring, the film is just the beginning of a big social campaign. The Promise Institute for Human Rights just opened at UCLA. A hundred percent of this movie is going to charity. Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, we’re getting out there with people on the front lines so to speak. We’re trying to hold people responsible for genocide. Obviously, the press is needed to get evidence, data trails, it’s essential. Hopefully people will see the film and have compassion for refugees, the crisis they are going through.
Terry George: We’re partnered with one organization that I got involved with during Hotel Rwanda called Global Nomads. We’ve made this video that we hope to distribute and show in schools around the world.
Can you talk about any of the unsung heroes that you found out about making the movie?
Christian Bale: There’s Aurora Mardiganian. She’s a real Armenian national hero. The award is named after [her] as well. [She’s] a phenomenal woman who went through real tragic circumstances but came through and told her story with film as early as 1919. She was phenomenal. I mean talk about a fierce, strong woman who overcame phenomenal tragedy. She was very inspiring.
James Cromwell: I think [Henry] Morgenthau [U.S. Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire from 1913-1916 during the Armenian Genocide] was pretty impressive. I didn’t know anything about him when I started [playing him in the film]. Also, you can’t leave out the fact that there were consular officers all over Anatolia who were also sending briefs back to Washington. That’s one of the reasons that we have the record that we have. Morgenthau’s biography, his memoirs, and these eyewitness reports.
It strikes me as amazing that today there are no people with that sort of moral outrage as part of our State Department. There are ambassadors to Yemen. There are ambassadors to Sudan, Somalia, and Libya. You hear nothing. No one stands up for the people who are being oppressed all over the world now in the way Morgenthau took responsibility. [President Woodrow] Wilson was supportive, but not the legislature, not congress. Congress was against him. After Wilson, [President Herbert] Hoover was very much against him, against supporting his work and against establishing the Armenian state.
So as far as a cause is concerned, it just shows us that at the top, down to the average citizen, we have been so desensitized to the suffering of people that we cannot recognize ourselves in the other. [This] is one of the reasons you do a film like this. It has a narrative at the core, so that the audience can come in and feel what other people feel. By doing that you do what Shakespeare said [in Hamlet]: “Hold a mirror up to nature; to show virtue her own feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure.” That’s what we do.
Terry George: There was an ambassador quite recently, Ambassador [John Marshall] Evans, who was the ambassador to Armenia. He refused to not say the word “genocide,” and was forced to resign. In the [President Bill] Clinton Administration?
James Cromwell: [President George W.] Bush.
Terry George: He’s a latter day hero in the mode of Morgenthau. [He] rightly stood up and recognized [the genocide] for what it was, and paid for it with his job.
Angela Sarafyan: For me personally, it would be in my family. The orphans really. All of my great-great-great grandparents were orphaned. They didn’t have parents left. They were all taken away. The mere fact that they were able to survive and then to form families. One of them fled to Aleppo to start a family in Syria. It seems like it’s coming full circle with people today fleeing from Syria to find refuge in other countries. So, I find them personally heroes in my own life. The mere fact that they were able to survive, form families, have a sane mind. I think that kind of trauma changes you genetically. Doing the film was continuing that legacy and making it live forever. Instead of it just being a story that was told, it lives in cinema. It will be an experience for people to watch and have as their own.
I’d love to know more of your thoughts of the web hijacking of IMDB and Rotten Tomatoes against this film. Who do you think organized this or do you think these are individuals?
Terry George: It can’t have been 50,000 individuals decided, after we had two screenings in Toronto, to [rate] us 1 out of 10. Seems like a miraculously spontaneous thing to happen. I definitely think that was a bot, or a series of bots that were switched on. Then we had the contrary reaction, what I genuinely think was 25,000 votes from the Armenian community – because we didn’t have a bot going – voting 10 out 10. It brought a highlight to the not only IMDB, Rotten Tomatoes, just the whole question of manipulating the internet. Manipulating reviews and people being swayed by that. It’s a whole new world.
Copyright ©2017 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: April 19, 2017.
Photos © 2017 Jay S. Jacobs. All rights reserved.