Wednesday, May 10, 2017
Intent to Destroy and For Ahkeem
Much as Americans love reality television, we tend to shun documentaries, especially issue-based ones, probably because many of us see film and TV as a form of escapism. So the $100 million left by Armenian-American billionaire Kirk Kerkorian to finance a film about the genocidal killing of as estimated 1.5 million Armenians by the Turkish government in the early 20th century went to a fiction film, Terry George's The Promise, which is currently playing in theaters nationwide. Meanwhile, Joe Berlinger's Intent to Destroy has no distributor or theatrical release date after its premiere at Tribeca. And that's a shame, because it's a far better film than George's stiff costume drama. Its depiction of the horrors of the genocide is more unvarnished, and therefore more accurate. More importantly, it explains the importance of that chapter in human history and examines the century-long denial campaign by the Turkish government that's all but erased the tragedy from the world's memory.
Berlinger, who was given permission to film the making of The Promise, intersperses clips from that film and personal testimonials from some of its actors with footage of historical photos and documents and interviews with a number of Armenian-American or Turkish scholars and other experts. Intent to Destroy is divided into three chapters—Death (the genocide), Denial (the Turkish campaign), and Depiction (the difficulties encountered by those who've tried to tell the story). It focuses primarily on how the Turkish government has attempted to erase all evidence of and knowledge about what scholar Peter Balakian describes as the first genocide of the modern age. As one expert explains, the Turks employ the same PR firm that defended tobacco companies and oil companies by pioneering a now-popular method of undermining the truth: They sow doubt about the facts, making it appear that there's a legitimate difference of opinion as to whether, for instance, cigarettes cause lung cancer or fossil fuels contribute to global warming.
The Turkish PR campaign, however, is just one of the methods explored in the film. Turkey changed its alphabet in 1929, an act the film links to the national movement to rewrite the nation's history, noting that it made anything written in the old script inaccessible to the general public. The new history books contained no mention of the genocide. They also erased all references to the fact that Armenians made up a sizeable minority of the country before WWI. The government employs blunt-force methods as well, threatening or jailing people who try to tell any story that challenges their account, while implicitly supporting right-wing nationalist groups that sometimes go even further. The film covers relatively well-publicized events like the murder of Armenian-Turkish journalist Hrant Dink. It also unearths chilling anecdotes from people who have been pressured by Turkish officials or nationalists. Canadian-Armenian director Atom Egoyan tells about the visit from a Turkish official who tried to shut down the production of Ararat, one of a handful of other films about the genocide. The official, he says, threatened that bad things would happen to Armenians in Canada and elsewhere if the film were released.
The global lack of knowledge that’s resulted from Turkey’s denial campaign is more amnesia than ignorance, the film points out, as the genocide was widely reported at the time. The New York Times ran 145 stories on it in 1915 alone, Americans gave millions of dollars in relief to Armenian refugees, and the phrase “remember the starving Armenians” was widely used. The cause was so popular that Babe Ruth donated the bat he used to hit his 50th home run so the proceeds from its sale could help Armenian orphans. The Turkish government’s steadfast denial, as one of the film’s experts points out, has robbed Americans of knowing about that generous part of our own history. More importantly, the ignorance about, and apparent indifference to, what happened to the Armenians that set in soon after WWI established a dangerous precedent. Just a generation after the genocide, Hitler was reported to have told his generals not to worry what people might think about the Holocaust, saying: “Who remembers the extermination of the Armenians?”
Another excellent documentary that probably won’t get the audience it deserves is For Akheem. Jeremy S. Levine and Landon Van Soest’s film follows a vivacious and kindhearted African-American teenager, Daje Shelton, as she struggles to get through her last three years of high school in North St. Louis. The point of view is still unusual enough to be refreshing, since films about institutional racism are far more likely to have male than female protagonists. Also unusual and informative is the focus on the supportive African-American community that surrounds Daje and does its best to lift her up, starting with her mother and including teachers, counselors, and even a judge.
Despite these individuals’ best efforts, Daje keeps getting knocked back by a system of entrenched racism that is—as teachers and counselors point out—rigged to keep black kids from succeeding. The film opens with a nervous Daje and her mother heading to court, where Daje—just 17 but being tried as an adult—faces charges for “disruptive” behavior in school that would surely have been handled differently if she were well off or white. The stern but sympathetic judge sends her to an alternative high school that’s her last hope of getting a degree. In one of the first scenes there, a teacher or administrator (the film doesn’t always identify the people on screen with title cards, letting the context relay the story) tells the students that black kids in Missouri are charged with criminal offenses at a rate higher than teens in any other state, adding that some get arrested as early as age eight.
Daje’s grades deteriorate at the new school, in part because she gets pregnant, missing several weeks of school in her senior year and then finding it hard to focus on schoolwork while caring for her baby. But as the film’s title implies, Daje’s love for her son, Ahkeem, is transformative, motivating her to do whatever it takes to give their boy a good life. The same is true for her boyfriend, Antoine. He gives the documentary one of its most heart-wrenching scenes when, after Ahkeem’s birth, the camera follows him away from Daje’s hospital bed and into the hallway, where he bursts into tears, declaring his love for his son and vowing to take care of him.
The first time we see Antoine, he’s going through his school’s metal detector, just one of many daily reminders of the fact that he and his friends are so often considered guilty until proven innocent. A natural star, he all but dances through that barrier, charismatic, beautiful, and radiating enthusiasm. But his joie de vivre starts to fade within the relatively brief span of the film—and no wonder. Like Daje, Antoine faces criminal charges for things, like possession of marijuana, that almost never reach the courts for more privileged kids. Also like her, he’s tried as an adult when he’s not yet 18. Unable to afford a lawyer, he pleads guilty to avoid jail time, unaware that this means he will forever have a felony on his record. The significance of that fact is borne home a little while after Ahkeem’s birth, when Antoine is looking for work to support his son. A mentor promises help from an organization that helps young fathers in the community find jobs, but Antoine’s hopes are shattered when he learns that they can’t place anyone with a felony conviction.
Tragically, the many supportive adults in their lives, the lessons they learn in school about inspirational black figures, and the posters of people like Barack Obama, Martin Luther King Jr., and Muhammad Ali that often show up in the background aren’t enough to counter the cripplingly negative messages these children receive about how the larger world sees and will treat them. When Michael Brown is shot in nearby Ferguson, the stillness with which Daje watches TV news about the shooting and the uprising that followed tells you all you need to know about how often she’s already had to brace herself against such news. After one of the newscasts, she and some classmates engage in a matter-of-fact discussion about people they know who were shot by police, and Daje mentions a cousin of hers who was shot 25 times.
The weight of the systemic racism they experience is crushing enough to make it hard to imagine that Daje and Antoine will be able to offer their son any more opportunities than they have themselves, much as we may want to share what remains of their youthful optimism. For Ahkeem ends on a would-be hopeful note, as Daje pledges to give her son a good life, but the image that lingers is of Daje and Antoine sitting on a riverbank overlooking the Mississippi. There are no longer “Whites Only” signs in public spaces here, but that doesn’t mean that there’s no more segregation. Watching the carefree people who occupy the promenade below, Antoine sums up the scene in just one loaded word: “Caucasians.”
Intent to Destory and For Ahkeem are currently without distribution.
Written for Slant Magazine