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 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. Read the rest in Slant Magazine

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