Last year, during the Toronto International Film Festival, the filmmakers behind The Promise premiered their film before an audience of 1,500 and were met with a standing ovation. Yet at the same time, the film was being given thousands of single-star reviews through IMDb.
Films should always be given a chance and many times, given internet culture, people unfairly and impulsively despise or support films. This concerted effort looked different than a trending issue for the internet’s next bandwagon. The negative reviews, which climbed to a massive 85,000 before the film was even released, looked like clear sabotage. It came to light this was a cyber plan put together by the Turkish government and executed through a horde of internet trolls.
With enough negativity, any critical response can bury a film and wreck its release. Look at last year’s flop, The Light Between Oceans, which had many bad reviews premature to its release, thus steering audiences away. To similar effect, the Turkish government’s intent with The Promise was to ruin the release because they claim the movie propagandizes a false history.
The Promise is an epic drama that tells the tragic and appalling story of the Armenian Genocide. During WWI, the Republic of Turkey and all of the surrounding nations existed as the Ottoman Empire. The empire was a Muslim Turkish majority but there were multiple minorities of Christians in the state, predominantly the Armenian population.
During World War I, the Ottoman Empire started to destabilize; the days of sultans ruling the nation came to an end as a radical, new political party called the Committee of Union and Progress, known as The Young Turks, came into power. They preached reforming the Empire’s political structures from a monarchial system to a democratic, constitutional government. The Committee's agenda was to create a government by the people and for the people in order to achieve more liberty.
The Armenian inhabitants were initially excited about the big changes but The Young Turks were a nationalistic group; their meaning of “the people” didn’t include everyone. The Young Turks’ perspective of reuniting the Ottoman Empire was returning it to the former glory days of being a purely Muslim nation.
Since Armenians represented the largest number of Christians in the country, the plan to exterminate the Christian faith largely targeted them. This plan included: removing Armenians from their villages, looting their property and other belongings, kidnapping their children and converting them to Islam, and most poignantly, forcing them into death marches – a military-implemented walk out of the country. If they fell behind, they were gunned down by Turkish troops.
The Turks committed the first recorded genocide of the modern era. Records show a wide variance of just how many lives were lost from this death sentence but the commonly-used figure is roughly 1.5 million Armenian deaths. These deaths are denied by modern-day Turkey; just as shockingly, they’re not even recognized by many other countries around the world.
Even in the U.S., many Americans have learned little to nothing about this tragedy. This is likely in part due to our political relationship with Turkey. Turks were insulted by the U.S. resolution to mark April 24 a day to remember and observe the Armenian genocide. Turkey’s foreign ministry responded it “distorts history and law” and “We condemn those who led this prejudiced initiative.”
The pain and trauma of the Armenian genocide can never be fully eased. The Armenian community has been forced to scatter from their geographical origins, which has severed their connection as a people. Three million Armenians currently live in Armenia while 8-10 million live in other places around the globe. It's a permanent trauma most of us recognize in the experiences of the Jewish people throughout all of human history. Sorrowfully, it’s also a trauma we’re seeing in real time permanently inflicting the Syrian people.
Certainly the greatest way to perpetuate extreme Armenian past traumas is other cultures and countries not acknowledging this genocide. And this is where The Promise enters. The film focuses on an epic love story blossoming during World War I, in the city of Constantinople. Oscar Isaac plays Mikael, a small-town Armenian who’s come to the multicultural capital to learn medicine and return to his town as a doctor. Soon after he arrives, he meets the lovely Ana, portrayed by Charlotte Le Bon. She’s a fellow Armenian that has been drawn back to the Ottoman Empire after spending many years in Paris. Joining Ana from Paris is her lover Chris, an American journalist, played by Christian Bale, who is sniffing out the changing of the tides as the Ottoman Empire joins the world war. The three of them are tangled in a nuanced love triangle and wrapped up in the crisis facing the Armenians; they must fight to survive and do everything they can to protect the endangered Armenians as they witness a genocide that forever changes history.
The Promise is a serious milestone because, believe it or not, it is the first major motion picture to be made about the Armenian Genocide. The last attempt was in the 70s with a film called The 40 Days of Musa Dagh, based on the best-selling book of the same name which was developed at MGM. The film never got off the ground because as it gathered steam for production, the Turkish Ambassador visited the producers in Hollywood and effectively stopped the film.
The Armenian Genocide has, to the best of Turkey’s abilities, been concealed, understated, and ignored for the past 100 years. So The Promise is an achievement. Is it a masterpiece of raw, cinematic storytelling? No. But it’s a very well-made movie with serious talent behind it, though it does not fully elicit the feeling of the political climate and Armenian experience during those times. For example, the movie doesn’t show us the motivations of The Young Turks and it doesn’t fully define the tense inequality the Armenians were living through many years prior to the genocide.
The film does effectively tackle the complexities of the war crimes committed during the genocide, including some of the Turkish people depicted in the film being unable to cope with the evils against the Armenian people.
In the movie as well as historically speaking, we see Turks defy the empire to protect their neighbors in danger. Director and co-writer Terry George’s use of Christian Bale’s character, Chris, to symbolize the fight to legitimize this genocide to the rest of the world and to preserve this dark moment in history, not letting it go undocumented at any cost, adds power to the film.
The film should be seen because it’s a historical event that needs to be more widely known; if this film is successful, it will usher in more art capturing this calamity. With its sweeping scope and talented performers, The Promise sets a standard. As Forward.com’s Jake Romm alluded to in his review of the film, producing Schindler’s List set the bar for telling stories revolving around the Holocaust. Two years ago, the widely-acclaimed film Son of Saul was released; critics called it one of the most powerful and brutal films ever made about the Holocaust. But many films tackled the subject matter before Son of Saul would be a successful game changer. The same evolution should be birthed from The Promise.
It has become commonplace to call all films tackling relevant issues “Important Films” but The Promise is indeed an “Important Film,” as it takes the first step for more awareness, learning, and acknowledgment of the horrific tragedy. In a very dramatic and poetic way, the Turkish attempts to make The Promise go unseen, and therefore unsuccessful, symbolizes where we stand with the Armenian Genocide itself. Speaking and knowing the truth about it is key and if we can all do that, we can help build a way to further resolve the past for the Armenian community, and alert the world that such genocidal acts should never be tolerated.
Check out the trailer below:
The Promise is playing in theaters now. It’s directed by Terry George and written by Terry George and Robin Swicord, starring Oscar Isaac, Charlotte Le Bon, and Christian Bale.