BY HAROUT KASSABIAN
From The Armenian Weekly
The late Kirk Kerkorian’s legacy project—the much anticipated Armenian Genocide epic “The Promise”—had its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) on Sept. 11. The film had the honor of being designated as one of the gala presentations of the prestigious festival.
The sold-out, star-studded gala took place at the iconic Roy Thomson Hall, with over 1,000 movie lovers and guests in attendance. The screening was attended by most of the primary cast, including Oscar Isaac, Charlotte Le Bon, Christian Bale, Marwan Kenzari, and Angela Sarafyan; musical artists who contributed to the soundtrack such as Chris Cornell (Soundgarden) and Serj Tankian (System of a Down); director Terry George; and the production crew.
Prior to the screening, the film team was introduced on stage, and the importance of depicting the Armenian Genocide in film was presented to the audience. A resounding applause was given when Kirk Kerkorian’s name appeared at the beginning of the screening, considering the film would not have been possible without his vision.
The film begins with Michael (Isaac), an aspiring medical student who leaves his village for Constantinople to pursue his studies. In both locations, the audience is shown the delicate coexistence of religious and ethnic minorities within the larger society of the Ottoman Empire—minarets and church domes side by side in the landscape, Armenian and Turkish businesses competing against one another for customers.
In Constantinople, Michael meets Ana (Le Bon), an Armenian from Paris he quickly falls in love with, and Chris (Bale), Ana’s boyfriend and an outspoken Associated Press reporter. A love triangle quickly develops—a plot twist that is perhaps overdone in film and could have been better executed, but effective in moving the story forward nonetheless. He also befriends a wealthy fellow Turkish student Emre (Kenzari), the fictional son of Djemal Pasha, who honorably treats his Armenian friend with respect and loyalty throughout the film.
The second act of the film sees the Ottoman Empire entering World War I, as the relative peace of the society gives way to mass arrests, violent mobs, beatings, and hangings of the Armenian and other minority populations. The cold and systematic actions by the army officials fill the viewer with dread and underscores the premeditated nature of the historical crime.
Michael is eventually apprehended and deported. He experiences a harrowing journey of repeated separation, loss, trauma, and hope.
The film excels in portraying the traumatic emotional and physical experiences of the victims of the genocide, showing entire villages murdered and disposed in rivers, mass executions, deportation lines, and large groups of Armenian orphans.
Although the film does not rely solely on being a history lesson, those familiar with the history of the Armenian Genocide will notice familiar figures appear in the film, such as Father Komitas, Ambassador Henry Morgenthau, as well as Talaat and Enver Pashas, and Nazim Bey. The heroic resistances of Van and Musa Ler are portrayed in the film as well.
It is also worth commending the film for portraying various characters who stand up for the persecuted minorities. Bale excels in his role as Chris, who sees the warning signs of turmoil before his Armenian friends, and works tirelessly to document the horrors around him and bring them to the attention of the American people. United States ambassador Henry Morgenthau speaks to Talaat Pasha in an attempt to stop the violence and disregards diplomacy, declaring the Young Turk’s true plans for the Armenians. Finally, Kenzari’s depiction of Emre, a wealthy and comfortable Turk, whose steadfast loyalty to his Armenian friend at his own personal peril reminds viewers that there were those during the Genocide who put humanity and compassion over hate and violence.
The movie leaves viewers with the weight of the experiences of those who perished and those who fought to survive. Armenian and non-Armenians alike feel the same depth of pain, which shows that genocide recognition and prevention are a common cause for all humanity. The personal connection developed with the characters helps deepen the empathy felt by the audience and many in the concert hall were tearful by the end of the film.
Kerkorian’s vision was realized—the film will help the world will recognize the trauma of the genocide as it has long been felt by the Armenians.