By David D'Arcy
It's hard to believe that in 2007 there is a debate over whether the Armenian Genocide that began in 1915 actually took place, or whether the campaign to exterminate Armenians in Anatolia "qualifies" as a genocide.
The mass murder of Armenians by the Ottoman Turks is as well-documented as any events of that time. You can read the orders from Ottoman officials that mandated central planning of much of the killing, although there was plenty of freelancing that is documented by photographs and the accounts of eyewitnesses.
There are vivid survivors' stories of seeing huge numbers of innocent women and children slaughtered, after which those who were not killed were sent on long marches in the desert, during which thousands more perished without food or water. There are extensive newspaper accounts of the massacres, and correspondence from diplomats who saw it. There is also much eyewitness testimony and correspondence from the religious and non-governmental organizations that tried to intervene to minimize the carnage or care for its victims. There are photographs of piles of bodies and of heads lined up like trophies, often taken by triumphant Turks. There is systematic evidence compiled by the Turks themselves, which was used in trials that were held after the killings, although those trials were abandoned when the rest of the world shifted its attention to other matters.
More troubling is that there won't be a debate, or a vote on whether to commemorate the mass murder. The US Congress was mulling a vote marking the Genocide, and it seemed likely that the measure would not pass. The measure's supporters asked for any vote to be postponed, sensing that a vote would be viewed as undermining the US war effort in Iraq by endangering US relations with Turkey. Previous efforts in Congress to pass such a resolution never made it to a full vote.
Pressure, as usual, comes from Turkey, which is now paying ex-Congressmen to lobby their colleagues, and paying those colleagues to ensure the right outcome. Turkey's official position is that the Genocide never took place. Pressure is also coming from US businesses and from the White House, which sees Turkey as an essential ally and enabler in the war in Iraq, and fears Turkish incursions, now underway, to punish supporters in Iraq of Turkey's large and persecuted Kurdish minority. Let's also not forget the fear that Turkey might abandon the US camp and seek a new alliance with Russia and Iran.
Before the vote was postponed, we were looking at the prospect of elected officials rejecting a measure based on truth, and reacting with the fear that the Turks might enact reprisals against the US. Think of it this way: even though Congress marks the suffering of all sorts of groups, it hesitated to recognize one of the worst human tragedies of the 20th century out of fear that the heirs to the people who carried out the Genocide might do something similar. Thank you, Dr. Strangelove. All this came during the week that the US (and President Bush personally) honored the Dalai Lama, a gesture that they knew would anger China.
For statements of positions opposing the resolution, you can read editorials in the Wall Street Journal and the Seattle Times. You can also read Charles Krauthammer's opposition to the resolution, which he expresses while stressing that the Genocide did indeed happen.
What does all of this have to do with cinema? Last week, members of Congress in Washington DC were given a chance to see Screamers, a survey of the Armenian Genocide and other genocides, directed by Carla Garapedian, a filmmaker who has worked mostly with the BBC. The story of the 1915 massacres, their aftermath and denial is woven through a tour of System of a Down, the well-known Armenian-American band that has made the story of the Genocide part of its explosive act.
The narrative stresses the undeniability of the events of the Genocide, as viewed by historians and survivors - thanks to the legendary longevity of Armenians, there are still survivors of the massacres. You'll also learn more about the Turkish extermination campaign than you'll get in the New York Times these days (although the Times covered the atrocities extensively back then), or on network television.
Bear in mind that a documentary on PBS about the Genocide last year (The Armenian Genocide, directed by Andrew Goldberg) came under such attack from Turkish-funded lobbying that the network did what institutions tend to do when they can't quash controversial material. They panel-ized it, with a "fair and balanced" discussion of whether the Genocide happened, led by an NPR personality. You can get a sense of the hand-wringing involved from the column of PBS's ombudsman, who, to be fair, seems to have to looked into the factual background more than most members of Congress have over the last few weeks.
Screamers takes its improbable title from the observation, made by Samantha Power (author of A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide), that every genocide in recent history has had "Screamers," voices who raised "red flags" when the atrocities occurred. The term means anything from whistleblowers to prophets. The assumption is that people knew, and that the the killings in each genocide could have been stopped or limited.
It's troubling that there need to be Screamers to call our minds to mass killings that happened almost a century ago, but the story has been suppressed almost since it happened. In the 1930s, when MGM sought to make a movie adaptation of the bestselling novel about the Genocide, The Forty Days of Musa Dagh, by Franz Werfel, a Jew who left Austria after Hitler came to power in Germany, the Turkish government leaned on the studio and kept the movie from being produced. Several years later, when MGM exhumed the project that had seemed dead - and we're talking about a novel which reached an international audience comparable to the readership for Gone with the Wind - the Turks were there again to strong-arm the studio from following through. (You can read about the case in Peter Balakian's Black Dog of Fate or listen to an NPR report that I did on the controversy surrounding the 2002 film Ararat, by Atom Egoyan, who also considered adopting the Werfel novel. The rights are still held by MGM, and there's been talk of eventually making an epic with Sylvester Stallone in the lead.)
As we await that apocalypse, Screamers gives you a sampling of the visual record of the Genocide, which calls to mind other images of mass murder, some of them all to familiar. Armenian men stand in chains before Turks on horseback, who look like the Janjiweed hordes that the Sudanese government says are operating "independently" as they mutilate and murder civilians in Darfur. Other images show heads of executed Armenian men lined up by smiling Turks, presumably the men who killed them. Those pictures of killers mocking their victims and photographs of piles of dead bodies look a lot like images of Nazi soldiers in Poland and Russia.
There's a light moment in Screamers (and something of an homage to docu-guru Michael Moore) when band members dress up (sort of) and head to Washington a few years ago to urge members of Congress to allow the Genocide resolution to come to a full House vote. Then-Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert, who seems to be twice the size of Michael Moore here, is a hard man to hide, but he manages to elude the four young musicians until they cross his path by accident. Ever the politician, the bearish Hastert ducks friendly entreaties about the Genocide vote and about a letter sent six months earlier from System of a Down's singer Serj Tankian, asking Hastert to bring the measure to a vote. With true Washington sincerity, Hastert hurries away, promising to take a look at the letter that he ignored it for months. The vote never happened.
Other inconvenient truths emerge as Screamers surveys the US government's attitude toward more recent crimes of genocide. In 1988, Saddam Hussein was shown to have been using chemical weapons against Kurds in northern Iraq. This was, after all, part of the reason why we eventually went to war with Iraq. Yet back in 1988, the US government (in which Colin Powell served as National Security adviser) decided not to punish Iraq for using poison gas on thousands of its own people. Saddam was at the bloody end of a long war against Iran, our enemy at the time, and he was seen as serving US interests, even as he slaughtered Iraqi citizens. Once again, "mistakes were made."
Yet it's wrong just to point fingers at George W. Bush, and Screamers finds plenty of blame to go around. Bill Clinton made his own excuses when innocents were slaughtered in Bosnia and Rwanda and the US stood by.
Excuses were hard to find when the executive director of the Anti-Defamation League of B'Nai Brith, Abraham Foxman, fired the head of the ADL in Boston this summer for daring to state that there was an Armenian Genocide. When the story hit the Boston Globe, resulting in a week of front-page coverage, and bloggers on Armenian and Jewish sites responded with incredulity, a chastised Foxman finally conceded that the slaughter of Armenians was "tantamount to genocide," and, under pressure, rehired the regional ADL director, Andrew Tarzy. Foxman subsequently apologized to the Turkish Prime Minster, as he explained, so the Jewish minority in Turkey would not be harmed by his mealy-mouthed recognition of the Genocide.
Let's see if I have this right. A Jewish leader who has made a career fighting discrimination resists acknowledging the Armenian Genocide in order to ensure that Jews won't be persecuted by Turks who are angered by the historical truth. In order to avoid the risk of a genocidal backlash, we insist that a prior genocide never happened. And this is a man who exposes Holocaust deniers?
I spoke to Carla Garapedian about her film before she took off to show Screamers at the Rio de Janeiro Film Festival. The DVD will soon be released by SONY-BMG.
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