For the Armenian people, the month of April is haunting. It reminds them of a bloodied past when an estimated 1.5 million of their ancestors were forcibly removed from their homes, subjected to horrific crimes and murdered in the 20th century's first genocide. Perpetuated by the Ottoman Empire, Greeks and Assyrians were also targets of such harrowing violence.
On April 6, nearly 102 years after the atrocities, a group of Armenians and non-Armenians alike were ushered into the Billy Wilder Theater to engage in discussions with the filmmakers of "The Promise."
Directed by Academy winner Terry George (Hotel Rwanda, 2004) and starring Christian Bale, Oscar Isaac and Charlotte Le Bon, the film revolves around the events of the 1915 Armenian Genocide, the tragedy portrayed through the lens of a love story involving an aspiring doctor named Michael (Isaac), American journalist Christopher (Bale) and a Parisian-Armenian woman named Ana (Le Bon).
George joined producer Eric Esrailian, also a gastroenterologist who served on the Medical Board of California between 2010 and 2011, and Stephen D. Smith, the UNESCO Chair on Genocide Education and executive director of the USC Shoah Foundation, for a discussion and Q&A moderated by journalist and filmmaker Carla Garapedian.
Garapedian started off by asking whether films can affect public opinion about complex issues like genocide, showing a hair-raising clip from "The Promise," in which Bale's character can be heard warning Ana that "it's not safe for Armenians right now."
"The first thing that I try to convey [to many people] is that if it wasn't for the vision and generosity of Kirk Kerkorian, the film could not be possible. Truly the vision really started with Kirk," Esrailian said.
According to "Variety," the late billionaire businessman and philanthropist funded the film, which cost a $100 million to make, through Survival Pictures, a production company he founded and for which Esrailian serves as lead producer.
Esrailian expressed gratitude toward George's role in materializing the film.
"Terry not only wrote a beautiful screenplay, but he brought it to life," he said. "The challenge of writing is incredibly difficult and both Robin Swicord and Terry put their heart and soul into the script."
While George said a strong personal story is central to any film, it is especially relevant in genocide pictures. With such momentous events, he looks "for a story of human decency" in which to ground the films, stories where "an ordinary person, man or women, transcends the horrible situation they're put it and battling against that proves our humanity and comes out the other end of it." He called Steven Spielberg's 1993 picture Schindler's List a "gold standard" example of this.
"It's always about human decency because, collectively, if you can channel that and have the audience empathize with that person, we can then go on a journey together to understand not just the great evil that befell them, but the strength of the human spirit," George said.
Before "The Promise," George said there were two serious attempts in Hollywood to make a film about the Armenian Genocide, based on Franz Werfel's book "The Forty Days of Musa Dagh."
"In both cases, the Turkish government intervened and had them squashed," he said.
The challenge with "The Promise," he continued, was to find a story that would enable the filmmakers to convey the events of the Armenian Genocide, and then to tell the "vast scope" of it within the story of the three main characters.
"A love drama, particularly a love triangle, is a way to engage an audience and take them through the situation," George said, pointing to films like "Doctor Zhivago," "Ryan's Daughter," "Casablanca" and "Reds."
Garapedian noted that genocide films have been unpopular and difficult to make and asked the filmmakers what obstacles they came across.
Esrailian said it is not as simple as having money and expecting that a quality film will come to fruition, noting that filmmakers like George and Spielberg have had their fair share of difficulties in producing genocide-genre movies.
"Part of is that you have this apathy in the entertainment business and part of it is you have this perception that this is a genre that people just don't flock to theaters for," he said. "You have to go through the gauntlet of finding the right talent, whether it's writing, directing, [or] casting."
In addition to these challenges, Esrailian said filmmakers then have to think about marketing strategies for the film to reach the masses.
When asked by Garapedian if visual elements help audiences better engage and empathize with the issue of genocide, Smith said it's also about "the power of story" and how audiences connect to the lives of the characters they see on screen, calling the "The Promise" both "courageous and important."
"The consequences of genocide continue for generation after generation, and so even though we're a hundred years after [the genocide], this is as personal as it was, it's as painful as it was and the movie itself just really demonstrates that," Smith said.
"The Promise" will release in theaters on April 21. Watch the trailer below:
Reach Staff Reporter Agnessa Kasumyan here.