I recently had a chance to take part in a small round table interview with The Promise director and co-writer Terry George and producer Eric Esrailian. The film is set in the Armenian Genocide that took place in the Ottoman Empire during the First World War. This is a gleaning of some of the discussions we had.
Terry George has written or directed other films dealing with human rights issues (including In the Name of the Father, The Boxer, and Hotel Rwanda). He was asked what drew him to such stories.
Terry George: I guess it’s from my background, originally. You know, being from Belfast in Northern Ireland and having grown up in The Troubles, and just the civil rights movement and then the war, and managing to escape that and find a new life and new career in the United States. And then revisiting that time with In the Name of the Father and The Boxer, and discovering the power to communicate those events through feature film and through entertainment. I was devoted to that form of filmmaking. So I actively strive to find those stories, which are basically about the triumph of the human spirit over evil. The fact that you take ordinary men and women—flawed most of the time, as we all are—and when their plunged into these catastrophic and momentous events find the inner powers in the soul to survive and even beyond surviving to carry people along with them. That for me is the best form of storytelling and hopefully education as well as entertainment.
He was also asked if there was anything in particular about the Armenian Genocide that attracted him.
TG: Before Hotel Rwanda I had a vague notion that I’d heard about bad things happened to the Armenians. Then when I was researching the Rwandan Genocide I read Samantha Power’s book, The Problem from Hell and she devotes a good chunk of the story of that to the Armenian Genocide and the impact it had on both the American foreign policy at the time and on Raphael Lemkin the man who came up the the concept of genocide as a crime. So I knew better than most some of the background. Then when Eric and Mike Medavoy sent me a proposal for a script I was amazingly intrigue, and even more intrigued the knowledge that they were serious about this and had the funding and the backing and the bravery to make it. Then I was delighted that this was a gift because I knew this was a story that had to be told—and on the scope that they wanted to tell it. To answer your question if there was anything particular about it—yeah, the very fact of its suppression, its denial, and just again the possibility to explain that through film and hopefully educate and entertain.
Eric Esrailian, who besides being a producer with Survival Pictures is a physician on the faculty of the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, was asked about how this film might provide healing for people whose story is not known.
EE: For me, the training is dealing with one person at a time and healing them directly. I primarily have an administrative position now and my training is also in public health, so we think about populations. One of the things that was incredible for someone who was a novice like me is to learn from people like Terry and Mike who have lived in this industry for such a long time, and for us to kind of have complimentary ways of healing. Terry has done it for all of his films, really, as a storyteller. That was a unique situation for me. Being born in the United States, but a great grandchild of genocide survivors, I had always witnessed the attempts to try to raise awareness through novels and documentaries and political action. But there was only a limited impact ultimately. And we see, actually, the limited penetration of awareness because to this day we show the film to different screenings, and people come out and are shocked to read the cards at the end of the film depicting some of the facts f the Armenian Genocide. So it became that the film has the opportunity to reach and not only to enlighten and entertain, but potentially to heal. I’ll give you a perfect quote which crystalizes it for me. A woman came up to us in Toronto, walking on the street and she was in tears. And she said, “Can I talk to you for a minute?” And I said “Yes”. “I just wanted to thank you because my ancestors now have a voice and I feel that they can now rest in peace.”
TG: It’s important that people feel their story’s been told. Also that you invigorate others to recognize and mobilize against the genocide. The thing about Hotel Rwanda was we all believed we’ll get a limited run and that will be it. But somehow we caught the zeitgeist, and it really had an impact. And for the Darfur situation, that became a rallying cry. And George Bush, no matter what you think of him, was deeply moved by the film and he actually did good stuff in Sudan and around the whole area of aid in Africa. So film can have an impact, and for us on this, memorializing the people who died, but particularly mobilizing on the situation of refugees today.
The relevance of this film was scary. Somebody had a hand in this, but we were filming scenes of refugees fleeing across the desert while we were watching it on television. We were filming a siege in the mountains when the Yazidi were trapped in a mountain by ISIS. We were filming people fleeing in the Mediterranean Sea, drowning in the Mediterranean Sea—and in one particular case where a little boy was washed up on the shore. Everyone was so moved by that. But I took that vignette and recreated it on the shore of that river where Christian goes over to that child. So this is not history; this is today. We’re doing a contemporary story. The key element is the humanizing. We want to humanize refugees as opposed to demonizing them. There’s that sentence at the end of Michael’s monologue where he says “Chris rescued us from an Egyptian refugee camp and got the orphans and I visas in the United States.” Try it today Chris and see what happens.
So we’ve got a very contemporary story to tell against a historical backdrop—literally set in the same location. We were telling the story of Musa Dagh, which is fifty miles from the Syrian-Turkish border. One of the reasons I couldn’t go there to research. That’s how we feel about it. This is a movement to keep the promise, particularly around refugees and how they are viewed and how they are treated.
There was a question about the role of faith in the film.
TG: Historically if you look at the situation at the time, both the role of American missionaries the Orthodox Church, and the Lutheran Church. We have two key characters that are historical characters that I researched: Pastor Merrill, who runs the missionary station, and Father Andrathian, whose memoir we used as a basis for the siege of Mosa Dagh. Clearly the faith of the people is what kept them going at that time. And I think with Michael and Ana, clearly you have a person whose religious upbringing leads him to the guilt that he feels over the love for Ana and the dilemma, and doing the right thing of marrying Maral. So it’s all faith based, because ultimately the survival—you have to draw on a source, a strength, a power beyond yourself to endure that sort of suffering and that threat to survival. And as Ana says when Michael is crying for revenge—“God help me I want my revenge”. Ana says “Our revenge is to survive.” And that’s repeated at the end of the film. Then in contrast, along with that you have the nobility of Turks, hundreds of thousands who stood up against this repression, who actively hid Armenians and Greeks, and who informed people that things were going to happen and were activists against the genocide, epitomized by [the character] Emre, the playboy medical student, and then by the governor who’s based on the governor of Selucia. So all of those elements—it’s good versus evil.
EE: For the Armenian people, faith is a critical aspect of our culture and our existence. Armenia was the first country to adopt Christianity as a state religion in 301 A.D. We named our mom-and-pop production company Survival Pictures because faith is a key aspect of what has allowed Armenians to overcome these atrocities. And it’s not unique to just Armenian. We just happen to embrace the faith. If you go into any of these diasporan communities, the first thing that developed was the church. It’s that power of having the ability to call upon faith to get through dark times. To me it’s kind of that line in Philippians: I can do all things though him who strengthens me. I think about that every day.