Voicing Their Outrage
Sunday, January 21, 2007
Anyone familiar with Serj Tankian's larynx knows the System of a Down singer can rock-and-roar with the best of them. He's a screamer.
Carla Garapedian is a screamer, too, but she doesn't front a nu-metal band. She's a former BBC World anchor and the director of "Screamers," a new documentary about System of a Down's efforts to promote genocide awareness. A "screamer" is someone who can "actually process what a genocide is without defense, without guile," Pulitzer Prize-winning author Samantha Power says at the beginning of the film. "And when you do that . . . there's no other alternative but to go up to people and to scream."
The film's release comes at a time when celebrities such as George Clooney, Don Cheadle and the activist-hydra known as Brangelina are preaching genocide awareness. But where Hollywood types aim to save the world by putting their pretty faces before the cameras, System of a Down confronts the issue with some of the most abrasive rock ever to hit the airwaves.
After a decade together, they've sold more than 16 million albums that favor throat-shredding vocals, schizophrenic guitar riffs and general rhythmic anarchy. Their activism is much more focused: Their concerts play host to grass-roots political organizations including Axis of Justice, a nonprofit that Tankian founded with former Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello.
Garapedian, in Washington to promote the film's opening Friday, concurs with the band's approach. "We've all got to stand up and scream and tell our politicians we've got to do something about this now."
She's referring to the estimated 450,000 dead in Darfur, Sudan, which her film depicts as the latest in a chain of atrocities dating back to the Armenian genocide almost 100 years ago. A history refresher: Between 1915 and 1917, Ottoman Turks systematically took the lives of 1.5 million Armenians. Turns out the grandparents of the four musicians in System of a Down were among the survivors of this tragedy. Turkey and the United States still do not recognize the events as genocide.
"It was important for my grandfather and to all those that survived the Armenian genocide to be remembered correctly," Tankian, 39, says of his band's activism in an e-mail from his vacation in New Zealand. "I didn't want their sacrifice to be further victimized by geo-political expediency."
Like the band members, Garapedian, 45, is an Armenian American raised in Los Angeles. She attended the London School of Economics and Political Science, pursued a career in journalism with stops at the BBC and NBC, and directed documentaries, including her 2002 film about women in Afghanistan, "Lifting the Veil."
And while her work has always gravitated toward social injustice, "Screamers" hits much closer to home. "I never thought, though, that I would make a film like this," she says. "It seemed to me like it was too personal. And as a journalist, one tries to be objective in the best sense of the word."
Garapedian hopes the band's abrasive touch will prick viewers' ears. "We've lost our connection to the debate about genocide, and that music brings out the emotion and allows you to access it," says the director, who speaks with the eloquence of a television anchor and the passion of a campus activist.
She first approached the band in 2004, and followed them on tour last summer. "They didn't want it to be a concert documentary film. They wanted the film I envisaged, which was a music-politics film where we use the energy and passion of the music to tell the story of genocide in the last century."
The result is seriocomic. System of a Down bassist Shavo Odadjian is playing tour bus pranks one minute and talking about the extermination of his bloodline the next.