Turks and Armenians have been in a bitter, long-running dispute over the deaths of more than 1 million Armenians during World War I in the Ottoman Empire. Armenians call it a genocide; the Turkish government says the killings were not systematic, occurring in the midst of war.
Now, the dispute has come to Hollywood. Two films this spring feature an intense love triangle that unfolds in this historic setting — but their political agendas are vastly different.
“The Promise,” opening nationwide April 21, is the first major Hollywood movie to portray what a consensus of historians calls the Armenian genocide, which involved forced-march deportations and mass killings over several years starting in 1915.
Oscar Isaac plays a young Armenian man who moves from his small village to Istanbul in 1914 to study medicine. There, as the predominantly Muslim Ottoman Empire enters the war on the side of Germany and turns on its own minority Christian Armenian population, he meets and falls in love with an Armenian woman raised in France (Charlotte Le Bon of “The Walk”), who is romantically involved with an outspoken American correspondent for the Associated Press (Christian Bale).
Talaat Pasha, considered the mastermind behind the killings, is one of the real-life figures in the film, which spares none of the Turkish atrocities against the Armenians, from the brutal labor camps for young men to the massacres of women, children and the elderly.
Though “The Ottoman Lieutenant” appears similar on the surface, it offers a very different interpretation of history. The film — which opened March 10 with a limited release — tells the fictional story of a headstrong American nurse (Icelandic actress Hera Hilmar) who travels to eastern Anatolia (now Turkey) to work at an American Mission Hospital. During the war, she is pulled between two men seeking her affections: an American doctor (Josh Hartnett) and a Muslim Ottoman lieutenant (Michiel Huisman of “Game of Thrones”).
The film takes an approach similar to the position of the Turkish government, which has long held that there was no state-organized policy of ethnic cleansing against Armenians. Rather, Turkey insists, during the fighting on the Ottoman Empire’s eastern front against the Russians, Turkish and Armenian civilians alike died in the course of wartime violence.
Taner Akcam of Clark University, one of the few historians from Turkey to recognize the events as a genocide, says that the country’s government refuses to acknowledge Turkish culpability partly because of the sensitive issue of reparations for survivors and their descendants. But the stance also stems from deeper roots: the country’s founding in 1923 on the ashes of the Ottoman Empire.
“If you acknowledge the Armenian genocide, then you have to acknowledge that an important number of Turkish founding fathers were either involved directly in genocide or became rich during the genocidal process” through the seizure of Armenian property, said Akcam.
Both films were in the works well before the April 24, 2015, centenary of the tragedy , which helped increase awareness of the subject.
“The Armenian genocide is one of the most well-documented humanitarian catastrophes of the 20th century,” said Eric Esrailian, lead producer for Survival Pictures, which produced “The Promise” — his first film, as he’s also a physician at UCLA’s David Geffen School of Medicine. “It was, in real time . . . frequently written about in U.S. newspapers. There was a huge humanitarian relief effort.”
It is largely due to Turkish pressure on the film industry that a movie like “The Promise” was not made sooner. In the 1930s, MGM acquired the film rights to “The Forty Days of Musa Dagh,” Franz Werfel’s best-selling novel inspired by the true story of several thousand Armenians who survived a mountaintop siege. But lobbying by Turkish Ambassador to the United States Mehmet Munir Ertegun (whose son Ahmet went on to found Atlantic Records) forced the studio to drop the project.
Recent years have seen a couple of small-scale indie features that deal with the tragedy, including Armenian Canadian director Atom Egoyan’s “Ararat” (2002) and Turkish German director Fatih Akin’s “The Cut” (2014).
“The Promise” was also developed outside the studio system, financed entirely by the late mogul Kirk Kerkorian, who owned MGM for many years and later founded Survival Pictures in 2012.
“The ‘promise’ means so much to us personally,” said Esrailian. “The promise was from Mr. Kerkorian to make the film. The promise was from us to complete the film. The promise is for us to never forget. And the promise is for us to also vow to do something so that it never happens again.”
With a budget of nearly $100 million, the film is one of the most expensive independent films ever made, according to Variety. And the entire endeavor is not-for-profit: Survival Pictures has committed to donating all proceeds to nonprofit organizations, including the Elton John AIDS Foundation and “other human rights and humanitarian groups.”
“The Ottoman Lieutenant” was also made with private financing, in this case from a group of Turkish producers working in film, TV and advertising. They teamed up with producer Stephen Joel Brown (“Seven”), as well as an American director, Joseph Ruben (“The Forgotten”), and screenwriter, Jeff Stockwell (“Bridge to Terabithia”), to make a feature that would have high production values.
In an interview, Brown maintained that their film was not seeking to promote a particular political agenda, describing it as “a classic love story, set at a time and place that we really haven’t seen in cinema.”
While foregrounding the clandestine romance between the American nurse and the Ottoman lieutenant, the movie does not completely shy away from showing the suffering of the Armenians, particularly in one crucial scene involving Turkish soldiers. “That [scene] seems kind of unequivocally saying, Turks force-marched Armenians and then slaughtered them along the way,” said Stockwell, the screenwriter. “Whatever you want to quibble about, there it is. Now, is there enough? Is it soft-pedaled?”
Nevertheless, focusing the action on the town of Van and showing one of the few Armenian insurgencies, which took place there in April and May 1915, has the effect of promoting the Turkish narrative, which points to the Van resistance as a justification for repression of the Armenians.
“The official Turkish argument is that deportation of Armenians was a response to Armenian uprisings,” said Akcam (who has not seen “The Ottoman Lieutenant”). “This is the reason the Van event is crucial in Ottoman Turkish historiography. This argument is not correct, because . . . we know that the decision for deportation was already taken before the Van uprising.”
(The studio did not make the Turkish producers available for interviews.)
A sizable contingent of Turks, as well as many in the Armenian diaspora, have been aware of “The Promise” for some time. Last October, outlets including the Independent reported that it had more than 85,000 ratings on IMDb, nearly all of them either 1 or 10 stars. Given that the film had had just three public screenings by that point, it seemed clear that users who had not even seen it were “rating” it based purely on their politics.
Similarly, before “The Ottoman Lieutenant” had even opened, it was quickly dismissed in Armenian American publications and in YouTube comments sections as Turkish propaganda.
While neither movie is likely to settle the debate over the events of World War I, these portrayals might prompt some Americans to look into the historical record — and draw their own conclusions.