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Cinema in Focus: ‘The Promise’

3 Stars — Sobering

On Aug. 22, 1939, Adolf Hitler declared his intention to destroy and exterminate the Polish peoples on the border of Germany in order to create the lands needed to fulfill his dream of a new world order. In his justification, he declared: “Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?”

Who did remember the Armenians? Who remembered the barbarous murder of thousands of Native Americans on the westward expansion of the United States?

In fact, in the history of the world, have there not been many genocides and atrocities committed in the name of religion, prejudice and jealous hatred?

Both world wars were among the most barbaric in history, with the genocide of 1.6 million Armenians in the last two years of World War I and 6 million Jews and others in World War II.

Hitler’s quote about the Armenians is featured and engraved on the wall when you enter the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., and is a vivid reminder that the depth of evil that runs rampant in some quarters of the world is easy to forget and, unfortunately, quick to rise and strike again.

The Promise portrays a love story about Mikael Boghosian (Oscar Isaac), a young Armenian who enters medical school in Constantinople (now Istanbul, Turkey) in 1915, just as the Turkish Ottoman Empire joins the war on the side of the Germans.

While there isn’t an in-depth look at what led the Turkish sultan to join forces with the German Kaiser, the history of what ultimately became the demise of the Ottoman Empire is replete with stories of young soldiers fueled with racial and religious hatred leading entire villages of Armenians on death marches.

These “young Turks” who were Muslim by background, were determined to rid their country of the Christian Armenian minority, which they scapegoated as the source of their troubles.

Boghosian leaves his betrothed wife behind in his rural village to seek his medical education, but along the way he finds himself entangled in a love triangle with Ana Khesarian (Charlotte Le Bon), the Armenian girlfriend of Chris Myers (Christian Bale), an American journalist who is determined to show the world the atrocities that are occurring among the Armenian people.

This film is not for the faint of heart, for, like most stories of genocide, the wanton destruction of innocent lives is very hard to watch. By the end of the story, in similar fashion to those who survived the Jewish Holocaust, there is almost no one left from any of their families who survived. Boghosian’s fiancé, his parents, his village, those who helped him along the way, and Khesarian are all lost in the vortex of hatred.

I know this story second hand, having grown up in a household that was half-Armenian. Some of my mother’s family had survived these atrocities, and as a child I heard the horrifying stories of crawling out from under piles of bodies, or my uncle at 12 years of age watching his parents being beheaded in front of him. This kind of post-traumatic impact left him with a depth of pain from which he never recovered.

The one fact that continues to haunt the generations of Armenians who have lived in the aftermath of this carnage is the fact that modern Turkey has never acknowledged that any of this ever took place. Turkey’s typical reply is that the war was filled with death and destruction from all sides.

This lack of closure to a painful time of history is still a source of division that needs to be healed. While Germany sought to heal the wounds of the Nazi Holocaust, or the government of South Africa established the Truth and Reconciliation Commission after apartheid, Turkey has steadfastly dug in its heels and forced a number of U.S. presidents as well as Congress to withdraw any condemnation of the Ottoman Empire for their evil.

The Promise is a sobering reminder that the world can not move on without holding evil in check, and offering healing and reconciliation as the price of peace.

F.Y.I.

Armenian genocide survivor Vartan Hartunian was a Christian minister in Turkey who, after moving to the United States, wrote his memoirs in Neither To Laugh Nor To Weep. In the book, he described the multiple massacres he survived before he was able to escape. His daughter, Lydia, married my cousin, Diran “George” Minassian, and lived in Santa Barbara at Mission and Anacapa streets from 1957 to 1981.

— Cinema in Focus is a social and spiritual movie commentary. Hal Conklin is a former mayor of Santa Barbara and Denny Wayman is the retired pastor of Free Methodist Church of Santa Barbara and lead superintendent of Free Methodist Church in Southern California. For more reviews, visit www.cinemainfocus.com, or follow them on Twitter: @CinemaInFocus. The opinions expressed are their own.

Armenian immigrant — and genocide survivor — Vartan Hartunian and his family are featured in a photo displayed at the Ellis Island National Museum of Immigration in New York. The author’s cousin married Hartunian’s daughter, Lydia, who is seated in front in the family photo. Click to view larger
Armenian immigrant — and genocide survivor — Vartan Hartunian and his family are featured in a photo displayed at the Ellis Island National Museum of Immigration in New York. The author’s cousin married Hartunian’s daughter, Lydia, who is seated in front in the family photo. (Conklin family photo)

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