Directed by Terry George (Hotel Rwanda), The Promise tells the story of Mikael (Oscar Isaac), a young Armenian medical student in Constantinople during the opening bars of World War One. As Europe girds itself for war, Mikael finds love from a Paris-educated Armenian woman, Ana (Charlotte Le Bon), and a romantic rival in dissolute American journalist, Chris (Christian Bale).
These personal conflicts, however, will soon pale before the horrors the trio are forced to endure: The Armenian genocide, which saw some 1.5 million ethnic Armenian citizens of the Ottoman Empire displaced and subsequently murdered by the government. It’s a politically fraught topic – indeed, Turkey has never acknowledged the label “genocide”, framing the deaths as an unavoidable result of the attempt to “relocate” the Armenian population. Sadly, the Turks are not the only ones to disavow the tragedy.
“There were people who refused what it is, genocide, and still people today who refuse to call it that.” says star Christian Bale. “We’ve yet to have any sitting US president call it a genocide, Obama did before but not during [his administration], the Pope did, recently, but it’s this great unknown genocide, and the lack of consequence may well have provoked other genocides that have happened since.”
In fact, the chief aim of The Promise is to bring the Armenian Genocide to wider attention – that it only grossed $9m in the US against a reported $90m budget is not viewed as a failure by the production team. The film was entirely financed by American-Armenian businessman Kirk Kerkorian through Survival Pictures, a company he created with another producer, Eric Esrailian. Kerkorian, who died in 2015, was aiming for education, not profit.
Director Terry George points out that the Genocide has rarely been the subject of a major motion picture. “Atom Egoyan made a very good movie, Ararat, and there were two serious attempts to make a film about the book 40 Days of Musa Dagh, one in the 1930s, and then again with Sylvester Stallone producing in the’ 70s. Both occasions the Turkish government intervened with the studio and the State Department, and the projects collapsed under the weight of that intervention. Because of our funding through Kirk Kerkorian, and Survival Pictures, and so forth we were immune from that level of interference.”
This has not stopped the film from attracting the ire of Turkish critics and audiences. “I had a very healthy exchange with a Turkish journalist in LA,” George relates. “A representative of the Hollywood Foreign Press, who presented the Turkish perspective, is that a genocide didn’t happen, that it was a war, and bad things happened, and lots of people died on both sides, I pointed out to him that, that’s exactly true, but in the case of the Armenians it was the wrong government who was killing them, so we talked that out. And then, you know, we had this thing where IMDB was hijacked.”
George is referring to the film’s widely split audience rating on IMDB. At the time of writing, The Promise has received 150293 votes for a star rating of 5.9 out of 10 – but 65444 votes (43.5%) are one star, while 81173 (54%) are 10 stars – a clear case of partisanism.
The bulk of the ratings came after the film’s brief run at the Toronto International Film Festival – far outweighing the number of people who could possibly have seen the film. “It can’t have been, 50,000 individuals decided after we had two screenings in Toronto, to give us 1/10,” George says. “Seems like a miraculously spontaneous thing to happen, so I definitely think that was a bot, or a series of bots, that were switched on to give it that vote. Then we had the contrary reaction, 25,000 votes from the Armenian community who then voted 10/10.”
Veteran producer Mike Medavoy, who also worked on the film, views this as a targeted campaign designed to lessen the impact of the film and muddy the waters. “I think you will all probably be getting letters from denialist groups. I was privy to seeing one yesterday, that was sent to a prominent journalist, basically saying that you should avoid this subject, it’s all based on lies, and it was a point, counterpoint, from an article that came out. It took them about six months to come out with this letter, and they tried to come up with specific points, but again, it’s to throw things at journalists, to try to intimidate journalists.”
Despite the pitched battle being fought on the net, Bale hopes that the film will ultimately have a positive, reconciliatory effect – as unlikely as that might seem in the wake of the furore. “The hope very much for this film, is to be able to help, not increase hostilities, and then hopefully people will have compassion for refugees and the crises that so many people are going through nowadays.”
Oscar Isaac, for his part, agrees. “Of course we’re just actors, but sometimes even within that, you can’t separate yourself from politics, it is a political act. Just telling a story can be a political act, so there was something that was very liberating about that, and being able to feel that it was a communal moment for everybody, that we could all kind of mourn together, through the act of imitation.”
The Promise is in Australian cinemas from June 15, 2017.