Why The Promise took decades to make
In 1934, almost two decades after the fall of the Ottoman Empire, MGM Studios cast a budding young actor named Clark Gable to star in a movie called The Forty Days of Musa Dagh. Based on a novel of the same name, the film would tell the story of Gabriel Bagradian, a wealthy academic who—upon returning from Paris to his Armenian village in what is now modern-day Turkey—is forced to help defend his village against the genocidal onslaught of the Ottoman army.
The film, however, never made it to production. After fielding complaints from the Turkish ambassador about the project—which, he said, would reopen the “Armenian Question,” about whether what happened in Armenia at the hands of the Turkish government could be termed “genocide”—the U.S. State Department pressured MGM to drop the film in an effort to protect its political relationship with Turkey. The studio put up a fight, but eventually caved and dropped the movie.
More than 80 years later, The Promise, the first-ever major motion picture film about the Armenian Genocide hits theatre screens nationwide on April 21—just three days before the 102nd anniversary of the Turkish government’s military campaign in which an estimated 1.5 million Armenians were killed. It stars Oscar Isaac as Michael, a young Armenian man who is studying medicine in Istanbul when he’s rounded up by Turkish authorities in the early stages of the violence. Michael falls in love with an Armenian woman—an artist named Ana (played by Charlotte Le Bon). She, however, is already in a relationship with Chris (Christian Bale), an American photojournalist who wrangles with the Turkish government while trying to document the atrocities.
[quote position="left" is_quote="true"]There has been a very well-organized systematic attempt to suppress the story, as the final phase of genocide.[/quote]
The Promise is the auspicious victory of a long, hard struggle to memorialize the Armenian Genocide in popular culture, largely because the Turkish government still refuses to acknowledge their actions as a “genocide,” for reasons that have both to do with national pride and monetary reparations. To this day, Turkish lawmakers cite an article in their penal code in order to censor journalists, professors, and activists who speak too brazenly about what transpired. And, in an effort to preserve relations with Turkey—a major geopolitical power in the Middle East—no U.S. president has uttered the word “genocide” in any official commemorations of the anniversary either—not even Barack Obama, who, while still a senator, made a promise that he would do so.
“There has been a very well-organized systematic attempt to suppress the story, a the final phase of genocide,” says The Promise producer Eric Esrailian. “You’re dealing with all the weight of that denial for 102 years now. So there’s a general lack of awareness in the population, particularly in the United States, about the Armenian Genocide because of that.”
All of which made The Promise not only a hard story to make, but also hard to sell. Esrailian was tasked with producing the film by the late Kirk Kerkorian, the famed Armenian-American businessman and film studio owner who passed away two years ago, just prior to the film beginning production. Just before the massacres, Kerkorian’s family fled the Ottoman Empire to Fresno, California, where he was born. He would later go on to buy, and then sell, MGM, the very same studio that had tried—and failed—to make a film about the horrors. “Kirk was very proud of his heritage. He had opportunities, when he was a studio owner, to make a film like this,” says Esrailian. “For various reasons, I think he just felt the time was right.” In 2012, Esrailian helped open the aptly named production company Survival Pictures, and The Promise would become their first project.
The film depicts, in gory detail, the roundups of Armenians, the concentration camps, and even the bloody executions. In one scene, dead bodies are grotesquely piled up on the riverside, discarded by the Turkish army without proper burial. Actress Shohreh Aghdashloo, who plays Michael’s mother, says it was difficult to stomach that particular scene on set. Growing up in Iran, she didn’t know much about what had happened, even though she had Armenian friends. She would later study the events as an international relations major in the United Kingdom. “We had two days of shooting the actual genocide by the river, with all the bodies,” says Aghdashloo. “Some of them were dummies, but when you look at them, you think … this really took place in the world. They really killed millions of these people. This really did happen. And then I lost it.”
Although most modern-day scholars recognize the genocide, Esrailian says he still encounters resistance to the film and its message. “Today a journalist was telling us that he was very moved by the film, but that, ‘There’s two sides to this story’—a very classic boilerplate revisionist and denialist narrative that has been propagated, and it's the official policy of the (Turkish) government,” he says. The film’s IMDb page was flooded with negative reviews after only a handful of screenings. “If the (sic) know the history this movie not a True Event… They try the (sic) accuse Turkey about this without any proof,” wrote one user who called the film “Armenian propaganda.”
Eric Esrailian on the set of The Promise.
Historical dramas are already difficult to sell to movie studios—they’re more expensive to make and they often need to be attached to a "brand" (a recognizable historical family, for example) to ensure a built-in audience. This one was made all the more difficult because American audiences are largely ignorant to the cause. That’s why Kerkorian insisted the historical storyline become the backdrop for a heart-wrenching romance—the love triangle between Ana, Michael, and Chris—that would span the length of the film. “Both Mr. Kerkorian and my producing partner Mike Medavoy felt strongly that a love story would open up the film to a wider audience. We couldn't build on a general awareness, like in Schindler’s List or some of the other more contemporary films,” says Esrailian. “Like Hotel Rwanda is the reason why a lot of people know about the Rwandan genocide. But it was happening in the news, not long before that film was made. The challenge with the Armenian Genocide is that you’re trying tell a (story) about 102 years ago.”
But, says Esrailian, perhaps audience members will be able to watch the film and recognize its relevance to today’s world. “I hope the film inspires people to look at the world today, and at populations that are in danger, like the Yazidis and people in conflict zones like Syria,” he says. “The film, sadly, could not be more timely.”