Today, April 24, 2015, has been designated the official centennial of the Ottoman genocide of Armenians. Beginning in 1915, at the height of the Great War, the Ottomans slaughtered about 1.5 million Armenian people. There’s a lot more nuance to any such story, and of course I encourage everyone to do their own research. However, for 100 years, the nation that became Turkey has denied that the killings constituted a genocide, claiming that war is a messy business and there were then many deaths in that part of the Levant. Thus, today must begin with simply recognizing that a genocide occurred. A moment of silence for 1.5 million victims, and for all the descendants they should have had who should have lived to smile and laugh and play with us.
Now that we’ve done that, we have to recognize that a moment of silence is not enough.
Since the fall of Kingdom of Cilicia in 1375, Armenians had existed as a minority in Anatolia, and perhaps our second task is to think of them the same way we might think of minorities in our own country. During the 19th century, many heroic Armenians agitated for recognition of their rights, and their efforts were not wasted: by the end of the century, they had representation in an Ottoman parliament. But this parliament (which also included a minority of Albanians, who represented my children’s ancestors) was more than two-thirds Ottoman, and became notorious for steamrolling over the rights of minorities, leading to further agitation and bloody struggles in 1912 and 1913. Considering this blog is called “populism,” it bears repeating that properly populist policies, which by definition favor the wishes of 51%+ of a given polity, begin by recognizing the rights of the minority. These rights are spelled out pretty well here. Had the Ottomans respected Armenians’ rights – and then put other areas of public policy, such as taxes and education and land distribution, to democratic votes – we would not have to recognize this terrible centennial today.
Considering the enormity of the task, it is tempting to play with theories of collective madness, mob mania, a fever of hatred erupted into a mass crime of passion, and to imagine the blind orgy of the mob, with each member killing one or two people. But…there was always the next victim, and the next. What sustained them, beyond the frenzy of the first attack, through the plain physical exhaustion and mess of it? The pygmy in Gikongoro said that humanity is part of nature and that we must go against nature to get along and have peace. But mass violence, too, must be organized; it does not occur aimlessly. Even mobs and riots have a design, and great and sustained destruction requires great ambition. It must be conceived as the means toward achieving a new order, and although the idea behind that new order may be criminal and objectively very stupid, it must also be compellingly simple and at the same time absolute. The ideology of genocide is all of those things, and in Rwanda it went by the bald name of Hutu Power.
That’s author Philip Gourevitch, in his multi-award-winning book “We wish to inform you that tomorrow we will be killed with our families,” writing about the Rwandan genocide which began 21 years ago this week. Very little of the book takes place on this abstract level that I’ve quoted; most of it consists of stories told by Rwandans. However, as part of his set-up, Gourevitch continues,
For those who set about systematically exterminating an entire people – even a fairly small and unresisting subpopulation of perhaps a million and a quarter men, women, and children, like the Tutsis in Rwanda – blood lust surely helps. But the engineers and perpetrators of a slaughter like [this] need not enjoy killing, and they may even find it unpleasant. What is required above all is that they want their victims dead. They have to want it so badly that they consider it a necessity….Like Leontius, the young Athenian in Plato, I presume that you are reading this because you desire a closer look, and that you, too, are properly disturbed by your curiosity. Perhaps, in examining this extremity with me, you hope for some understanding, some insight, some flicker of self-knowledge – a moral, or a lesson, or a clue about how to behave in this world: some such information. I don’t discount the possibility, but when it comes to genocide, you already know right from wrong. The best reason I have come up with for looking closely into Rwanda’s stories is that ignoring them makes me even more uncomfortable about existence and my place in it. The horror, as horror, interests me only insofar as a precise memory of the offense is necessary to understand its legacy.
Just so. But how do we develop such a “precise memory of the offense”? We listen to stories, certainly. We collect evidence, we file away records, we set up websites and museums. We make documentaries. These are necessary, but are they sufficient? Here I would like to advocate for something else: the Armenian genocide needs a melodramatic movie.
There’s precedent for this, perhaps most famously in the cases of Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List (1993) and Terry George’s Hotel Rwanda (2004). Many fine documentary films were made about the Holocaust before Spielberg approached the subject – especially Night and Fog (1955), The Sorrow and the Pity (1969) and Shoah (1985) – but the sad truth is that Spielberg’s film was probably seen by at least 50 times as many people as those films combined, and not only because of Spielberg’s name. Documentaries are necessary and sometimes outstanding, but for many ordinary people, they don’t stimulate on the level of a concise 2-hour narrative. Melodramatic films bring us into pathos; they almost always comfort minorities by favoring the underdog against an oppressive regime/status quo; they permit us the vicarious thrill of achieving lifelong goals. In the case of films about unspeakable true horrors, the best fictionalized films provide a window into the human choices behind sometimes-incomprehensible real events. They shine a light on humanity at its darkest and serve as ongoing referents for people/audiences who otherwise cannot imagine the unimaginable.
That is the legacy of Schindler’s List; in many ways, Hotel Rwanda, which was pitched to financiers as an African Schindler’s List, is also part of that legacy. The problem with creating such a film about the Armenian genocide is that heroes seem to be in short supply. If there was an Oskar Schindler or Paul Rusesabagina of Eastern Anatolia – someone who risked his life to shelter more than 1000 innocents who would otherwise have been exterminated – the Turkish version of history seems to have wiped such a person off the map. Per Linda Williams, you can’t really have a melodramatic film without a hero; we can’t be expected to spend two horror-filled hours in the dark without a rooting interest. The battle on Turkey’s Gallipoli peninsula, which began 100 years ago tomorrow, was memorably commemorated by Peter Weir’s Gallipoli (1981) partly because Weir gave us heroes to cheer for. (Russell Crowe seems to be trying, and failing, to do likewise.)
However, I have a suggestion: make a movie about Andranik Ozanian (pictured above), the heroic founder of the Republic of Armenia, and show the genocide in the film’s first 20 minutes or so. This would take a page from another famous Spielberg war film, Saving Private Ryan (1998), whose opening half-hour has come to stand as the fictionalized record of the D-Day invasion of Normandy. That version of that battle set up all the stakes in the film that followed; it was what screenwriters call a “catalyst” or “inciting incident” that cast a shadow over everything that followed. Similarly, a film titled “Andranik” (as Armenians call him, with just the one name) would establish the high stakes and then carry us through the subsequent battles by which an independent Armenia was founded in 1918 in Eastern Anatolia. It would play something like Otto Preminger’s Exodus (1960), about the establishment of Israel, though that film, starring Paul Newman and following contemporary conventions of Hollywood, could hardly open with scenes of the sorts of mass cruelty that Spielberg would later bring to vivid life. Scholars as varied as Edward Said and Roland Boer later credited Exodus with a massive upsurge in American Zionism and support for Israel, and it’s possible that an “Andranik” film could inspire similar support for Armenia and the Armenian diaspora. Perhaps the world’s most famous member of that diaspora, Kim Kardashian, could play Nevarte Kurkjian, who Andranik wed in Paris in 1922, and with whom, the same year, he re-settled in Fresno, California (where he died in 1927)?
100 years ago today, a process began which led to the murders of hundreds of thousands, and the forcible removal of millions more through the mountains between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea. A century hence, millions of refugees are being pushed through the same part of the world, as Angelina Jolie Pitt today told the United Nations. It would be nice to leave our thoughts about war and genocide and a possible movie with a comforting “never again.” As the world’s biggest movie star reminds us, it would also be disingenuous. Somehow, we have to not only do more, but believe more. But how can we?
I’ll give Gourevitch the last word.
I cannot count the times, since I first began visiting Rwanda three years ago, that I’ve been asked, “Is there any hope for that place?” In response, I like to quote the hotel manager Paul Rusesabagina [writing in 1998, Gourevitch did not know Rusesabagina would eventually be played by Don Cheadle in the movie]. When he told me that the genocide had left him “disappointed,” Paul added, “With my countrymen [you] never know what they will become tomorrow.”