Wednesday, August 2, 2017

DVD: The Promise

The Promise is a fictional account of the systematic extermination of the Armenian Christian population undertaken by the Ottoman Empire during World War I. This event has become known as the Armenian Genocide. The movie, directed by George Kelly was made partly to bring attention to this war crime which has never been acknowledged by many Western countries nor by Turkey.

The story begins on the eve of World War I in 1914, in the vast Ottoman Turk Empire. The story is narrated by Michael Boghosian whose family have been apothecaries in the village of Siroun, Southern Turkey for two hundred years. They have served both Christians and Muslims.

Micheal wanted to study medicine at the Imperial School of Medicine in Constantinople but could not afford the fees. He became engaged to Maral and it was decided that he would use the money from her dowry to go to medical school and then return to Siroun to marry her.

At the engagement party, Maral's father Harut gives Michael four hundred gold coins and tells him to make them proud. Michael's father, Vartan gives him a letter for his Uncle Mesrob who lives in Constantinople. Michael tells Maral that he will do the three years of medical studies in two years.

Michael travels to Constantinople where he meets Mesrob, his wife Lena and their two daughters, Yeva and Tamar. He also meets Ana Khesarian, daughter of a famous violinist who is tutor to the Boghosian children. At medical school, Michael meets a Turk, Emre Ogan who is not really interested in medicine but had to choose between it and the military. That Emre is not suited for the medical profession is shown when he faints during a dissection.

Ana and Chris Myers
After class one day Michael meets Ana while she is teaching Yeva and Tamar. He finds her delightful. At a club, Ana introduces Michael and Emre to her friend and lover, Christopher Myers, who immediately recognizes Emre as a playboy who frequents opium dens.Emre tells Michael and Ana that he and Chris know one another from Paris when his father was Deputy Consul and that Chris is a renowned reporter for Associated Press. Chris warns that war is coming to Turkey. At the end of the evening Emre begs them to come to his birthday party that Sunday at Ciragan Palace.

At the party, German warships fire a salute, scaring many who are in attendance. Chris confronts the Germans in attendance, resulting in Emre's father stating that Turkey has every right to have a strong navy to protect its borders. Chris counters that the Turks want to expand their borders and declare war on the infidels - the British, French and Russians. When the German's break out in singing the national anthem, Chris reminds Michael, that  the Armenians are the resident "infidels" and will be the first to be attacked.

Michael attempts to register for a medical school exemption.
On October 29, 1914, Turkey enters World War I on the side of Germany. Immediately all men are enlisted. At the medical school, Michael learns he will not be given a medical school exemption and he is assigned to the third military division while Emre, a Turk is given one. Emre saves Michael by bribing the official to produce the exemption. But this bribe has not gone unnoticed. At the same time Chris sets out to investigate what is happening in Konya. Before he leaves, Chris tells Ana he will get obtain an American visa for her but she refuses his help.

Meanwhile Emre is confronted by his father who questions him about the exemption given to Michael Boghosian. Dr. Nazim does not accept Emre's explanation that Michael is a friend, telling him the Armenians are a tumour on the nation that must be removed.  Michael returns to Mesrob's home where he is made an offer by his uncle to buy him out of his betrothal to Ana. Michael refuses stating he has made a promise that he intends to honour.

Chris's investigations reveal that Armenian villages are being burned to the ground and men are being hanged. He also discovers hundreds of people being marched into the desert and witnesses a woman being shot in front of a small child. Meanwhile in Constantinople, things begin deteriorating. After returning from a concert at the cathedral Ana and Michael barely escape from raging Turks who destroy Armenian shops and beat Armenian citizens in the streets. At this time, Mesrob is arrested, leaving Lena alone with their daughters.

During this night, Michael and Ana become intimately involved. The next day they visit Lena and learn that Mesrob has been taken to Sikedji Prison where he is being investigated for treason. Michael takes the remaining gold from his dowry and he and Emre attempt to bribe the Turks at the prison to release Mesrob. Instead, they take his gold and Michael is arrested while Emre is forced by his father to enlist in the military.

What Chris has feared has come to pass - the Armenians are being slaughtered by the Turks, who are determined to rid themselves of infidels. Determined to reveal to the world what is happening Chris contacts American Ambassador Morgenthau. Chris becomes determined to save the woman he loves and as many of the Armenians as possible. He will barely escape with his own life while most of those he has come to love will not be so fortunate.


Discussion

The Promise is a moving tribute to the 1.5 million Armenian Christians who were systematically murdered during World War I by the Turk government. Although there had been previous massacres, for example the Hamidian massacres in the late 1800's by Sultan Abdul Hamid II, international pressure had been brought to bear to stop these massacres. This was not the case in 1915. Instead, western governments dallied when confronted by what was happening, at the expense of millions of lives.

Wonderful performances are given by Oscar Isaac who plays Michael Boghosian, as well as Charlotte Le Bon and Christian Bale who portray Ana Khesarian and Chris Myers respectively. A strong cast of secondary characters,  Marta (Shohreh Aghdashloo), Emre Ogan ( Marwan Kenzari ) and Faruk Pasha (Tamer Hassan) round out the cast.

French helping Armenians onto French warship at Musa Dagh.
Breathtaking cinematography provides a film of stark contrasts. There is the incredible beauty of the Turkish countryside juxtaposed with the horrors of the genocide. Scenes of Armenian Christians being marched into the desert, of whole villages of Armenian Christians shot and bayoneted, of the rounding up and brutalization of Armenian men, of the work camps, and of rail cars packed with Armenian women and children are in sharp contrast to the picturesque villages and the peaceful forests. The happy lives of the Armenians as they live peacefully with their Muslim neighbours and the beautiful Christian service with Father Komitas is in contrast to the Muslim crowd rampaging through the Constantinople destroying businesses, beating and arresting Armenians. 

The movie's final scenes portray the attack on over four thousand Armenians at Musa Dagh and their rescue by the French. Chris, Michael, Yeva and Ana  are among those making their way to the shore along with other survivors. In fact, on September 12, 1915, the French Navy rescued more than four thousand trapped and unarmed Armenians from Musa Dagh mountain.

The obfuscation of Turkish officials when questioned is very effectively portrayed, particularly in the scene where Ambassador Morgenthau confronts Turkish officials. Not all Turks are portrayed badly; Emre Ogan loses his life for helping save the life of his friend Chris Myers and the Deputy Consul warns Pastor Merrill at the American mission that Faruk Pasha will spare no one and they should leave at once.

Unfortunately, the development of a love triangle involving Michael, Chris and Ana detracts from the main focus of the film. The Armenian Genocide is such a significant human story it doesn't require a plot device like a love triangle to engage viewers. Where the film succeeds is in portraying the humanity of the Armenians who love, marry and have children while the world around them goes to hell. Overall though, The Promise mostly succeeds in portraying a significant event of the 20th century and one in which the term "genocide" was first used to describe the systematic killing of a race of people. It is hoped that more films will be made to educate people on a genocide the much of the world still refuse to acknowledge.

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