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Battle Over 2 Films Reflects Turkey’s Quest to Control a Bitter History

If history was any guide, the director Terry George figured there’d be weirdness around his new film, “The Promise,” about the Armenian genocide. Sure enough, he was right.

One of the actors, Daniel Giménez Cacho, said he was contacted before filming by a Turkish ambassador. In line with Turkey’s official stance, the diplomat insisted that the genocide, in which nearly 1.5 million Armenians were killed, had never occurred. After the movie’s premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival in September, it racked up 55,000 lowly one-star votes on the Internet Movie Database, which is quite something, considering only a few thousand people had actually seen it at the three public screenings.

And then, six weeks before “The Promise” hit theaters this weekend came another film that shared uncanny parallels. Like “The Promise,” “The Ottoman Lieutenant” hinges on a love triangle set in Turkey during the early days of World War I. Unlike “The Promise,” “The Ottoman Lieutenant,” which stars Michiel Huisman and Josh Hartnett, was backed by Turkish investors and has been pilloried by critics for whitewashing historical events.

The battle over these two new films represents just the latest front in Turkey’s quest to control the historical narrative. In 1915, Ottoman Turks, fearful that the restive Christian Armenian population would side against them in the war, began massacring Armenians and force-marching them to their deaths. The United Nations, the Roman Catholic Church, the European Parliament, historians and scholars have roundly recognized the atrocities as a genocide, the 20th century’s first.

But Turkey has insisted that many people, both Turkish and Armenian, carried out — and bore the brunt of — wartime horrors, and that no concerted extermination effort existed. Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, acknowledged in 2014 that Armenians had “lost their lives” and sent condolences to their descendants. But he implied that they were victims of a war in which all Ottoman citizens had suffered — rather than the victims of a genocide.

“The Ottoman Lieutenant,” which tells of a dashing Turkish officer who helps save imperiled Armenians — while carrying on with an American nurse — reinforces that debunked Turkish narrative, detractors say. The American Hellenic Council, calling for a boycott, said the film was plainly aimed at undercutting “The Promise,” and falsely painted the genocide as two-sided.

“It’s a sort of mirror image of our film, but with a totally denialist perspective,” said Mr. George, adding that he suspected that the Erdogan government had a hand in the rival film.

Yet as it turns out, there was bitter division among key players on “The Ottoman Lieutenant,” both during production and after. According to several people familiar with the project, Turkish producers oversaw the final cut, without the director’s knowledge.

The people familiar with the project said that tensions emerged on the “Ottoman” set after producers pushed to minimize depictions of Turkish violence against Armenians. Several people who worked on the project felt that the final version butchered the film artistically, and smacked of denialism: Dialogue that explicitly referred to systematic mass killing had been stripped out. The director, Joseph Ruben, who refused to comment for this article, ended up doing no publicity for the film.

“As we were making the film, he always knew they could control the editing room, so this was a tightrope that he had to walk,” said Michael Steele, a first assistant director and producer on the film, referring to the Turkish producers. “Joe was so enraged by their version of events he attempted to take his name off the film, but he realized contractually he was obliged to remain silent.”

The producers, distributor and lead actors in “The Ottoman Lieutenant,” which according to has taken in just $241,000 since its release in March, did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

The struggles over the two films are the latest in a series of attempts by Turkish interests to absolve their country of responsibility for the genocide, efforts that go back decades and have extended to Hollywood.

In the 1930s, MGM scuttled a plan to make a movie about the killings after Turkey exerted intense pressure on the State Department and the studio itself. When the Canadian filmmaker Atom Egoyan, who is of Armenian descent, was making “Ararat,” his 2002 film about the genocide, he was deluged with threats and told that Armenians in Turkey might be harmed as a result. An ultranationalist group later threatened Turkish theaters planning to show the film, resulting in canceled screenings.

“The Promise,” which stars Oscar Isaac as an Armenian medical student and Christian Bale as an American journalist, was unfettered by studio pressures. The film’s financier was Kirk Kerkorian, the colorful Hollywood mogul and casino magnate, and the son of poor Armenian immigrants, who before his death in 2015 at 98, pledged $100 million toward the film, making it the biggest budget picture about the genocide yet.

“He felt if we don’t shine a light, we’re doomed,” said Eric Esrailian, a lead producer with Survival Pictures, Mr. Kerkorian’s production company.

Still, precautions were taken. Mr. George, whose credits include “Hotel Rwanda” (2004), said he ensured that “The Promise” was made under the radar, with no publicity. Production took place in Portugal, Malta and Spain, and there was tight security on the set.

Joe Berlinger, who embedded with the “Promise” production to shoot a documentary about the genocide, said everyone on the set was concerned about safety. “A lot of that is overblown — I think we’ve gone from historical assassinations to digital assassinations,” he said. “But we all had this nebulous fear.”

Mr. Berlinger said he repeatedly reached out to Turkish officials for his documentary, “Intent to Destroy,” and was eventually invited to Ankara for meetings on the condition that he not bring recording devices or his crew. The Turks also refused to say with whom he’d be speaking. He demurred. (The film is to play the Tribeca Film Festival next week.)

“I felt like it would be a useless trip and one that was potentially dangerous, frankly,” Mr. Berlinger said. It was in “Intent to Destroy” that the actor Mr. Giménez Cacho revealed that a Turkish ambassador had bombarded him with denialist propaganda, which Mr. Berlinger believes is part of a Turkish campaign to discourage people from tackling projects related to the genocide.

Whether “The Promise” does well or not at the box office this weekend, it continues to garner attention. In the week leading up to its release, it racked up thousands more votes on It’s at 126,000 votes and counting, largely split between one-star and 10-star ratings. And last week, Kim Kardashian West, arguably the world’s most famous Armenian-American, tweeted her support of the film, having visited Armenia in 2015 to highlight the genocide.

There are no plans yet to release “The Promise” in Turkey. (“The Ottoman Lieutenant” will open there May 19.) Either way, Taner Akcam, a leading historian on the genocide and a professor at Clark University, said that officials there might characterize it as Armenian propaganda made with Armenian money, if they say anything at all. “Silence, this is their usual strategy,” he said.

“The Promise” opens this weekend by design. Monday is the 102nd anniversary of the first stage of the genocide, when hundreds of Armenian intellectuals were arrested in Istanbul, a date Armenians worldwide commemorate each year.

“The genocide is burned into the soul of the Armenian diaspora,” Mr. George said. “And until they get some kind of recognition, it’s not going to go away.”


(c) 2017 The New York Times


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