'Cinema can educate people, make them aware': Armenians confront Hollywood with 'forgotten genocide'

AFP , Friday 22 Apr 2016

(Photo: still from Don't Don't Tell Me The Boy Was Mad)

As the world prepares to mark the Armenian genocide, filmmakers and musicians are attempting to raise awareness among an American public largely ignorant of one of modern history's darkest episodes.

It is 101 years on Sunday since Turkey's Ottoman government began arresting minority community leaders and setting in motion a campaign of systematic slaughter that had left 1.5 million Christian Armenians dead by the early 1920s.

Turned out of their homes and sent on death marches through the Mesopotamian desert, they were stripped naked and forced to walk until they died of thirst or collapsed and were shot dead.

At the same time, the ruling "Young Turks" created death squads to drown countless thousands in rivers, throw them off cliffs, crucify them and burn them alive, raping women and forcing them to join harems or serve as slaves.

The collective trauma has been transferred from the original victims to every subsequent generation of Armenians who have carried the unresolved suffering of their ancestors to their new homes across Europe and the United States.

On Sunday thousands of Armenians are expected to rally in Los Angeles -- home to the largest diaspora community in the world -- to demand that the Turkish government finally recognize the massacres as a genocide.

Yet there is frustration among the campaigners that ordinary Californians may not have even heard of the events they refer to as "Medz Yeghern" -- or "The Great Crime."

French-Armenian filmmaker Robert Guediguian's "Don't Don't Tell Me The Boy Was Mad," which gets its US premiere on Friday at COLCOA, the world's largest festival of French film, staged annually in LA, aims to change that.

"I don't think the rest of America is conscious of what happened. But it's not only America, it's also Europe and a lot of Western countries. They are ignorant of the story.

They are not aware," he told AFP.

"It's only in places where there is a big Armenian community where people have their voices heard about this subject... Cinema can absolutely educate people and make them aware of what is happening in the world."

"Don't Tell Me The Boy Was Mad" is set around the Armenian diaspora in 1970s and 80s Marseille, France and follows a wave of bombings and assassinations perpetrated by Armenian radicals against Turkish targets across Europe in response to the genocide.

Guediguian based his story on "The Bomb," an autobiographical novel by Jose Antonio Gurriaran, who was semi-paralyzed by an Armenian terrorist attack in Madrid but became a leading advocate for international recognition of what he called "the forgotten genocide."

Despite a history of support for laws formally recognizing the Armenian genocide, US President Barack Obama -- accused of kowtowing to Turkish sensitivities -- hasn't used the term to refer to the killings while in office.

"Barack Obama took the stand that most people in politics do. They come to the community and say 'we will absolutely recognize that your community or people have been in a genocide.' But then once they are elected and become president they don't," said Guediguian.

Many of the stories of abuse related by characters in the film are derived from the 62-year-old's own family history, passed down from his grandparents' generation.

"In the movie Anoush tells the story of her mother who had been raped several times before she made it to France. This story really happened, to my great aunt," Guediguian told AFP.

The director, who describes reaction to his movie as "very warm," is looking for a US distributor while in Los Angeles for the nine-day COLCOA.

Meanwhile a second film about the genocide, "Armenia, My Love," had its premiere in Pasadena, California last week, also opening at several Los Angeles locations including Glendale, home to around 80,000 of the 200,000-plus Armenians in Los Angeles.

Written and directed by Romanian American Diana Angelson, who also stars, the film tells the story of a family living in the occupied territory of the Armenian homeland, now eastern Turkey, in 1915.

Angelson says that while she needed to depict the horror of the massacres, it was the film's "strong messages of hope, love, faith, perseverance and strength" that she wanted to prevail.

"Hopefully it will travel the world and it will teach many people kindness," she added.

Friday also sees the release of Grammy Award-winning Los Angeles-based Armenian American musician Serj Tankian's original soundtrack to "1915," a thriller inspired by the events of the genocide which was released last year.

"Genocide has become the defining factor of the Armenian character worldwide," Tankian, whose heavy metal band System of a Down has sold over 40 million records worldwide, told students at the American University of Armenia in Yerevan after the film's release.

"That is a good thing and a bad thing. No culture, no people, want to be known as victims forever. We have a very old, amazing, gorgeous culture to share with the world."

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