Lest we forget this genocide

Bijoy Bharathan | Updated on January 23, 2018

Framing pain: Alec Mouhibian and Garin Hovannisian

bl17_1915 film

In conversation with two auteurs of Armenian origin who have revisited the killing of 1.5 million Armenians 100 years ago

Around three decades before the Holocaust, a similar genocide was carried out by the Ottoman Empire in April 1915. The victims were 1.5 million Armenians, a minority in Ottoman Turkey. Two young filmmakers of Armenian origin, Alec Mouhibian and Garin Hovannisian, took it upon themselves to retell this story through their new film, a psychological thriller called 1915. Set against the meta-backdrop of a theatrical production that revisits the historical horror, the film was released last month in conjunction with the 100th anniversary observances of the genocide, an event denied by the Turkish administration to this day.

Garin is also the author of Family of Shadows, a non-fiction title that charts the journey of three generations of his family: his grandfather, a survivor of the Armenian genocide; his father, an Armenian politician, and Garin himself. Excerpts from an e-interview with Alec and Garin:

Alec, you have worked with Garin for 10 years. How did you team up for this film?

Alec Mouhibian: I met Garin in Paul Revere Middle School in LA when we were 13. We were the only two Armenians there. That meeting sealed our fates as the filmmakers of 1915. This is a story about the strange and surprising ways in which the past affects our lives, no matter who or where we are.

It is a story of many merging dualities, 1915 and 2015, reality and performance, nation and individual — and I suppose you can add to that list, Garin and me. In each of us, our heritage played a unique role, and we wear its birthmarks differently. Yet, we found ourselves facing the 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide together on the same stage.

How much of an influence was Garin’s first book Family of Shadows on 1915?

AM: Family of Shadows is a book in three acts, about three men, that covers the last 100 years. The first is a man who survives the genocide after witnessing the murder of everything he knows; he escapes to America and tries to forget. The second is a man who goes on a ceaseless quest to remember the 3,000 years of culture and civilisation that was destroyed and buried; he becomes the founding historian of Armenian studies. The third is a man who returns to the homeland to make these memories real again and bring Armenia back to life.

It is a story of murder, memory, and redemption. It is also a story of loss, survival, and return. In 1915, all of these missions become one in the form of the film's protagonist, a mysterious theatre director, and all 100 years are distilled into the magical performance he stages on a single night in 2015.

How hard was it for you to distil the realities of such tragic history with honesty?

Garin Hovannisian: Of course it is always a challenge to find artistic solutions to real tragedies. It was especially challenging in the case of the Armenian Genocide, which is very much alive as a historical and political issue.

Were there any films that you used as a point of reference during the making of 1915?

AM: There is no clear ancestor of 1915; it is a cinematic mutt. Every movie we love is a point of reference. Feel free to spot traces of Sullivan’s Travels (Preston Sturges) and His Girl Friday (Howard Hawks) along with the more sinister achievements of Alfred Hitchcock, Roman Polanski and David Lynch. People have mentioned everything from Intolerance (1916) to Lost Highway (1997) to Birdman (2014), which of course came out long after 1915 was complete.

Our film is a rare example of using an apparently fantastic atmosphere to tell a story with a tremendous historical burden and high political stakes. This makes some people angry. They forget that for many decades, the story of 1915 was kept alive solely in the nightmares of survivors, who in their waking lives tried their utmost to forget.

How did Serj Tankian from the rock band ‘System of a Down’ end up scoring the film’s music?

GH: We knew him, and admired him, from a distance. But we did not know that, in addition to being a beloved rock star, he was also an awesome composer, with endless fascinations for form and style. He created a musical world that could accommodate an entire century of feelings.

Usually, films are scored only after the editing is final. That was the case for much of our score.

But Serj was so connected to the chords of 1915, that he created some of the most central musical compositions in a fit of inspiration, at the same time as we were shooting the scenes, without any knowledge of how they looked! Perhaps, in the future movies, the score will precede the script.

Is there a political discourse that you intend to stoke with your film?

GH: Denial is, of course, an important theme of 1915. But it is not just about Turkey’s denial of the Armenian Genocide, which has made the crime ongoing. It is about our own attempt, as individuals, to escape the darkness of our own pasts.

Was it tough financing the film and will it be screened in Turkey?

AM: Any film that doesn’t have a talking car or a flying human bat has a tough time securing financing. Our film has neither.

But this foolish oversight on part of its creators was not the only obstacle to a lavish budget. The premise of 1915 is that by April of 2015 the entire world is talking about the Armenian Genocide, with over 1,00,000 marching on the streets of Los Angeles.

Thankfully, this turned out to be true. But when we described the scene over the last few years, even up to a few months ago, few people believed us.

One of the successes of Turkey’s campaign of denial has been to marginalise this story into an obscurely ethnic obsession, rather than a matter of the most vital and universal importance.

This finally seems to be changing. We very much intend to bring the film to Turkey — as well as India — as soon as possible.

We hope that those who screen it will not run the risk of imprisonment, as did the Turkish translators and publishers of Family of Shadows.

Was it fair on your part to call Russell Crowe’s new film The Water Diviner, a propaganda piece for genocide denial?

GH: We did not know of this film until it was produced. And of course it is fair to call out such a work, when it serves a sinister, century-long campaign to forget the first genocide of modern history.

Published on May 17, 2015

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