“The Promise” (2016) directed by Terry George. (review/comments by Cynthia Webb

THE PROMISE poster
THE PROMISE (2016) directed by Terry George (Dialogue in English)
– review and comments by Cynthia Webb

Here is a film well worth seeing, which I viewed today, 15 June 2017.

Yes, it’s a political hot-potato between Turkey and the rest of the world.

In the first years of the First World War, Turkey entered the war on the side of the Germans and made enemies of the people who had formerly been long term friends of the Ottomans, and who had lived among them doing business, (the French and the British). The Ottoman Empire had a friendship and co-operation also, with the German (Prussian) empire of Kaiser Wilhelm at the time, including collaborating to build a railway from Istanbul to Baghdad and receiving military advice, after they failed dismally in the Balkan Wars 1912/13 and lost more territory. The choice led the failing Ottoman Empire into a tragic war which included an attack on their own Western shores, by the Allies. This attack included the ANZACS (Australia and New Zealand Army Corps) fighting with the British. So it led to a tragedy for two nations on the other side of the world as well as for Turkey who lost vast numbers of its young men. What madness is war!?!?
The Turks prevailed at Gallipoli, led by none other than Colonel Mustapha Kemal (Ataturk), a man of great vision and strength. He went on to become the first President of Modern Turkey. The old era was ending, not only in Turkey, but in all of Europe.

Please watch this film “The Promise” with an open mind…. Remembering that everything was in upheaval, and that the Christian Armenian people, who had lived amongst the Turks for the entire history of the Ottoman Empire (600 years) as friends and good citizens, found themselves called “a tumor in our society” in the early days of World War One, (to quote a line of the film’s dialogue).
To find out more about why, please do some research, because it’s too long a story to tell fully here.
What the film did not tell: From 1894 to 1920 the Armenians had been fighting against the Turks, as separatists. They wanted a land of their own, and during the early years of Turkey’s entry into World War One , they had identified them as severely weakened, so took the opportunity to ramp up their attacks on Islamic Turkish civilians in the East,attack and take the city of Van, bomb official buildings and to fight against the Ottomans along with the Russians (allied with Britain and France, against Kaiser Wilhelm’s Prussian Empire and allies).
As someone born and brought up in New Zealand, and who has lived 45 years in Australia, (in other words an “ANZAC”)I am also someone who has visited Turkey three times and I have great interest and admiration for this wonderful country and my friends there. I also have great admiration for Ataturk, so I tried to watch this film objectively.

And as for the complicated situation prevailing in Turkey in those years…. It is incredibly ‘byzantine’ (to use an appropriate modern expression), not only between the Ottomans and the Armenians, but with the presence of the Kurds in the East amongst the Armenians, and interference from many Western powers, Christian missionaries. Everyone had their own agenda, and there were millions of tragic deaths, on the sides of both the Turks and the Armenians.

At last an Armenian free nation was finally declared in 1991, over one hundred years after the beginning of their Revolt in an attempt to gain a nation of their own. The declaration came after the fall of the Soviet Union, because any surviving Armenians still in the region had gone over the Eastern Border of Turkey in the final days of World War One, and just as Lenin’s Bolshevik Revolution occurred (1917) so, they soon found themselves in the Soviet Union, with no options at all.

Back to “The Promise” – it’s a good film. The director, also co-screen-writer, has attempted to tell the truth, but the truth is far more complex than what is shown in his film. Another of Terry George’s films “Hotel Rwanda” is also about a genocide. This phenomenon obviously fascinates and appalls him. There is dialogue in the film, reminding us, of a later genocide. Talaat Pasha, Ottoman Minister of the Interior, is speaking to the American Ambassador, and reminds him that he (the American) is a Jew, and asks him why he is so interested in the fate of the Christian Armenians. The scenes between the American Ambassador Henry Morgenthau and Talaat Pasha actually happened, and are reported in Morgenthau’s book. The dialogue is the same as the Ambassador wrote it in his notes at the time.

“The Promise” is woven around a love story between an Armenian couple who meet in Istanbul, during the days just before the Ottoman Empire enters the First World War on what turned out to be the losing side, (strongly influenced by the Prussian Empire’s Kaiser Wilhelm). The lovers’ story is the centre around which the film’s portrayal of this tragic time revolves. Without this love story, and the friendship between the two men who love the same woman, the film would have been more or less, a documentary, albeit an almost one-sided one.
However, the film does try to tell us through one character only, that there were also Turks who cared about the Armenians, and who paid the ultimate price for their friendship. Of course, the Armenians had been living in the Ottoman Empire for its entire history since 1453 and were part of the fabric of Ottoman society, mainly loved and respected, by the Muslim Turks. They were the successful business-men,industrialists, and farmers, and some were even high ranking men in the Ottoman administration.
In attempting not to sensationalize the telling of the story, the director has made a film that is somewhat lacking in power and passion. We are kept at arm’s length emotionally, while the terrible tale unfolds. We watch, but from a distance. We never feel overcome with grief in the way that Steven Spielberg made us feel, when watching “Schindler’s List, for example.

Shot mainly in Sintra, and Lisbon, Portugal… and seemingly using photographic or CGI backdrops to show Istanbul, and views across the Bosphorus, it comes to us in a filtered golden light to give the feeling of Ottoman Turkey just over 100 years ago. It often looks very beautiful on-screen and the costumes of the era are fine.

The cast is excellent, and everyone is convincing. Oscar Isaac deserves special mention because he has the look to play many ethnicities and is a fine actor.
Christian Bale, plays an American journalist from Associated Press and witness to the events, who told the story in American newspapers. There actually was an American journalist there, named Damon Theron, so Bale is playing a sort of “composite character”.
Charlotte Le Bon plays the Armenian nanny who is initially in a relationship with the American journalist, and working in Istanbul with a family to whom she is related.

There was in fact a Seige of Musa Dagh, the coastal village from which the French ship saved about 4,000 Armenians, as shown in the film “The Promise”.

Orthodox Christianity of the Armenians and the Russian Orthodox Church and Greek Orthodox) owe their origins to the Eastern Roman Empire’s Christianity, when Emperor Constantine converted, and his subjects followed, around 313 AD. However, the Armenians became Christians before the Emperor, in AD301.

You’ll see some well-cast famous faces:
Oscar Isaac as Mikhael Boghosian, student doctor from a a village in Turkish-Armenia.
Christian Bale co-stars as Christopher Mayer, the American journalist from Associated Press.
Jean Reno as the French Admiral.
James Cromwell, as the American Ambassador Henry Morgenthau, in Istanbul.
Rade Sherbedgia (Serbian actor) as the Mayor of the little coastal town from which the survivors of Musa Dagh were evacuated by the French battleship.
Shohreh Aghdashloo (An imposing and gravelly voiced Iranian actress, who lives in California) as the mother of the hero. Mikhael Boghosian.

There is another excellent film about the Armenian Genocide, which the Turks still deny, called “The Lark Farm”, by the Taviani Brothers of Italy.
Atom Egoyan, respected Canadian-Armenian film-maker, has also made a film about this subject, entitled “Ararat”.
There are many photos in existence that attest to the reality of this tragic tale and many eye witness reports,and biographical novels and film-documentaries.
World War Two brought about tragedy in many lands, of unimaginable proportions.

Some interesting anecdotes: If you look on IMDb.com you will see some interesting facts.
This film had its world premiere at the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival. The director and lead actors (except Christian Bale) were in attendance. They told the audience that there were 1400 seats at that first screening, and yet already there were 4,000 negative reviews on IMDb.
One month later a viewer wrote that 4 or 5 months later there were 84,000 negative reviews for this film that hadn’t yet had a general distribution opening. The implication mentioned on IMDB is that these negative reviews from people who hadn’t even seen the film, came from Turkish people. Now I don’t know what the Turkish government teaches the people about this matter, but presumably they are teaching the facts NOT mentioned in this film, about the Armenian Revolution movement for a separate state, from 1894 until 1920. Also that the Armenians fought with the Ottoman’s enemies, the Russians, and they too committed massacres and slaughtered Muslim village people in vast numbers during those years quoted. Turkey says that they have proof, and can still supply a list of names of every person killed, 100 years after the event.
These things happen, and history always gets written by the victors… it’s an often-quoted and well-known fact. Thanks to Donald Trump’s spokeswoman for the useful expression, ‘Alternative facts’, which unfortunately have always existed, and always will. Each side will stress the facts that best portray themselves, and leave out or water down the ones that emphasise any guilt on their own part.
Probably in this Turkish-Armenian story, both sides have been doing so for a long time.
It’s time for all the facts to be revealed, and accepted, and everyone to admit their crimes, and express sorrow for them too, on both sides. One hundred years have passed.

Unfortunately this film doesn’t tell us anything about the Ottoman reasons, (perhaps there is just no time in a film already over 2 hours long), however these reasons were told to Ambassador Morgenthau, by Enver Pasha ( a very high authority) and this is what the Ambassador recorded:
1. They have enriched themselves at the expense of the Turks.
2. They are determined to domineer over us and to establish a separate state.
3. They have openly encouraged our enemies, assisted the Russians in the Caucasus, and our failure there is largely explained by their actions.
4. Three-quarters of them are already disposed of, and now there’s such hatred that we must finish the job or they’ll plan their revenge.
5. We are involved in a war for our survival in the Western part of Turkey, and we have no time to deal with the Armenians at the same time.
Please see this film if you have the opportunity, and try to watch with an open mind. It is a massive tragedy on both sides, and thinking about this century old but still painful time, warns us about today’s situation in the Middle East. Once again a huge population has had to leave it’s homeland, (Syria). Have we learned ANYTHING yet?
“The Promise” of the film is NOT the promise to marry the sweet village girl,– but is a promise that the Armenians, and their culture and their memories must and will survive.
Copyright – Cynthia Webb, 15 June 2017
Film Poster – courtesy of the film producers and IMDb

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About cynephilia

Lifetime student of and devourer of international Cinema. Artist, teacher, traveller - especially to my "other home", Java, Indonesia. Features writer for 14 years, for The Jakarta Post, national English language daily newspaper. I was born in New Zealand, but lived in Queensland, Australia since 1970. My profound link with Indonesia began in 1983, when visiting Bali (then an island of arts and of inspiration for an artist), and then again in 1994 when a visit to Yogyakarta, Java, began a process of that town and it's warm people becoming another home and extended family for me. Yogyakarta is the Artistic capital of Indonesia, and so it was the place for me. In 2000 I became a regular contributor about the arts for The Jakarta Post, and cinema, my lifetime passion, later began to become my focus for writing. The advent of The Asia Pacific Screen Awards, (APSA) in South East Queensland, launched in 2007 gave me opportunities to meet some the great film-makers of Asia, and see their amazing work. APSA is a kind of "Oscars" for the Asia-Pacific Region.
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