Guest post written by Stefan Ihrig, an author and professor in history at the University of Haifa.
(L-R) Actors Oscar Isaac, Charlotte Le Bon and Christian Bale attend the ‘The Promise’ premiere during the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival on September 11, 2016 in Toronto, Canada. (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images)
Writing this is dangerous: Speaking out on the Armenian Genocide means taking a huge risk. At the very least, it will be an exhausting experience, getting harassed online, trolled, threatened, down-rated on Amazon and publicly vilified. Until now, this was true mainly for individuals—academics, artists and activists. Now, it seems to apply to Hollywood movies, too. The Armenian Genocide remains one of the most controversial topics of 20th-century history and, even after its centennial, there is little reason to believe that controversy will come to an end and that some sort of consensus will come into being any time soon. Quite the opposite. Just in the last weeks, Turkey left the European Union’s cultural program in protest over a piece honoring the victims of the genocide by the Dresden Symphonic Orchestra which was sponsored by the program. Most recently, Turkey prevented a concert—again the very same piece—at the German Consulate in Istanbul. And now, we are in the middle of the next anti-Armenian campaign. This time its object is a Hollywood movie, The Promise, an epic focusing on the Armenian Genocide, starring amongst others Christian Bale. Yet, this time it might actually backfire and go another way.
All this has a long tradition. Eighty years ago the Turkish government forced Hollywood to drop a movie project based on The Forty Days of Musa Dagh, then a best-selling novel on the Armenian Genocide by German-language author, Jew and outspoken Hitler opponent Franz Werfel. The Forty Days of Musa Dagh, originally written as a warning against Hitler through the prism of the Armenian Genocide, never saw the silver screen. Such a movie could have also raised awareness of the fate of the Jews in Nazi Germany at the time and later of the ongoing Holocaust. It could have shaped the “narrative” of the struggle against Hitler. Many have since been interested to finally turn the novel into a major production, most recently, for example, Mel Gibson and Sylvester Stallone, but Turkish opposition and obstruction seemed insurmountable.
Much seemed to have changed in the last years, especially in the centennial last year. A whole barrage of new publications, academic and non-academic, add to recent milestone publications by the great historians of the Armenian Genocide, such as Raymond Kevorkian, Taner Akcam and Ronald Grigor Suny. Academic conferences were held all over the world. It was not without reason that, at all the conferences on the Armenian Genocide in Israel last year—at the Open University, at the Hebrew University, or at the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute—participants and organizers made a point to talk about past efforts to put on a conference about the Armenian Genocide and how these had been thwarted by intervention of the Turkish government. Israel was a prized battleground in the conflict over acceptance and denial. Hollywood was and is another.
And while a lot has changed, a lot has stayed the same. One sure indicator is the lack of reviews these many new, well-written and well-researched books that appeared last year have received in the mainstream media outlets in the Western world. Furthermore, even a rudimentary survey of last year’s press coverage of the centennial of the Armenian Genocide shows that it were mainly authors of Armenian descent who spoke out for the Armenians and their story. Despite a series of resolutions by various European national parliament recognizing the Armenian Genocide, most of the public opinion-makers remain silent. This applies not only to journalists but also, for example, historians writing the big histories of the 20th century or World War I. It is thus not surprising that the press coverage of The Promise betrays the fact that the Armenian Genocide is still perceived as a “new” and relatively unknown topic to the public at large.
The Turkish government has constructed a very solid and relatively successful wall of enforced silence, blocking attempts not only to acknowledge, but even to discuss the topic through various forms of intimidation. Armenian Genocide denial must be counted as one of the most successful lobbying campaigns of the last 100 years when it comes to influencing our understanding of the past. Even if methods of intervention have changed, Turkish denialism is not a thing of the past. It is less often direct intervention by the government or the embassy, but rather a general atmosphere of intimidation, fear and enforced silence. One can only imagine what the threatened repercussions for media companies are—papers, networks and movie distributors—but we know that they exist and are very real. What is also real and tangible is the instant slandering, the bullying reflex of an amorphous body of Turkish nationalists and denialists who will use social media to attack people who speak out.
The Promise made it further than the past grand projects—mainly because it was independently financed. It is one of the most expensive independent movies ever. It has been actually made and seems to have made it. Well, almost: It still has to take a crucial hurdle. It still lacks distributors. And it is here that Turkish intimidation, threat of boycott and retaliation strikes. The movie was screened in September at the Toronto International Film Festival to rather small-sized audiences. Like any movie of note, it has its IMDB entry ready where you can find all the information on the movie and where people can rate the film from one star to ten. And here this movie, for all intents and purposes is not yet available to the public, has become something of an online sensation, or rather an online battlefield. Over the last weeks it has attracted over 91,000 votes, largely split between ten- and one-star votes. The majority, over 57,000, are one-star votes. This is an obvious campaign to downrate the movie which then triggered pro-Armenian voting. We are witnessing yet another anti-Armenian denialist campaign playing out abroad, far away from Turkey, in open, democratic societies. While it is not clear who is orchestrating the campaign, it has to be assumed that, as with other campaigns, connections go back to the Turkish government and/or nationalist groups.
This seems to be something new. Armenian Genocide denialism has gone through various phases of development in the last decades. It has now fully endorsed, it appears, post-modern lingo, and often one finds pieces talking simply about “stories” and “discourses” where in the past facts and archival documents reigned supreme. If this was the post-modern turn of Armenian Genocide denial, we are witnessing now the social media turn of the phenomenon. Denialism has entered the age of Twitter and online mob-rule. And, unfortunately, quite successfully so.
But what do over 91,000 votes on IMDB really tell us? Who votes when, how many actual people are behind it, and thus how representative is it? And for what exactly? Just as Trump’s presidential campaign can tell us a lot about the future of politics—say, for example, about the role of online bullying, social media message policy, and mobilizing hardcore supporters—so the IMDB hype surrounding the The Promise can tell us something about highly fragmented and mobilizable societies as well as, in many ways, radical groups mainly existing as such groups only in the universe of social media (for now). Until we understand this better and are more careful in falling into the traps of social media polls, likes and reviews, more than 91,000 votes make for fine advertisement and should help the movie secure good distribution so that we, and all those over 32,000 who voted for it, can actually see the movie. Few movies have ever experienced such a pre-release buzz on IMDB. That much is clear. Thank you, denialists.