The Promise – a movie review

The Promise – a movie review

by

Howard Adelman

I am not breaking my summer silence, merely taking a recess. The cause is a movie I saw on television last night called The Promise. It is about the Armenian genocide. If I was a true film aficionado, I would know about the film, whether I had seen it or not. But I not only did not see it when it was released, but I had not heard of it. I initially thought I had an excuse because the release date that I read was 27 May 2017. However, the actual release date in Canada was 21 April 2017. Further, it was at TIFF in 2016. In any case, my lame excuse had been that I went north to my island for the rainy and cold month of June and did not return fully until July.

Before I begin the review, a few, and perhaps too many, words about the Armenian genocide. As is well known, successive and very different Turkish regimes have denied the existence of any intentional slaughter of the up to 1.5 million Armenians killed in that slaughter. The Armenians were killed, the Turks claim, because they allegedly started a civil war. Civilians were killed in the crossfire. They were casualties of war, not deliberately murdered. In any case, the Turks insist, the numbers that died is grossly exaggerated.

They are not. The genocide took place as depicted.

I became a secondary scholar of the Armenian genocide when I was asked by the Toronto School Board to sit with two other academics, experts on the Holocaust, to adjudicate whether the story of the genocide should be included on the curriculum for high school students in Toronto. Deliberately, not one of asked to serve on this voluntary judicial advisory committee because we had published on the Armenian genocide. The Board of Education wanted expertise without offering grounds for the formal Turkish government complaint to subsequently declare a prior bias.

This was, of course, not entirely possible. All three of us were familiar with Holocaust deniers. I certainly knew of Rwandan genocide deniers, or those who try to mitigate that tragedy, though the latter position was virtually impossible to sustain. Instead, in the case of Rwanda, deflection is used – a practice with which every reader is likely to be extremely familiar since the election of President Donald Trump. The claim is that President Kagame of Rwanda has been systematically slaughtering Hutu since the Tutsi-led rebels invaded Rwanda and initiated the civil war in 1990. The numbers killed on each side, these genocide distractors imply, are about equal. This past month, I was asked to review a research paper that edged in this way towards apologetics. However ruthless President Kagame may be as an elected dictator in Rwanda, any fair examination of his record, positive and negative, would not declare him to be a genocidaire.

However, the Turks, and their successive governments of very different stripes, have been united perhaps on only one topic for over one hundred years  – the persistent and insistent denial of the Armenian genocide.  A Turkish graduate student of mine – not an Armenian – wanted to write a thesis on the Armenian refugees in WWI. Somehow the Turkish government heard of it. A representative of the Turkish embassy in Ottawa paid me a visit when I was the founding director of the Centre for Refugee Studies at York University. He asked generally whther any student was writing about refugees, particularly from Turkey, during I disclosed nothing but informed my student. That student, fearing punishment on any return to Turkey, switched topics.

On the committee, I read much of the scholarly literature on the Armenian genocide as well as the Turkish propaganda denying its occurrence. What was distinctive from the Jewish and the Armenian genocides is that, in this case, there were two reputable scholars who denied that a systematic government-led effort to slaughter and forcefully relocate the Armenians had taken place. The vast majority of scholarly conclusions – as the committee claimed in its report to the Board of Education – supported the claims of genocide. Though the committee did not find that the evidence for the Armenian genocide taking place was incontrovertible or unassailable – there are very few historical events in which this is the case – the committee concluded that the overwhelming preponderance of evidence, and the logical flaws of the deniers, made it unquestionable that the Armenian genocide should be taught as a segment of actual history on a high school curriculum and without providing any necessity to make room for the literature of deniers. The evidence was as indisputable and indubitable as one can find in historiography. Yet two films appeared relatively recently that bordered on genocide denial – The Ottoman Lieutenant and Russell Crowe’s Water Diviner.

All this is to say that when I watched the film, I had no distraction or concern that the genocide had taken place. However, I was bothered somewhat by the implication that Turkey during the dying days of the Ottoman empire and even the beginnings of the Young Turk takeover in the aftermath of the disastrous Turko-Russian War largely waged in the Balkans in 1912, was simply a prosperous multicultural society. It certainly had that appearance. But just as there had been early warnings of a genocide in Rwanda with some trial efforts at mass slaughter, the warnings in Turkey were far clearer with the slaughter of 100,000 to 300,000 Armenians in the massacres of 1894-95 by the paramilitary Hamidye (the Interahamwe militias were used in Rwanda) and the 10,000–30,000 murdered by units of the armed forces in the Adana massacre of March-April 1909. However, as most scholars point out, a pogrom does not constitute a genocide. But pogroms can be precursors.

Thus, the film is correct in dating the formal start of the genocide to 24 April 1915 when several hundred Armenian professionals and intellectuals were rounded up and interned, with the vast majority eventually being killed. Second, the film depicts the second stage of the genocide when young Armenian (as well as Assyrian and Greek Christian) males from their teens to their forties were arrested, subjected to forced labour and murdered en masse in the process. The third phase of the slaughter portrays whole Armenian villages and towns put to the torch and Armenian older men, women and children set out on a forced march to Syria, where, on route, the vast majority perished in the desert which they attempted to cross with inadequate supplies of food and water. In the finale, the film portrays the brave and victorious Armenian 53-day self-defence by the Armenians from the villages of Kabusia (Kaboussieh), Yoghunoluk, Bitias, Vakef, Kheter Bey (Khodr Bey) and Haji Habibli  at the mountain, Musa Daği (ironically, Moses’ Mountain) recorded in Franz Werfel’s  novel, The Forty Days of Musa Dagh, until over 4,000 Armenians were rescued by the French navy.

The genocidal scenes are handled with mastery by the director, Terry George, and constitute a complement to the beauty and variety and richness of Constantinople before the war. Terry George entered this project with a stellar reputation from directing Hotel Rwanda and, before that, Some Mother’s Son (1991) about the 1981 IRA prisoner hunger strike, In the Name of the Father (1993) and The Boxer (1997), the latter two both starring Daniel Day Lewis. Unlike these depictions of the troubles in Northern Ireland, The Promise is directed on an epic scale with wonderful crowd scenes varying from the throngs in the markets of Istanbul to the forced labourers to the mass deportations in cattle cars and the forced march of the Armenian inhabitants of towns and villages. The leads portrayed by Oscar Isaac as Mikael Poghosian, an apothecary with a determination to become a doctor, Charlotte Le Bon as the vivacious and vibrant Ana, and Christian Bale as the famous American journalist, Chris Meyers.

So what is wrong with the film? Why is it not the Armenian equivalent to Schindler’s List? It is certainly not the cinematography which is gorgeous – perhaps all-too-gorgeous, even in the scenes about the flight. Unlike Atom Egoyan’s 2003 imperfect movie Ararat, also on the Armenian genocide, the flaw in The Promise is in the script co-written by Terry George and Robin Swicord. The weakness is not because they used a romantic triangle among the three to anchor the film in the personal, but because the triangle remains too central when the belated portrayal of the genocide begins. Further, it turns into a contrived and cloying series of segments through the latter half of the movie. Finally, and I could not figure why, there is almost no sexual chemistry between Ana and Mikael.

Some reviewers that I read this morning found this simply to be a distraction. For other reviewers, it spoiled the film. While I agree with the consensus on the sentimental and manipulated personal narrative at the core of the film, the power of the portrayal of the genocide, the brilliant directing and cinematography, and the wonderful acting, even though the character of Mikael Poghosian is too much of a goody-two-shoes for me, the events and their portrayal more than make up for this lapse so that I was mesmerized by the film and would have rated it much higher than the negative and barely positive reviews that I read.

However, do not read the reviews before you watch the movie. I did not, and very rarely do, for, in this case, review after review egregiously offer an account of the plot in great detail. A script which allowed reviewers to be distracted from the main and very important subject matter can be blamed on the screenwriters, but reviewers are as much to blame for allowing their narrative sensibilities to detract from the power of the movie.

It is a must see. And it does not cost nearly as much to watch on TV as in a movie theatre, though I desperately wish I had viewed the panoramic scenes on a large movie screen.

 

with the help of Alex Zisman

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Domestic Policy Issues in Turkey

Domestic Policy Issues in Turkey

by

Howard Adelman

As we approach the G20 Summit to be held on November 15-16 in southwest Turkey in Antalya, it is important to understand not only the outcome of the Turkish election, but the various foreign policy issues with which Obama and other leaders will have to wrestle. The war in Syria, the threat from IS, especially its control of one-third of Iraq, and other crises in the Middle East, are bound to be high on the agenda. Domestic policy in Turkey also cannot be ignored since police continue to arrest people – 18 IS suspects in Antalya (2 are Russian) – in the lead up to the G20. Moreover, there is an intimate connection between domestic and foreign policy since foreign threats, at the very least, are used to rally support for the President.

Economics

Though Turkey’s economic crisis was the main issue of the June election, Erdoğan almost singlehandedly shifted it entirely aside for the 1 November election. In June, 53% of voters put Turkey’s economic downturn as the number one priority. In September, only 12% insisted that economic problems were Turkey’s foremost issue. This was in spite of the fact that Turkey’s economic performance had not improved one iota since June. This seemed to belie Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu’s own statement twelve months ago, in anticipation of the Antalya summit and his role as chair, of the inseparability of economics and politics, and the depiction of the G20 as “the premier platform for economic and financial issues.”

The Great Recession in 2008-09 taught us that the solution to global challenges rests in global actions. The rise of the G20 is a manifestation of this spirit. As the major economies of the world, we adopted a more integrated, coordinated and effective approach to the challenges we have been facing. During these difficult times, the G20 has clearly demonstrated its capability as a global crisis resolution forum.

As the OECD Report on Turkey noted at the time, although, “GDP growth is projected to increase from 3% in 2015 to above 4% in 2017, as political uncertainties are assumed to fade, employment continues to rise, and the exchange rate depreciation and the gradual strengthening of global markets support export growth. The geopolitical crisis at the southern border and the associated influx of refugees pose challenges. Currency depreciation until October has strengthened price competitiveness, but has also weakened household confidence, created pressures on corporate balance sheets and added to already high inflation.”

Economic improvements in Turkey were premised on a further decline in the political troubles in the southeast. Those troubles increased as the war with the PKK was resumed. Turkey is now more involved in the military conflict in Syria than ever before. IS now poses an internal domestic threat to Turkey. Employment has not continued to rise. Trade imbalances persist. Inflation rates remain above targets. In this context, currency depreciation that led to weakened household and corporate confidence continued, and the very factors that usurped the focus on the economy of voters exacerbated the economic problems.

Rule of Law

The prosperity of Turkey cannot be separated from the status of the rule of law. As described in my last blog, the government seized the assets of Koza ĺpek Holdings and placed the assets in a trusteeship. While such seizures are sanctioned by law in cases of mental incompetence and in the case of minors, there is no legal sanction in Turkey – or in the rest of the developed world – for the arbitrary seizure of commercial assets without  legal due process. In modern Turkey, even when under a military dictatorship, this seizure of private property was unprecedented. When a company is implicated in criminal activity, Article 133 of the Turkish Criminal Procedures Code is applicable requiring a trial and a definitive judgment before an asset seizure can proceed. There was not even any presentation or even an allegation of intention to commit a crime. There was not even a hint that Koza ĺpek was engaged in narcotics, money laundering, human trafficking, prostitution, embezzlement, or espionage.

Once, the AKP was closely allied with the Gülenists who had been disproportionately represented among judges, prosecutors and the police. Erdoğan now considers them the enemy and he has been systematically purging the criminal justice system of Gülenists, especially ever since prosecutors began pursuing the AKP government for corruption. Ali Babacan, Turkey’s Deputy Prime Minister with an MBA from Northwestern earned with a Fulbright scholarship, put it very well just before the June elections: “Public trust in the justice system is in steady decline.”

In January of last year, the Turkish police stopped and searched three trucks in southern Turkey traveling towards the Syrian border. The trucks were accompanied by officers from Turkey’s military intelligence. They contained missiles, rockets, mortars, ammunition in crates with Russian Cyrillic markings. Bizarre! But perhaps not for the world of international espionage. What was truly bizarre was the subsequent purging of the police which had stopped the trucks. Those police and four prosecutors were even charged with espionage. The widespread belief was that the arms were intended for IS of all parties. Not so strange since the NYT just before the June election reported that tens of thousands of kilograms of ammonium nitrate fertilizer used for explosives were being transported from Turkey into IS-controlled sections of Syria.

Education

The purges in the criminal justice system and the attacks against the media documented yesterday were complemented by attacks against the universities, especially universities close to the Gülen community, such as ĺpek University in Ankara. University assets have been seized by amending regulations governing the Higher Education Board (YOK). On 2 November, a pro-government journalist listed, as next in line for seizure, Fatih, ĺpek, Zirve, Süleyman Sah, Mevlânâ, Turgut Özal and Istanbul Şehir universities as well as other media outlets – the Zaman daily, Samanyolu TV and Samanyolu Haber TV. YOK was evidently being empowered to close down and seize the assets of any private university if and when the university becomes “the focal point of acts against the state.”

Part of the reason for these seizures, and for the introduction of Arabic language training in Turkish schools from Grade 2 onward announced immediately after the AKP won the 1 November elections, has been the need to supply employment for the increasing numbers of graduates from Islamic universities, virtually the only graduates equipped to teach Arabic other than Syrian refugees. There was also an ideological issue of religion versus secularism in the public realm. Kemel Atatürk, the founder of modern secular Turkey had introduced the Latin alphabet 87 years earlier to the date of the 1 November election, and that change was made part of the Turkish constitution in Article 174.

Minorities and Rights

One of the positive outcomes for education, property as well as minority rights was the final success, after decades, of the Armenian community in Turkey getting back control and ownership of its children’s camp, Camp Armen. The Armenian Evangelical Church of Gedikpaşa was assigned the deed after an interminable court case. Whether this was simply a gesture for Westerners, and particularly Americans, to sell the image of the AKP as a party of tolerance and a protector of rights or not, it was a good first step. The real test will be whether all the other properties seized from Armenians will be returned or whether this restitution was merely a publicity stunt.

However, though non-Muslim minorities have realized this benefit, other Muslim groups have certainly not. The other major group under attack, besides the Gülenists, have been the Kurds. Not just members of the PKK. According to Ferhat Encű, a Kurdish MP for the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), after the AKP victory, members of the Turkish gendarmerie went on the warpath against Kurds. “Many people throughout Kurdistan have been arrested wholesale lately. Some of them participated in the election campaigns for our party.” He claimed that the police “started the violence and conflicts… they murdered civilians knowingly and intentionally.” Seyfettin Aydemir, the co-mayor of Silopi, accused the police of firing on ambulances that raced to help the wounded. Young men were gunned down by Turkish snipers. Kurdish towns, such as Cizre, have even been bombed from the air.

The HDP may have made a strategic error in the five months leading up to the 1 November elections by supporting the young Kurds who put up barricades against the police, but those activities in no way justified the systematic military attacks against Kurdish areas in south-eastern Turkey and the widespread abuse of human rights. For many, the unending curfews, arrests of politicians, attacks, torture and murder by Turkish security forces seemed to be an effort to intimidate voters who supported the HDP and signal the instability to follow if the AKP was not returned to power with a majority. After the military attack on Cizre, the 21 dead were all civilians; none were members of the PKK. This number does not include the large numbers who were arrested and tortured. Yet in Cizre, which in June had cast 97% of its votes for the HDP, the government decided for the 1 November elections, out of ostensibly safety concerns, that there would be no ballot boxes provided in the Nur, Cudi and Sur quarters of Cizre district in the province of Şırnak. 65% of Cizre’s Kurdish population lived in those quarters.

Domestic Terrorism

There are three sources of terror in Turkey: the PKK, IS and, the most dangerous and extensive, the state security apparatus. The biggest attack within Turkey, was the bombing of the largely Kurdish-led protest for peace in Ankara on 13 October. It was the largest terrorist attack in the history of the Turkish republic, Turkey’s 9/11. IS was blamed together with the PKK. But the PKK and IS are sworn enemies. Further, why would the PKK attack a mainly Kurdish rally? Why even would IS? And if the latter did, why did it not behave according to its own norms and broadcast its responsibility for the attack? Why, again, were security forces so absent from the demonstration? Why were ambulances impeded from aiding the wounded? Why had Turkey not classified IS as a terrorist organization until the courts ordered it to do so on 15 July?

What does seem clear, and as I tried to document yesterday, is that the huge victory of the Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) was in good part a result of the resumption of the war on the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and its alleged threat of terrorism. The AKP won both Kurdish votes and votes from the more right-wing nationalist MHP.

Corruption

In February of last year, one of the most respected international organizations dealing with corruption wrote an important report on Turkey. The Transparency International report indicated that the real catalyst for tackling widespread corruption in Turkey had been the effort of Turkey, beginning in 1999, to acquire full membership in the EU. The Report noted that efforts, both on human rights and in fighting corruption, had improved from the base line. Nevertheless, “the country faces high levels of corruption,” a situation that continues in spite of the adoption of an anti-corruption action plan in 2010 and a series of commitments in June 2012 to cover incrimination and presidential candidate funding. As the Report stated, “the country continues to be confronted with challenges of rampant corruption and existing anti-corruption measures are still in question.” Turkey lacks an overall strategy, coordination in the campaign and a system of transparency and accountability in the political system. Immunity regulations continue to protect high-ranking officials.

Moreover, corruption reaches the highest levels. At the end of 2013, the anti-corruption wolves were at the doors of the Presidential Palace. Erdoğan responded swiftly and decisively, not only by circling the wagons of his supporters, but by launching a counter-attack against his pursuers. 14 high-ranking officials were immediately purged. The judiciary, police forces and prosecutors offices were swept clean of critics and accusers of the government. Thus was the major motive in the general attack against the Gülenists.

One might think that Erdoğan had his hands full with IS now on domestic soil, with his domestic war against the PKK, with the stalled economy, with his efforts to promote Islam in the secular school system, with the increasing revelation of himself at the centre of a large-scale corruption operation, with his rivalry with the Gülenists and with his war against the critical media, that he would avoid any adventurism in foreign policy. In reality, all the domestic problems were interrelated and the distractions of foreign policy were important in diverting attention away from his domestic troubles as we shall see in the next blog.