Final notes on “The Promise”

~~In The Promise, the Armenian genocide has at last been made into a big, feature-length movie with huge ambitions: to join the company of Lawrence of Arabia, Doctor Zhivago and Titanic. Such a Hollywood epic, the argument goes, would raise awareness about “our story,” and would serve as an instrument against official Turkish denial. And that would make us all feel a little better, vindicated somehow.

The intent of the project is clear: to hand over the subject to a skilled director with experience in this type of material; attract talented actors; employ gorgeous, Hallmark photography and Nutella music; and put this arsenal in the service of proving that the genocide did in fact happen. The paradox should be underlined: the intent is to utilize the full range of the fiction-creating machinery of Hollywood to prove a historical fact, engender validation. Yet The Promise is devoid of history. The fairy tale rules here–at times sordid, but fairy tale still!

This unholy alliance cloaked in all the trappings of an epic, melodramatic movie, is full of pitfalls; The Promise and the mostly lackluster reviews it has received are testament to the contradictions, and finally the failure, of such an integrative attempt. Is the Hollywood epic, with an improbable, almost fairy-tale-like romance at its core, and an Orientalist sub-text the best form for such a subject?

For many in the community, such questions are irrelevant and elitist. That the movie was even made may be more than good enough. The turning of a national catastrophe into a public relations instrument aimed simultaneously at, first, the denialist mindset, and second, the non-Armenian movie-going, largely indifferent, public is good enough. But is it? It’s not.

The underside of this minimalist optimism is the more troubling aspect of the hoopla surrounding The Promise. What does such success and the community’s wholehearted enthusiasm in finally being able to watch a Hollywood “genocide film” as validation (validation of what? that the Aghéd was “real”?) say about the complex relation of Armenian viewers to what is being projected on the screen? What does it say about the need for seeing the images—Hollywood-spawned or archive-extracted–of cruelty and suffering over and over again in this film, yes, but also on T-shirts, CD covers, books, documentaries, and exhibition spaces? This, I think, is what we must ponder, once the ecstasy has subsided, and has passed—as it will, until the next “genocide movie” or exhibition or book or CD. The medium makes no difference; we’re yoked to this mindset, this trap which we have created for ourselves, the trap of proof, of validation.

Someone, an Armenian, said to me the other day, “I am dying to see The Promise.” I cringed. The moment passed, the speaker completely oblivious to the meanings embedded in those enthusiastic words.~~

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About Taline Voskeritchian

Writing teacher at Boston University; translator (from Arabic and Armenian); prose writer; occasional editor; incurable wanderer.
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