This is the first in a series of articles about some of the films scheduled for this year’s Socially Relevant Film Festival that I have been covering since its inception in 2014. This year I am proud to be on its Documentary award jury. I must admit, however, that my tendency would be to give a blue ribbon to everybody whose film is being shown in SR 2016 since making such films as an alternative to much of the junk receiving an Oscar tomorrow night is to be celebrated in and of itself.
As the founder of the SR film festivals, Nora Armani is blessed with an uncommon ability to curate some of the most important films being made today. As I have made clear in my survey of SR 2014 and SR 2015, these are films that are focused on the real problems of ordinary people and a welcome alternative to Cineplex escapism. It is not just that films about refugees or oppressed nationalities demand your attention as thinking and caring adults; it is that they are intensely dramatic as the struggles of refugees and the victims of national oppression tend to be.
These are issues obviously very close to Nora Armani’s heart given her Armenian ancestry. Indeed, she resolved to create such an annual film festival to honor two relatives that were killed by religious fanatics in Egypt. Given my strong identification with her artistic and social mission, I thought it would be appropriate to start off with two films about the Armenian genocide that were made a full century after it occurred. After watching them, it dawned on me that they are not just about a terrible crime committed against an innocent people. They also help to shed light on the phenomenon of ethnic cleansing that is tearing apart the social fabric of the Middle East and Anatolia today just as it did a century ago and for the same reason: to create a “pure” nation-state in whose name the elites can protect their own narrow class interests using the kind of demagogy that Hitler made infamous.
Co-directed by the Egyptians Mohamed Hanafy Nasr and Myriam Zaki, “Who Killed the Armenians?” may be the definitive answer to people like Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan who is seen several times in the film denying that a genocide took place. While well-known for his imperious manner, to hear him shrugging off the possibility that Turkey was responsible for the mass murder of women and children is enough to make your blood boil—especially in light of the pervasive visual evidence deployed by the directors through vintage photographs and newsreels.
If the film sufficed to make the historical record that a genocide took place, this would be reason enough to single it out for having exceptional value. But there is more to it than that. The film has an ability to put the mass murder into an historical context that will allow thoughtful people to fully understand how and why it took place. Speaking as someone who was anxious to find out why Hitler killed the Jews when I was a young member of the Trotskyist movement in 1967, I was fortunate to have someone recommend Abram Leon’s “The Jewish Question”. This book, written by a young Belgian-Jewish socialist who died in Auschwitz, explained how Jews became scapegoats in a German economy that was torn apart in the 1920s as a result of being on the losing side in WWI. As it turns out, while not quite an exact analogy, the Armenians suffered the same fate when the Ottomans were suffering a similar military disaster.
We learn from the film that Germany saw Turkey as the ideal ally in a war with the British and the French since their extensive colonial holdings in Muslim countries could serve Germany’s propaganda goals. The German war was hailed by venal Ottoman religious officials as a jihad to liberate Muslims. So as should be obvious, religious obscurantism on behalf of imperialist war was not a recent invention.
The image of the Ottomans as being relatively tolerant toward the peoples who came under their rule as argued in books such as Mark Mazower’s “Salonika: City of Ghosts” does not quite hold up when it comes to the Armenians. Since the film relies heavily on the testimony of many credible scholarly figures, you will be persuaded–as I was–that long before the genocide there were signs that the Armenians were a persecuted people. For instance, the Hamidian massacres took place in the 1890s with as many as 300,000 fatalities. Since historians tie them to military defeats at the hands of the Russians in the 1877-1878 war and growing financial decline, you can understand why they would reoccur again with even greater ferocity in 1915 when the loss of Ottoman territory and economic collapse was far more advanced.
The documentary also explores the role of the Young Turks in whose hands the blood of the genocide became a permanent stain. It turns out that there were two factions in their party, the so-called Committee of Union and Progress, the “federalizers” who were open to Armenian rights in a democratic republic and the “centralists” who obviously were victorious in the political struggle. Indeed, the Young Turks were ultimately led by the most extreme centralists who were ready to implement the final solution as one centralizing official put it. Once they were done, the only Armenian left in Turkey could only be seen in a museum.
Some years back I read a book by Arno Mayer titled “Why the Heavens did not Darken” that explained the Judeocide (a word he preferred to holocaust) in terms of Hitler’s debacle on the Eastern front. When it began to become obvious to him that the war was lost, he made the decision to exterminate the Jews.
In late 1914 and early 1915, the Ottomans suffered a major military defeat in the battle of Sarikamish that one historian interviewee judged to have cost the lives of 80,000 Turkish troops. Like the Nazis in their invasion of the USSR, the Turks were not prepared for wintery conditions in the mountains bordering Russia. Like Hitler, Enver Pasha—the head of the Young Turks in 1908 and the Ottoman army in WWI–needed a scapegoat to blame the disaster on. He found them in the Armenians. And also like Hitler, Enver Pasha and other top military officials did everything they could to cover their tracks. They destroyed all sorts of paper records even though the evidence of dead bodies covering the eastern Anatolian landscape spoke for themselves.
Like the humanitarian-minded Arabs who made this film, there were Muslims in 1915 who were ready to come to the aid of fellow human beings whatever their religion. The most outstanding of them was Faiz El-Ghusein, a Bedouin Ottoman official in Syria who favored independence. Under suspicion for supporting the Arab cause, he was exiled to Diarbekir, a predominantly Armenian city at the time. (Now mostly Kurdish, it must be stated that the Kurds took part in the genocide and benefited from seized Armenian property.) When El-Ghusein began to see the death squads advancing on the Armenians, he was inspired to write “Martyred Armenia” that can be read online. There you will read:
After my arrival at Aleppo, and two days’ stay there, we took the train to a place called Ser-Arab-Pounâri. I was accompanied by five Armenians, closely guarded, and despatched to Diarbekir. We walked on our feet thence to Serûj, where we stopped at a khân [rest-house] filled with Armenian women and children, with a few sick men. These women were in a deplorable state, as they had done the journey from Erzeroum on foot, taking a long while to arrive at Serûj. I talked with them in Turkish, and they told me that the gendarmes with them had brought them to places where there was no water, refusing to tell them where water was to be found until they had received money as the price.
In a real sense, the genocide against the Armenians that El-Ghusein was describing lives on in places like Aleppo and Diarbekir. While not going to the same lengths as Enver Pasha, Bashar al-Assad has used the weapons of famine against people in places like Aleppo and Yarmouk. His goal is a “purified” Syria that will exist along the more heavily populated Western coastline along the Mediterranean. In order to create such a state, it will be necessary to ethnically cleanse all Sunnis who are not ready to accept hunger, torture and murder as the cost of Syrian citizenship. Let them go to Europe where their meager savings can be expropriated by the Aryans of Denmark and other “pure” societies.
While locked in a bitter struggle with al-Assad, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is ready for an all-out bloody war against the Kurds in places like Diarbekir. While elected on a nominally pro-diversity program, the declining state of the Turkish economy prompted him to rally the people around the flag just as has been the case in so many barbarous wars of the 20th and 21st century.
When stopping to consider alternatives to a new Dark Ages, we start with people like Faiz El-Ghusein and the directors of this must-see documentary, as well as the historians they interviewed. Among them are good Turks like Uğur Ümit Üngör who teaches history and sociology in the Netherlands and is the author of “Confiscation and Destruction: The Young Turk Seizure of Armenian Property” and “The making of modern Turkey. Nation and State in Eastern Anatolia, 1913-1950”.
Profiled in the Massis Post, the newspaper of the the Social Democratic Hunchakian Party, which is the oldest Armenian political party in existence and that was founded by Marxist students in 1887, Üngör explains how he became a partisan of the Armenian struggle for historical truth and redemption:
“Turkey Has Acknowledged the Armenian Genocide” is Ugur Üngör article in The Armenian Weekly ( April 27, 2012…Yes, the Turkish state’s official policy towards the Armenian Genocide was and is indeed characterized by the “three M’s”: misrepresentation, mystification, and manipulation. But when one gauges what place the genocide occupies in the social memory of Turkish society, even after nearly a century, a different picture emerges. Even though most direct eyewitnesses to the crime have passed away, oral history interviews yield important insights. Elderly Turks and Kurds in eastern Turkey often hold vivid memories from family members or fellow villagers who witnessed or participated in the genocide. There is a clash between official state memory and popular social memory: The Turkish government is denying a genocide that its own population remembers.
To enlist in the ongoing battle against the “three M’s”, I strongly recommend seeing “Who Killed the Armenians?” at Bowtie Cinema, 6pm on Saturday the 19th of March. Full schedule information is here: http://www.ratedsrfilms.org/.
As the title indicates, “100 Years Later” is a documentary memorializing the genocide by John Lubbock, a filmmaker, journalist and former staff member of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights.
The 55-minute film follows Armenian scholar and activist Ara Sarafian as he leads a tour in eastern Anatolia for Armenians living in the USA and elsewhere. He wants them to bear witness to remnants of Armenian society, including a church that Kurds now use as a feed storage bin for farm animals. Sarafian wryly observes that it is probably a good thing that it served that purpose otherwise it might have been blown up long ago.
I could not help but think of the parallels with Palestinians who might be organized to go on a similar tour of land they lost in the 1948 Nabka, another exercise in ethnic cleansing that sought to “purify” a state.
Throughout the film, Sarafian strikes an optimistic pose even though Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s witless comments alluded to above make me question whether reconciliation with such a man is possible, especially in light of observations made by analysts who see him aspiring to be a new Sultan presiding over a neo-Ottoman empire.
When I used to go on tours of Nicaragua on buses just like those used in “100 Years Later”, we used to explain to workers and peasants we spoke to that it was not Americans who wanted to destroy their country, only the government. In a way, the same distinction might be made about the Turks who despite the dominance of ultra-nationalist politics going back a hundred years still manage to see things clearly, at least my wife’s relatives in Istanbul and Izmir who see Erdogan in the same manner we see Donald Trump.
I recommend “100 Years Later” that can be seen at 2pm on Saturday March 19th, once again at Bowtie Cinema. And also, once again, check http://www.ratedsrfilms.org/ for full Schedule information.