Opening today at Lincoln Plaza in New York is “The Cut”, a film by Turkish director Fatih Akin that uses the Armenian genocide as a backdrop for a family drama that is the director’s best work by far. It is notable for its unstinting depiction of Turkish bestiality and is particularly welcome at this point given the AKP’s eagerness to resort to ethnic cleansing once again on the most cruel and cynical basis, namely to corral votes from nationalistic minded Turks for the upcoming election.
In the city of Mardin in 1915 a blacksmith named Nazaret Manoogian (Tahar Rahim) lives with his wife and his twin daughters who are attending elementary school. At dinner, the Manoogians and their guests are anxious about reports of Armenians being rounded up but Nazaret assures them that they have nothing to worry about since they are no threats to the existing order.
A few days later Turkish soldiers pound on the door in the middle of the night demanding to be admitted in the name of the military. Seizing Nazaret, they claim that he and other Armenian men are being rounded up for the draft. This turns out to be a lie. Instead they have been dragooned into building roads in the desolate countryside of eastern Anatolia near the border with Syria. This period was integral to the formation of the modern state of Turkey that rested on the slavery and mass murder of Armenians. It was the tragic fate of the Armenians to be subject to both forms of oppression, combining forced labor of the kind that existed in the Deep South with Andrew Jackson’s forced march that cost the lives of countless Cherokees.
The Armenians spend their days breaking rocks under the desert sun just like convict labor in Jim Crow days. When weaker men fail to keep up with the backbreaking pace, Turkish overseers casually beat them to death. Relief from the hellish chain gang finally comes but at a terrible price. They are told that they will be spared if they become Muslims. While Akin probably wrote his script before the current madness began taking place in Iraq and Syria, you cannot help but be reminded of Daesh since those men who refuse conversion will find themselves taken out and executed, including Nazaret.
As the Turkish soldiers look on, a Turkish convict is ordered to cut the throats of the men one by one since they don’t want to waste a bullet on an Armenian. When he comes to Nazaret, he cuts his neck but not deeply enough to kill him. Later in the day, as Nazaret lies wounded among his dead comrades, the convict returns and gives him water and food. He explains that even though he is a thief, he is not a killer.
Although his life has been spared, the cut of the convict’s knife was deep enough to damage his vocal chords. From this point on in the film, Nazaret is rendered mute. Tahar Rahim delivers a stunning performance using his hands and facial muscles to convey a character whose suffering is oceanic. Rahim, an Algerian who grew up in France, starred most recently in “The Past”, a film by Iranian director Asghar Farhadi that I considered the best in 2013. I would rank Rahim as one of the top five actors in the world and is at his best in Akin’s film.
The two men head toward Syria and finally part ways when the convict must return to his village. Once in Syria, Nazaret learns that his wife died in a Turkish concentration camp but not before she had a chance to turn her daughters over to Bedouins who would pass them off as their own children to protect them from the Turks. The kindness of many Syrians is stressed in “The Cut”, including the solidarity shown toward Nazaret by an Arab soap merchant who identifies with the Armenians despite having a different faith. There is a tension throughout the film between solidarity and ethnic cleavage.
Resisting the temptation to demonize Turks, Akin depicts the expulsion of ordinary citizens from Syria in early 1920s as the Ottoman Empire was unraveling. As they parade in silence through the main streets of Aleppo, Arabs pelt the Turks with stones. The expression on Nazaret’s face is one of disgust as he sees how the victims can so easily become victimizers.
Seeking assistance from an Armenian social service agency, he learns that his daughters are no longer with the Bedouins but are now in a foster home somewhere in Syria. Thus begins a search to find them that takes him into the Armenian diaspora with desperate trips to Cuba and the northern plains of the United States where his poverty and loss of speech make his task all the more difficult. Those who have seen John Ford’s “The Searchers” will see a clear resemblance even though this was probably not Akin’s intention.
Although Akin takes pains to differentiate his work from ones that are more narrowly focused on the social and political origins of the first genocide of the 20th century, there is little doubt that the audience will sympathize for the community’s demand to be compensated by the Turkish state for their suffering.
As I have pointed out in previous articles, it is to the everlasting shame of the Zionist state that it sided with the Turks in dismissing Armenian claims. In an article dated April 19, 2015 I referred to the work of an Israeli historian:
But the State of Israel has consistently refrained from acknowledging the genocide of the Armenian People. Government representatives do not participate in the memorial assemblies held every year on April 24 by the Armenians to commemorate the Armenian genocide. The public debate in the State of Israel about the attitude toward the Armenian genocide has focused on four prominent media events: in 1978 the screening of a film about the Armenian Quarter in Jerusalem was canceled, In 1982, the Israeli Government intervened in plans for an inter-national conference on the subject of the Holocaust and genocide. In 1989, the Israeli Government was apparently involved in preventing the commemoration of the Armenian genocide by the American Congress in dedicating a memorial day in the American calendar. In 1990, the screening of an American television documentary film. “Journey to Armenia,” was canceled. In later years, a controversy also developed over teaching about the Armenian genocide, in general, in Israeli schools.
“The Cut” is the final installment in a trilogy that began in 2004 with “Head-On” and continued with “The Edge of Heaven” in 2007. He refers to the three films as “Love, Death and the Devil”. “Head-On” is a tale about a middle-aged Turkish man living “down and out” in Germany who hooks up with a much younger Turkish woman on the basis of a phony marriage that would allow her to leave her repressively conservative family life. Theirs is a grim sadomasochistic relation that will remind you of Sid Cox’s “Sid and Nancy”, about the Sex Pistol bassist and the girlfriend he killed. Although I regarded the film as pointless despite Akin’s profession that it was a statement about Turks being caught between German and Turkish identity, 90 percent of critics on Rotten Tomatoes thought it was “fresh”.
I reviewed “The Edge of Heaven” when it came out and dismissed it as a derivative attempt to cash in on a trend set by films such as “Babel” and “Crash” that I referred to as having a combination of far-fetched coincidence and liberal pieties that seem to be irresistible to film festival award panels.
None of this prepared me for the power of “The Cut” that left me just this close to sobbing in the final minute.
“The Cut” is a remarkable film on many levels. Technically, it is a demonstration of the lasting power of 35 mm film with Akin insisting on the use of Cinemascope. In the scenes shot in eastern Anatolia, mountains and the desert have an immediacy that would not be achieved using a digital camera.
It is also a work that gives you a feeling of being transported into a remote time and place as if you have traveled in a time machine. In the press notes, Akin reveals a dedication to “getting it right” that is virtually heroic:
I think I’ve read about 100 books on the topic, even the diary of an Armenian who emigrated to Cuba. Documents about orphanages, stories about the brothels in Aleppo. I also travelled to Armenia for the first time and visited the genocide memorial in Yerevan, where I met the memorial’s director, Hayk Demoyan. He told me that a lot of Armenians had emigrated to Cuba to reach North America. There are lots of Armenians who don’t even know this! So I incorporated that into the film.
This is a film of uncompromising integrity with a commitment to both a victimized people and to the higher calling of filmmaking. Look for it in your better theaters across the USA and elsewhere since it is of paramount importance particularly given the dynamics of a looming catastrophe in Turkey once again.