Armenian genocide film at TIFF prompts online backlash, students react

Director Terry George, TIFF 2016

Director Terry George (right) introduced his film at the Winter Garden Theatre at TIFF, 2016. (Cas Boivin)

Ryerson’s Armenian community fought back online against the low ratings for Armenian genocide film The Promise. After only five screenings at TIFF, the movie received 50,000 “one-star” reviews on IMDb, but only had a maximum possible viewership of 7,700 people.

Both Terry George, the film’s director, and Lori Tashjian, president of Ryerson’s Armenian Students’ Association (ASA), speculate that Turkish users are behind the poor scores.

“Basically, all of the Turks are voting ‘one-out-of-ten,’” said George, the Irish filmmaker who also directed the Oscar-nominated Hotel Rwanda.

Canada, along with many other countries and a majority of US states, officially recognize that a genocide took place in Ottoman Turkey in 1915. It is estimated that around 1.5 million Armenians were killed through violence, forced deportation and intentional starvation. The Turkish government doesn’t consider what happened to be a genocide, but rather a civil war which saw massive casualties on both sides. Supporters of Turkey’s claim place the number of Armenians dead at 600,000, while also arguing that more Turkish civilians died than Armenians.

Tashjian called on members of the ASA to help raise the film’s rating on IMDb, and to vote for it to win TIFF’s Grolsch People’s Choice Award. The Promise ultimately lost to Damien Chazelle’s musical, La La Land

“The entire community is working towards this, to get the votes up,” said Tashjian. “There’s a lot of negative Turkish opposition that deny the genocide…that’s what we’re fighting against.”

For Tashjian, high ratings for The Promise means more awareness for the genocide.

“It’s very big to us, because we love it when it’s out there, and people hear our story,” said Tashjian. “As bad as the genocide was, it happened, we want people to know.”

Tashjian said, it was easy to pick out other Armenians in the theatre’s lobby after attending one of the film’s screenings.

“You could tell…it’s like they relive every moment,” she said, as she fiddled and tugged at a small pendant she wore as she recounted the film. Her pendant commemorates the resistance and evacuation of Armenians from Musa Dagh, an event which serves as the movie’s climax.

“My great-grandfather, he actually fought in the battle that happened on top of that mountain,” referring back to a scene in the film. “That’s where I really started to tear up,” she added.

But for Turkish students, the label of genocide is a highly politicized term.

For Sıla Özer, a third-year public health student at Ryerson and a member of the Turkish Society of Canada, the label doesn’t support her viewpoint of what she calls “the events of 1915.”  

“It was both sides that suffered,” she said.

Özer referred to historians like Justin McCarthy, who attribute the violence committed by Armenians against Turks a hundred years ago as part of a Russian-backed revolt, rather than attributing the violence to their resistance against ethnic cleansing.

Özer disagreed with Canada’s recognition of the genocide. She stressed that the United Nations has never supported that label.

“I think [calling it a genocide is] very disrespectful to my ancestors, who were killed [at] the hands of Armenians,” she said.

She said that Canada acknowledged the genocide because of the “hard work,” as she put it, of Armenian lobbyists in Canada.

She explained that as a Turkish person in Canada she has experienced and witnessed discrimination.

“Our children here in schools are harassed because of their race…and I personally have had many encounters like this myself… bullied because they’re Turkish,” she said. “Their parents [are] called murders.”

Özer has not yet seen The Promise. Instead, she watched a press conference with the film’s director, and was put off by what she perceived as a dismissive attitude George held towards Turks. Özer added she is wary of whether or not the film provides a truly unbiased account of the events.

“I have read up on who funded this movie,” she said, referring to the film’s late Armenian executive producer, Kirk Kerkorian.

“I don’t know if [George] ever read the opposing side,” she added. “I’d love to see the books he’s read.”

During the Q&A following Friday’s screening, George explained that he did his homework while writing this film. He said that he visited archives in Yerevan, Istanbul, and Berlin as a part of his research.

“There’s a mountain of scholarship on both sides,” he said.

George is hopeful that Turks will come out to see his film, so that a dialogue between both communities may continue.

“I think that in order for a nation of people to evolve…you have to recognize the bad things that happened, as well as the good,” he added.

“There was that discussion, with Hotel Rwanda…and I hope that that’s what we do again,” he said.

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