There’s no question among reputable scholars and historians that the slaughter of 6 million Jews during World War II constitutes genocide. So why, after a full century, is it still considered controversial to declare the murder of approximately 1.5 million Armenians a genocide? That’s the driving question of award-winning filmmaker Joe Berlinger’s scathing new documentary, “Intent to Destroy,” which opens in Los Angeles on Nov. 10 and eviscerates Turkey’s campaign of denial.
The film’s title comes from the international legal definition of genocide, in which acts of violence are “committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.” Berlinger explores why, despite volumes of evidence of the Ottoman government’s systematic extermination of Armenians from 1915-23, the present-day Turkish government still is determined to suppress the issue. Several countries, including the United States and Israel, refuse to fully recognize the genocide in order to maintain a strategic military and economic alliance with Turkey.
“Intent to Destroy,” which won the best documentary film award at 2017 DOC LA — The Los Angeles Documentary Film Festival, is a documentary hybrid. The movie includes elements of a traditional documentary, including archival interviews with survivors and black-and-white photographs depicting scenes of carnage. There are also interviews with historians and activists who describe the events of the genocide and the century-long efforts to repress those facts.
But what makes “Intent to Destroy” different from past documentaries on the subject is the “structural springboard,” as Berlinger calls it, of a behind-the-scenes look at the making of a 2016 feature film about the Armenian genocide, “The Promise,” starring Christian Bale and Oscar Isaac.
Berlinger is Jewish and has “always been kind of obsessed with the Holocaust,” and that led him to learn more about the Armenian genocide that preceded it. He knew the Ottomans also had deported Armenians in cattle cars to concentration camps, forced them on death marches and carried out mass executions — with assistance from the German military.
“Many of the deportation orders are actually signed by … German military officers that went on to have illustrious careers in the Third Reich,” Paul Boghossian, a professor at New York University, says in the film. “It’s very clear that German ideas about population control stemmed partly from their experience in the Ottoman empire.”
Berlinger knew that on the eve of the Nazi invasion of Poland in 1939, German Chancellor Adolf Hitler instructed his officers to kill Polish men, women and children without mercy, stating rhetorically, “Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?”
Berlinger’s films tend to focus on events happening in real time, such as the “Paradise Lost” trilogy about three teenagers wrongfully imprisoned for murder; “Some Kind of Monster,” spotlighting the rock band Metallica; and “Chevron,” which explores the environmental lawsuit filed by Ecuadorians against the oil giant.
He had been interested in the Armenian story for a long time, but didn’t know how to tell it until he heard about “The Promise.”
“Intent to Destroy” also explores how Turkish pressure has made it so difficult for Hollywood filmmakers to tell the Armenian story. Franz Werfel, a refugee from the Holocaust, wrote the 1933 best-selling historical novel “The Forty Days of Musa Dagh,” which told of an Armenian community that fought off Turkish soldiers until the French Navy rescued them. He penned it as a historical cautionary tale to warn the world about Hitler as the Nazis were consolidating power in Germany.
Irving Thalberg of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer secured the film rights in the early 1930s, before it was published in English, and tentatively cast a rising young actor named Clark Gable in the starring role. Turkey’s ambassador to the United States, Mehmet Münir Ertegün, successfully pressured the United States State Department to scrap the project by threatening to ban all American films from screening in Turkey.
Several documentaries and low-budget films have since been made about the genocide. But the long-simmering effort to make an epic historical drama heated up when Armenian-American casino mogul Kirk Kerkorian set aside $100 million in his will to make a dramatized film about the Armenians. Terry George, the director and writer of 1994’s Oscar-nominated “Hotel Rwanda,” wrote and directed “The Promise,” and is also a central character in “Intent to Destroy.”
Berlinger embedded himself with the production, traveling with the cast and crew to Spain, Portugal and Malta (filming in Turkey was out of the question) for 72 days as they filmed a love story set against the backdrop of village burnings, death marches and mass executions. “Intent to Destroy,” like “The Promise,” was funded by the Kerkorian Foundation. Berlinger enjoyed full access to the set, interviewing the cast and crew, as well as extras who were descendants of genocide survivors.
“If it were truly a Hollywood production where a studio was making that film, like Warner Bros. or Paramount or whatever, there’s no way that I would have been allowed … on that set for even more than a couple of hours,” Berlinger said.
Berlinger is used to inserting himself into volatile situations, whether it’s a murder trial or a world-famous band’s psychotherapy sessions, and is aware that his presence might have had a disruptive effect on the making of “The Promise.”
“The artistic process is a very precious thing that is difficult to define. And throwing somebody into the mix, you don’t want that to affect or change the outcome,” he said.
“The Promise” had disappointing results at the box office (grossing just $10 million, far below its $90 million production budget) and was not well-received by critics. But Berlinger thinks it still achieved Kerkorian’s goal before his death: having his ancestors’ story told on screen for a mainstream audience.
“It created tremendous dialogue and that was the goal,” Berlinger said. “All the reviews invariably mentioned the Armenian genocide of 1915 as a historical fact.”
The memory of the genocide is engrained in Armenian identity, just as denying that it happened is critically important to the Turks. “Intent to Destroy” does interview a couple of historians who blame the mass killings on a “pogrom,” “forced migration,” “a war of mutual extermination,” and even “Holocaust envy,” instead of genocide.
But whatever word one uses to describe it, “Intent to Destroy” makes the case that genocide did happen, and we must now ask why it happened and how can it be prevented from happening again. The successful denial of genocide emboldens other leaders to carry out ethnic cleansing campaigns with impunity, whether it’s in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia or Darfur.
Berlinger has no illusions that “Intent to Destroy” will convince Turkey to acknowledge the Armenian genocide.
“Let’s face it. It’s about land and money. If they recognize the genocide, eastern Turkey becomes western Armenia and there’s billions of dollars of reparations, just like the Germans have [made], that would have to be paid,” Berlinger said. “I believe it should be recognized, but I don’t think there’s the political will for a story that’s 100 years old. Even though, for the Armenians, it’s as current as if it were yesterday.”
“Intent to Destroy” will screen at Laemmle Playhouse in Los Angeles and Pacific Theatres in Glendale beginning Nov. 10.