Films, Armenian Documentary

views updated

Films, Armenian Documentary

Seventeen films that document the Armenian genocide of 1915—all of them in English—have been made. This paucity of films about the Armenian genocide is owing to a paucity of certain types of documenting materials, which may be ascribed to several factors: the strict censorship in Ottoman Turkey at the time of the genocide, which prohibited the photographing of expulsions and death marches; the general absence of investigative reporters in war zones (which included parts of the Ottoman Turkish Empire) during World War I; and the scarcity of foreign consular agents and officials (who might have served as witnesses).

Nonetheless, a limited number of still photographs (of genocidal events in the making) managed to reach the outside world, owing to the efforts of Christian missionaries living in Turkey—and those of German civilians and soldiers who photographed events clandestinely. Two sources of photographic documentation were Armin T. Wegner, a German Red Cross official, and Leslie A. Davis, a U.S. consular agent in the interior of the Armenian provinces of Turkey. No motion picture footage of the deportations or the slaughters has ever been located.

Despite these handicaps the first documentary film on the genocidal events of 1915 and 1916 was produced in 1965. Where Are My People? is a vehicle for the expression of a plaintive voice, a voice of bereavement and sorrow—over the extermination of a people and the loss of nationhood. The film relies heavily on still photographs, lithographs, paintings, and excerpts from books about the genocide. The potency of the film derives from the strength and poetry of its narrative and its use of Armenian musical themes. A Turkish scholar, Sedat Laciner (who denies the genocide), writing in 2003 described Where Are My People? as a "classic film."

The Republic of Turkey (established 1923), in keeping with its policy of denial vis-à-vis the Armenian genocide, responded immediately to the release of the film and assigned persona non grata status to the producer of Where Are My People? From its inception the Republic of Turkey has maintained that there was no mass murder of Armenians—only incidental suffering and death among both Turks and Armenians, the results of a civil war. Owing to political and economic pressure placed on the United States by the Turkish government, the United States has not yet recognized the Armenian genocide, and until the late 1990s, members of the U.S. media often used the term "alleged" to describe the catastrophic events of 1915 and 1916. As evidence of the pressure that has been placed on the United States by the Turkish government, no Hollywood-type feature film on the subject of the Armenian genocide has ever been produced in the United States. Ararat (2003), a film by Atom Egoyan, was a Canadian-sponsored (fictional) dramatic film.

Where Are My People?—coming as it did on the fiftieth anniversary of the Armenian genocide—launched an era of political activism and awareness of the enormous calamity that had befallen Armenian people. The anger felt by descendants of Armenians of the Armenian diaspora—at the Turks, at the world, and even at parents who had remained timid and voiceless for five decades—produced demonstrations at major Turk embassies and assassinations of Turkish diplomats in Southern California. Armenian study programs and endowed chairs and professorships in Armenian studies sprang up at major U.S. universities; Armenian studies research institutes came into being, and by the late 1980s scholarly monographs on the subject of the Armenian genocide began to be published.

The year 1976 ushered in the production of the companion films The Forgotten Genocide and The Armenian Case (which contains a seventeen-minute epilogue about post–World War I events). The Forgotten Genocide is a highly acclaimed film and has won film festival awards and two Emmy nominations. It is perhaps the definitive film on the Armenian genocide. Both films employ the traditional documentary film elements of comments and testimony by scholars and witnesses, still photographs, film footage of events related to the Armenian diaspora following the genocide, and maps. Both films use an expository mode of presentation to lay out the "anatomy" of the Armenian genocide; both films call on the Turkish nation to accept responsibility, and on the wider world to recognize that genocide and crimes against humanity were committed.

The Armenian Genocide, commissioned in 1990 by the California Board of Education, is the first film of its kind intended for use in school curricula. The target audience of the twenty-five-minute film is tenth-grade students. The film includes dramatic reenactment of historic events; it also uses historical cartoons, diagrams, and segments of filmed student discussions.

Five films that appeared at the turn of the twenty-first century (all of them by non-Armenian filmmakers) are worth noting. I Will Not Be Sad in This World (2001) follows the daily life of a ninety-four-year-old survivor of the Armenian genocide; its setting is present-day, but there is some use of old photographs in the film. A Wall of Silence (1997) traces out the passionate involvement of two scholars—one Armenian and one Turkish—in historical investigation of the Armenian genocide, and focuses on their quest to attain recognition of the genocide by the Turkish government. The Armenians: A Story of Survival (2001) and The Great War and the Shaping of the Twentieth Century (1997), documentary films about Armenian history and World War I, respectively, both have short sequences about the Armenian genocide. The Hidden Holocaust (1992) is perhaps the most impressive of this cluster of films. It resembles The Forgotten Genocide (1976) in respect to methods of research used, content, and tone. An advantage that these films have enjoyed over their forerunners is that they have reached larger audiences.

In 2000 another advance was made in the collective effort to document the Armenian genocide. The film Voices from the Lake was innovative in that it focused on a small pocket of the Armenian genocide, and examined this small pocket from a multitude of vantage points—through the eyes and via the reports of several witnesses. Germany and the Secret Genocide (2003) was similarly innovative; the film focused on the Berlin-Baghdad Railway and specific historical German documents as it sought to emphasize the closeness of the Armenian genocide to other genocides.

SEE ALSO Films, Armenian Feature; Films, Dramatizations in; Films, Holocaust Documentary


The Armenian Case (1976). Atlantis Productions, Inc. Directed and produced by J. Michael Hagopian. Distributed by Atlantis Productions.

The Armenian Genocide (1991). Atlantis Productions, Inc. Directed and produced by J. Michael Hagopian. Distributed by Atlantis Productions.

An Armenian Journey (1997). WGBH Boston. Directed by Theodore Bogosian.

Back to the Ararat (1988). HB Peá Holmquist. Produced by Peá Holmquist. Distributed by First Run/Icarus Films. Available from

Bryce, James, and Arnold Toynbee (2000). The Treatment of the Armenians in the Ottoman Empire, 1915-1916. London: Gomidas Institute.

Dadrian, Vahakn N. (1995). The History of the Armenian Genocide. Providence, R.I.: Berghan Books.

Dadrian, Vahakn N. (1996). German Responsibility in the Armenian Genocide. Watertown, Mass.: Blue Crane Books.

Dadrian, Vahakn N. (1999). Warrant for Genocide: Key Elements of the Turko-Armenian Conflict. New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction Publishers.

Destination Nowhere (1997). Gruppo BL and Forum Pictures. Directed by Carlos Massa.

Everyone's Not Here: Families of the Armenian Genocide (1988). Armenian Assembly of America. Executive producers John McGannon and William Parson. Distributed by Intersection Association.

Forgotten Genocide (1976). Atlantis Productions, Inc. Directed and produced by J. Michael Hagopian. Distributed by Atlantis Productions.

Germany and the Secret Genocide (2003). Armenian Film Foundation. Directed and produced by J. Michael Hagopian. Distributed by the Armenian Film Foundation.

The Great War and the Shaping of the Twentieth Century (1997). KCET/BBC with the Imperial War Museum. Directed by Lyn Goldfarb and Carl Byker. Produced by Lyn Goldfarb and David Mrazek.

The Hidden Holocaust (1992). Panoptic Productions, Ltd. Directed and produced by Michael Jones.

Hovannisian, Richard, ed. (1999). Remembrance and Denial, The Case of the Armenian Genocide. Detroit, Mich.: Wayne State University Press.

Laciner, Sedat (2003). "Identity, Art and Propaganda: The Armenian Film Industry as a Case Study." Review of Armenian Studies 1(2).

Morgenthau, Henry (2000). Ambassador Morgenthau's Story. London: Gomidas Institute.

Voices from the Lake (2000). Armenian Film Foundation. Directed and produced by J. Michael Hagopian. Distributed by the Armenian Film Foundation.

A Wall of Silence: The Unspoken Fate of the Armenians (1997). Humanist Broadcasting Foundation, The Netherlands. Produced and directed by Dorothée Forma. Distributed by the Humanist Broadcasting Foundation. Available from

Where Are My People? (1965). Atlantis Productions, Inc. Distributed by Atlantis Productions.

J. Michael Hagopian