In 1984, George Orwell’s fictional work, history is written by those in power. Its truth is obviated and re-characterized to fit the political structure in the novel’s setting. Events that happened never happened and events that never happened are fabricated as real. Black becomes white, up becomes down, and the truth dissolves like salt in the rain. In such a political state how can one thrive not knowing where one’s identity or consciousness resides? Yet, if one searches hard enough, the truth always leaves a residue (see recent article).
In Intent to Destroy, Joe Berlinger’s brilliant documentary concerning events that, according to some never happened, Berlinger finds truth’s residue. In his search, he brings his audience on an expeditionary journey of investigation about the Armenian Genocide by the Ottoman Empire (1915-1917). He expertly highlights events by embedding on the film The Promise, directed by Terry George, whose narrative concerns characters who fall in love during that time.
Turkey’s denial of the historical record of its genocide by the Young Turks government against its Armenian Ottoman citizens is at the heart of Joe Berlinger’s perceptively layered documentary which is structured in three parts: Death, Denial, Depiction. Berlinger selected that order to enlighten us not only about the genocide, but especially to strip bare the insidious power of lies, obfuscation, propagandizing, and outright spinning of events as something other than what they are. Berlinger defines the Armenian genocide as he examines it from the beginning: the Ottoman Empire’s planned governmental operation to wipe out an ethnic group for the purposes of a power grab, massive theft of resources, an economic social shift, and future genetic reconfiguration of the Turkish population.
Berlinger employs his cinema verite documentary style as he embeds on the film set of The Promise. He captures clips of segments of the film shoot related to the genocide as director Terry George recreates such events. With the juxtaposition of these clips with evidence from the past (archived photos, etc.), Berlinger uncovers deeper layers of the genocide which one cannot easily walk away from. He cleverly uses his experiences on The Promise as a catalyst to extricate themes in order to help us confront issues that we ignore at our peril. The danger of allowing events to be “wiped out” of the historical record (as has been “accomplished” by Turkey for over 100-years), is that the same will occur again and again and man’s legacy to evolve toward the light will continue to be mired in the dark secrets of denial and falsehood.
Berlinger’s documentary includes key scenes from the film shoot which show some of the brutality enacted against the lead character (played by Oscar Issac), and actor-Armenians who are slaughtered in a forest. Berlinger contrasts the recreation of Terry George’s filming of such events with archived black and white photos of those events, bringing the photo’s reality into greater relief.
We realize the film narrative will end, but the complexity of the memories of the eye-witnesses will always continue, especially against the onslaught of Turkey’s lies that they “never experienced” what they know they experienced. The impact of the reality of the black and white photographs (the emaciated bodies of the Armenians are the end result of the pile of clothed bodies of the actors in the forest where Armenians were butchered), is a contrasting irony. The embedded film clip is make-believe present recreation in which the actors are being directed to lie still with blood make-up on that will be washed off. The dark liquid on the naked, emaciated bodies lying on the ground in the black and white photographs remains until the photo is destroyed.
Berlinger has intentioned a jarring result; the effect strikes with truth. This cannot be easily dismissed as having never happened. That is one crucial aspect of his documentary’s power; it parallels narrative film clips in color which we know is in the present as a fiction with live actors that recreate a past event, and juxtaposes them with archived photographs, testimony and documents from the past that reflect the carnage and brutal exterminations.
The choice of The Promise as a jumping off point to examine salient issues about the history of the Armenian Genocide adds interest and is clearly drawn. Berlinger edits cuts from the film shoot and weaves them with interviews of eye-witnesses or scholars who explain the history of why and how the Young Turks in their thrust for a new government concocted the plan to annihilate the Armenian population by first rounding up the intellectuals, the educated, the lawyers, and doctors and then moved toward slaughter with the intent of annihilation and ethnic cleansing. Berlinger reveals that by the time the Young Turks have finished the Armenian relocations, death marches, the mass killings, the starvations, the rapes, the hard labor camps, the shootings (none of these are a coincidental forerunner of the Nazi brutalities in World War II, but copied by the Nazis), the government of Turkey by the end of World War I had cleansed its lands of approximately 1.5 million Armenians (the Ottoman Empire’s citizens).
Berlinger cuts back and forth from the film shoot in the present to revelations of the past. With interviews of eye-witness testimony, he adds other documentation, primary source material, scholarly analysis, and secondary source material. He includes stories of censorship and pressure on world governments by Turkey. For example in 1934 the Turkish government discovered Hollywood’s MGM Studio intended to make the film (The Forty Days of Musa Dagh), based on a best selling book by Franz Werfel, which tells an incredible story of Armenian salvation that happened during the genocide. The Turkish government got the film censored and pulled in the U.S. The book was banned as propaganda/lies by the Third Reich in 1933 on Turkey’s prompting and banned in Turkey until it was published in 1997.
To indemnify the incidents, facts and truth of the genocide, Berglinger’s three film segments (Death, Denial, Depiction) are increasingly powerful. In each segment he graduates the events, discussion, film clips, etc., revealing the horrific reality of the past (i.e. through gruesome photos and eye-witnesses testimony). He shows how that gruesome reality is even more horrific in the present with the current Turkish government’s denial that the genocide even existed. In the last segment (Depiction), he illuminates how the enforced bloodshed of the Armenians has been reduced to an abstraction and “re-branding” of something else. Whether wittingly or unwittingly accomplished by Turkey, in denying and “re-characterizing” the genocide of 1.5 million Armenians, the massacre is lifted from the past and brought into the present as an ongoing annihilation of truth, Armenian dignity, and identity.
Thus, Berlinger’s strongest concepts in the film center around this nefariousness of the Turkish government’s denial and re-characterization. The individuals who lived through the massacres (one eye-witness was an injured, five-year-old boy, who lay under a pile of bleeding, dying bodies), decades ago as children, still live with the nightmare experience as if it happened yesterday, Berlinger’s interviews reveal. Those witnesses and their families who grew up after them sustain an emotional and psychological displacement. They are further haunted because the Turkish government claims their families were never intentionally targeted because they were ethnic Armenians. Somehow, they just disappeared, their bodies never found.
Berlinger emphasizes his themes by revealing how the deceptions continue: how the Turkish government for decades during various incidents is allowed to persist with their denials of genocide because of the complicity of other governments around the world up to this day. It began after the 1920s when Turkey was attempting to extract itself from its Ottoman past. In their censorship and refusal to brook the word “genocide,” their attempt to destroy the truth has been successful. No one on the world stage attempted to hold them accountable after U.S. missionaries (they made reports and took pictures), and Senator Morgenthau Sr. (Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire under Woodrow Wilson who raised funds and had the NY Times write 145 articles to alert people), publicized the genocide.
For Turkey this 100-year-denial is an ironic annihilation of their own culture in their inability to understand their actions; without an attempt at acknowledgement there is no redemption and no healing for them or anyone. Healing on all sides is impossible because there is no apology and admission of wrong-doing. This compounds the devastation for Armenians today who lost whole swaths of their families, their possessions, and their cultural identities during the Armenian Holocaust which Turkey willfully and arrogantly obviates, then reconstitutes to serve its own pleasure that Turkey is “not who you say we are.”
Berlinger’s intriguing story-telling form reveals an expert’s hand in uncovering the core principles of the residues of truth about that time. His documentary shows how the historical record is very much alive today, though the Turkish government refuses to admit it and has gone to extraordinary measures to destroy evidence, as his film discloses. Indeed, Berlinger meticulously triangulates and quadrangulates his discoveries in the process of excavating core revelations. These shine their many facets so that they cannot be ignored or re-characterized. What he reveals is explosive and infinitely human in its pathos, brutality, and cruelty. What he concludes with encourages advocacy and is uplifting.