The Promise is coming to cinemas across the globe this week telling the story of the oldest Christian nation in the world and the persecution they experienced under the Ottoman Empire. Yet for most Christians the story of the Armenian genocide is not something they know anything about. To be honest I knew very little about it until I watched this movie. Having seen it, however, I am convinced that this is a film Christians should definitely go out of their way to see.
In order to find out how and why this story is being retold I tracked down Eric Esrailian, the movie's producer. He is not a run of the mill Hollywood film producer. For a start he is a Los Angeles based gastroenterologist. He is on the faculty at the David Geffen School of Medicine at the University of California, and a former member of the Medical Board of California. But he has also devoted time to producing a major Hollywood movie with an A-list cast and a hugely significant but controversial message for the world.
Before it had even been released, The Promise had already received tens of thousands of negative reviews in what is understood to be a targeted cyber war on the film's challenging message about the Armenian genocide. But when I went to see a preview screening, I was moved by the film's beauty, the depth of its story and most importantly its message for our world today.
Eric Esrailian talked to me while zooming across Los Angeles in his car. He is softly spoken, humble and has an air of great sincerity and passion about him that is contagious. He's just back from a trip to Europe where he provided one private screening in the Vatican, and another with George and Amal Clooney, who are his friends. He mentions these events casually. There's no ego on display, he's just totally committed to telling the story of the Armenian genocide in a way that will not just honour the history of his people but tell a tale that could help our world learn from its mistakes and its heroes.
Krish: I loved your movie, but am also intrigued by the message of the film that is so critical not just to the history of Christendom but also uniquely relevant today.
I can't thank you enough for what you wrote because I think you crystallized what a lot of people are saying when they walk out of the screening of the film. The response from the vast majority of people who have seen the film is verbatim some of the things that you said. Hollywood is not making films like this. Their perception of what people want to see is different I think from the reality on the ground.
Krish: Looking at your biography, it's not an obvious route from medicine to movies...
I've been working on the film for seven years thanks to the generosity of our late financier, my mentor Kirk Kerkorian, who was a self-made Armenian. He was born in Fresno and his family had escaped Turkey prior to the genocide. He was one of the most successful and generous philanthropists of the modern era, donating in his lifetime well over a billion dollars to charity with no recognition. He was primarily anonymous in his giving. He also owned movie studios at different times and it wasn't until later in his life that he decided that he wanted to move forward with this project. I was blessed for him to basically assign it to me. At the time I didn't know what I was really getting into. I'd managed projects before but not a movie. My great grandparents are genocide survivors and I said to Kirk two years into the research: 'It's going to be hard turn around – do we really want to go through with this?' and he said "' want you to move forward and I want you to give the money to charity.'
Krish: Its incredible for a movie of this scale to give its proceeds to charity. At the heart of this film about genocide is a love story. Where did this come from?
We do have the rights to two memoirs from survivors. The third part of the film is part of a historical factual occurrence – the rescue and resistance at Musa Dagh, which is a mountain in Turkey. The thing about the film is because its the first large film project on the Armenian genocide and for most viewers it may be their first introduction to the story we really felt a responsibility to try to cover some specific aspects of the history within the context of a love story. If people are going to pay money on a Friday night to go to a movie they do not want a history lesson they want to have emotion, they want to have movement. They want to see drama and love and hope. Kirk wanted to have a love story he grew up with films like Gone with the Wind and Dr Zhivago and Casablanca – all of those films deal with some sort of conflict in the background.
The main protagonist Mikael [played by Oscar Isaacs] is a depiction of an Armenian man going from a village to Constantinople. My great-grandfather, like him, was conscripted in the military after he was a medical student in Constantinople. So our writers took these elements and really put the right pieces in place and then we started figuring out who really wanted for those roles in the movie. Christian Bale plays Christopher Myers, an Associated Press reporte,r and while there was no one specifically called 'Christopher Myers', the Associated Press did heavily report on the Armenian genocide while it was happening and it was one of the most reported events of World War One in the United States. I couldn't be more thrilled with our actors because I couldn't see anyone else other than Christian Bale in that role and I always tell him that I have it actually in my calendar the day that he accepted the role because it was the first of our monumental casting.
Krish: That reminds me of Live Aid when Bob Geldof managed to secure the first act and then suddenly everybody's on board. But how do you go about getting Christian Bale to engage with a movie about a genocide that most people have never heard of?
Fortunately we had mutual friends and he was able to get a message about the project before we really got into it. Christian is an incredibly thoughtful and intelligent person and he does a lot of research and he's a kind person, really interested in humanity, and I think he felt a tremendous sense of responsibility. He did a lot of research on The Associated Press and the reporters of the day and he really had an image in his mind of Christopher Myers and it was just incredible to have him be so passionate and enthusiastic about the project. Oscar Isaac was an actor whose star was really rising. He even looks Armenian, even though he is Guatemalan. I was initially told that he was not available as he was the main bad guy in X-Men Apocalypse, he had just finished Ex Machina and he was in the latest Star Wars movie. Then I heard that if we were able to move the production to a certain date then he would love to be in the movie. If you have the two male leads locked in and they're two of the best actors in the world then you know you have a movie!
Krish: Throughout the Promise I noticed a redemptive story line. These troubled characters with all sorts of flaws in them still end up doing something very heroic things.
You know we have aspects of the film that show some elements of Christians in danger and its shows survival and hope and prayer all the things that are part of the Armenian culture and the Christian faith too. I think that human beings all have flaws and so our actors, even though they play superheroes in other films, are not costume characters. You have a man who sacrifices himself for his Armenian friend and we show that there were many Turkish people at that time who helped Armenians survive. Chris Myers may be this outgoing larger-than-life figure but yet he's caught in this love triangle. Still he knows that his duty is really to do what he can to not only tell the story of the Armenian genocide, but also to help them.
Krish: As you made the film, did you find yourself rediscovering your Armenian heritage?
I'm fully Armenian. On both sides my great-grandparents were survivors. In their families most people were murdered and so their lives were obviously traumatically distorted from that point forward – for survivors and the descendants of survivors. The genocide is part of who we are but it doesn't define us... I wanted the film not to convey a vibe or an ethos of despair: I wanted the film to show the survival. Our production company is called Survival Pictures. There's a very important line in the film which says. 'Our revenge will be to survive.' Indeed at the end of the film is the William Saroyan quote that summarises who we are:
'I should like to see any power of the world destroy this race, this small tribe of unimportant people... Go ahead destroy Armenia. See if you can do it... Send them into the desert without bread or water. Burn their homes and churches. Then see if they will not laugh, sing and pray again. For when two of them meet anywhere in the world, see if they will not create a New Armenia.'
I was very assimilated – I was born in the US in Bloomington, Indiana which is probably as far away from Armenia as you can get... Kirk had the same experience. He was a very assimilated and became one of the most legendary businessman of the 20th century. Both of us would consider ourselves also proud to be American. But we never wanted to forget our heritage. Making this film has been has been so rewarding in terms of at least having the satisfaction that we're doing something not just for Armenians but for humanity. But it's also been incredibly painful during the last seven years to unearth the denial and the hatred towards Armenians and Christians during that time. Think about the thousands of times that you have to review both the script and the film and then have to relive all the pain and tears and all that stuff over and over - it can be quite traumatizing. But at the same time you know you find hope in the future. I often think what we've gone through making the film is nothing compared to what our ancestors went through.
Krish: Christian faith seems to be an important part of Armenian identity and the way that these survivors are kind of getting through this tragedy involves faith and prayer. As you rediscovered more of your Armenian heritage did you experience a spiritual awakening?
I think so. Our faith is critical to the Armenian culture. Armenia was the first nation to adopt Christianity as a state religion. Armenia plays an important role in the history of Christianity in the civilised world. We were just fortunate enough to be invited to the Vatican where we screened the film just a few days ago and they loved the film. The Ateco Vaticana is this really beautiful screening room which is like a church, but instead of an altar there's a screen. When you walk out of the Sistine Chapel there's a huge statue of St. Gregory the illuminator, the patron saint of the Armenian church but also the founder of the Armenian church and the person who really brought Christianity to Armenia and soon thereafter Rome adopted Christianity. So there's really a kind of a powerful connection and anywhere Armenians have gone as a consequence of the genocide they've established the Church. The Pope himself was not present for the screening but you know he's very outspoken about the Armenian genocide. We had the fortune of meeting Pope Francis last year in Armenia where he went for a three day pilgrimage and we were invited to the Vatican last year during the extraordinary Jubilee. We were also given an exclusive tour of the library and the Vatican archives and we were shown ancient manuscripts of some of the earliest Bibles printed and Bibles in Armenian... In the library as you move from modern times back to the beginning of Christianity there are some incredible representations of Armenia. So the Christian faith is interwoven into the DNA of our people.
Krish: What would you say to Christians who were considering seeing this movie maybe not from an Armenian heritage?
The reality is it's not just an Armenian movie. We just happen to be focusing on one Armenian story as part of the history of civilisation but I think Christianity is an important aspect of the Armenian culture and in some of the values of Christianity such as kindness and love and forgiveness and hope and prayer are really critical elements, pillars of the story. I think what you see in the film can be applied to what Christians particularly in the Middle East are experiencing. Being in danger despite the fact that the beginnings of Christianity were in that same region and the fact that Christians unfortunately don't feel safe in that region. I think is a sad state of affairs that the Armenians who fled the genocide ended up being refugees in Egypt and Lebanon and Syria and again now Christians have had to flee these areas again now. It's important for people to see the film so they understand we should never forget. And then hopefully they're inspiring us to do something in the world today so that we can mean it when we say 'never again'.
Krish: What are your hopes for people watching this film in America and Europe in light of the current kind of global refugee crisis?
People in the world today who are fleeing atrocities are not doing it because they have a choice. No parent would put their child on a boat if they didn't feel it was actually safer than staying on land. I think it's important that we think about what we can do to help people in the world today. Yes I think security is important to everybody - that's what makes it a challenge. But we're human beings and have tremendous capacity to rise to the challenge. The easiest thing to do is to say, 'I don't want to have to deal with people who are not like me' – that's the easiest thing to do but that's not the right thing to do.
Krish: As an adoptive parent, I was particularly struck by the plight of the children caught up in genocide.
One of the key themes of the story in the history books is the plight of the orphans and how they had to deal with the fact that their families had been brutally massacred and they had to start over. They relied on and depended on the kindness of others to do that. One of the memoirs we secured was written by a missionary Protestant pastor, so even though the vast number of Armenians in the world are Orthodox there's quite a Protestant presence particularly in regions where the refugees came in like in Lebanon and Egypt and basically they knew about it in the United States because the genocide was so heavily reported. People were aware of Armenian orphans and so portraying the concept of the orphans in the movie was really important. I can't tell you how many people have come up to me and said my parents were orphaned or my grandparents were orphaned because one generation was completely cut out. Actually Chris Cornell [lead singer from Sound Garden] who is a legendary rock star who wrote and performed our title song is donating all the proceeds from his song to benefit children through the International Rescue Committee. He's actually at a refugee camp today in Greece. I'm hoping that the Christian community around the world will rally... because that opening weekend is key...
As Eric Esrailian signs off from the call, I'm left with his challenge ringing in my ears. Here is a medic who has dedicated his professional life to patient care and population, but who has still devoted seven years of his life to movie production, to rally Christians to do something about genocide today. Here is a Hollywood producer whose film is supporting non profit organisations seeking to 'Keep the Promise', learning from the atrocities of the past to make sure these things never happen again. Here is a man who wants to make a difference in the world, because of his Christian heritage and his understanding of persecution. Can we rally together to stand up for those caught in the wake of genocide today?