'The Promise' director Terry George: Why I believe in redemption
Terry George is a major Hollywood director with an Oscar to prove it. He's worked with the best in the business: Daniel Day Lewis, Helen Mirren, Joaquin Phoenix and Mark Ruffalo. His back catalogue boasts such movies as Hotel Rwanda, In the Name of the Father and Some Mother's Son, tackling huge issues such as genocide, terrorism and unfair imprisonment. But his latest film, The Promise, released this week and starring Christian Bale, Oscar Isaacs and Charlotte Le Bon, takes the challenge of the genre to a whole new level.
I had the opportunity to meet Terry George face to face to talk about the movie, his faith, redemption, and his views on heaven and hell. He was tall, friendly and spoke with a rich Irish accent that instantly put me at ease. No topic was off limits. I had seen his magnificent new film already and knew we would be tackling some difficult and controversial issues.
Krish Kandiah: Why were you interested in making a film about the Armenian genocide?
Terry George: As I was doing the research on the Rwandan genocide I read Samantha Power's book, A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide. She devoted quite a chunk of it to the Armenian genocide particularly because that became the motivation for the word 'genocide' to be created. The polish lawyer Raphael Lemkin, who was trying to codify the crime of genocide, looked to the Armenian genocide in the first instance. So I read into it quite a bit there, and then lo and behold years later I was sent a script written by Robin Swicord, basically telling part of the story of the Armenian genocide. I adapted her script and off we went.
KK: What's your hope for the film, particularly in light of the war in cyberspace against it with the film receiving tens of thousands of negative reviews before anyone could have seen it?
TG: My hope is that it enlightens people around the world to this event, because it's going on today. Almost in a mirror image of what took place, in the exact same location. The poignant and bizarre thing was that as we were filming in Spain for the locations in southern Turkey, we were watching images on television from exactly the same area of exactly the same scenes that we were filming. Massive lines of refugees fleeing in the desert. The Yazidi Christians trapped up a mountain under siege by armed forces. Refugees fleeing towards the Mediterranean drowning in the sea. These things were so contemporary. So I want the event to be better known, but also this whole crisis about refugees in the 21st century is just the mirror image of what happened back in the 20th century.
KK: I was struck that, in light of the current refugee crisis, in The Promise it was the French who were the heroes. Also in the movie it is an American journalist who will do anything to tell the truth about what was going on to the rest of the world – not to mention the way that so many Armenian survivors found a home and a refuge in the US. Do you think that with the current situation in European and American politics your film might help shape a different way of looking at the world?
TG: It certainly goes a way towards showing where the mindset was at that time, when America as a nation was just really growing. It's important I think that we reinforce the way that America was built on the backs of refugees fleeing from horror. The Armenian community in the United States is very vital and a great contributor to that society. So I think you get people to look at that and say we can't be creating these walls and this fear.
KK: I've loved watching all the films of yours that I have seen and they all have a strong call to action. Why have you chosen film as your vehicle to change people's minds?
TG: I think that the feature film movie is a way of getting inside the psyche, not just of the characters but the psyche of the audience itself. My big desire and my aim is to create characters or to investigate characters that the audience can empathise with – the Everyman character. Obviously in Hotel Rwanda it was Paul Rusesabagina. It was Gerry Conlon in In the Name of the Father. It was Helen Mirren's character in Some Mother's Son and here [in The Promise] you have Mikael – a somewhat flawed character at the start. He does a deal with the devil and betroths himself to a woman he barely knows in order to get money to further his medical career. Then along the way he is confronted with that dilemma of trying to save himself or this growing family of orphans that he ends up looking after with Anna. Mikael takes the hand of the audience and walks through this event that they'd have no comprehension of. That for me is the best way to investigate a situation.
KK: At Martin McGuinness' funeral, Ian Paisley Junior made a very interesting comment: he said, 'we're not judged on how we begin our lives but how we end them'. There's a redemptive narrative running through a lot of your movies. Do you believe in redemption?
TG: Absolutely I do, and like you say it's a theme of the movie. While many of the characters I have are flawed, they don't go the full cycle from the bad guy to redemption. But I think that's more in keeping with how I identify with the working man, or the working woman, not the huge characters. I want to tell the story of the ordinary person who triumphs over evil. I think that's a wonderful statement from Iain Paisley Jr. I knew Martin McGuinness, not really well but enough to know to get a sense of the dignity or the internal sort of honesty of the man. Clearly like you say there was an evolution there.
KK: It seems like his faith became more real to him the older he became. Do you have a faith journey that you are on?
TG: I do. I mean it's not quite as defined as McGuinness'. I know he went to chapel every Sunday and had a deep faith. Mine is more on a spiritual level. I feel God in a lot of things around us. For me eternal life is as much about the goodness that you leave behind in the memory that people have of what you left behind. Hell for me is being Adolf Hitler or Stalin. Their evil will live on and that's for eternity with them. Obviously, Jesus Christ is the epitome, his legacy will last through mankind.
KK: But you don't think there's more to it than memory? Don't you think you will continue in some way beyond your death?
TG: You know I don't know. But I hope so. My parents were deeply religious and they believed deeply in that. I hope so.
KK: All of your movies seem to have a real moral sense and a deep core of justice. Where does that passion come from in you? Where do you get your moral compass from?
TG: Having grown up a Northern Ireland and in Belfast through the Troubles and so forth, there's a little humanity I think I've come to, based on what I've seen. The subtext of the films that I've done is this political maxim: 'The ends justifies the means.' Now for me what happens is that the means you use can so corrupt the end that it no longer is worth achieving. That's the important subtext for me.
KK: I'm an adoptive dad and I have noticed that adoption seems to be quite a prevalent theme in a lot of movies right now. There was the Oscar-nominated movie Lion, Lego Batman has adoption at the heart of it and also Fantastic Beasts and many others. Adoption plays an important part in your movie also. Why do you think we are so interested in this subject?
TG: An important element, and I'm glad you brought this up, is the enormous number of orphans that were left during the genocide and the need to take care of those. Mikael loses his own unborn child in a horrible way and yet he and Anna take on this group of orphans and start shepherding them towards safety. That was a really important component because historically when I studied the genocide orphans became central to the American missionary role particularly. There was a huge campaign to support Christian missionaries in Turkey at that time and their main objective was rescuing orphans of the genocide. So there's that adoptive thing of children and war which translates to today where we have the same situation.
Orphans and adoption are at the heart of the humanity of everything. There's nothing more sorrowful than the child abandoned or who loses their parents and being left to fend for themselves in the world. Our humanity is defined by taking care of those people they as it is in taking care of refugees.
A lot of people 'pooh pooh' Hollywood movie stars and stuff like that. But if you look at Madonna and Angelina Jolie, they adopt children to rescue them from horrible situations because clearly they're not infertile. They may not have the time, which is another moral thing all together. But that notion that you are rescuing a child from a horrible situation is is a trend we should foster and try to continue.
Our time is up. There's no time to agree with the need for an altruistic vision for adoption and refugee care. There's no time for a chat about whether it's better to keep a child in their own culture and context and find and support local adopters. I leave continuing my prayers for this generous man, skilled director and man on a mission to help change the psyche of the world. I pray for this film to awaken the consciousness of the world not just to a historic genocide but to the crisis that is taking place on our doorsteps.
'The Promise' movie is on global release on April 21. You can soon download resources here to help engage with the film.