The Promise review: a film targeted by genocide-deniers is moving and timely
A huge humanitarian disaster. The world turns a blind eye. Despotic rulers ordering the killing of civilians. Perilous crossings of the Mediterranean Sea. Hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing for their lives. Children orphaned and in need of adoption. You would have thought this was another edition of the nightly news, not the latest Hollywood blockbuster. But this film with its all-star cast and champion director Terry George (best known for In the Name of the Father and Hotel Rwanda) is one to watch. And before it has even been released it has stirred up controversy, with a cyber attack and propaganda campaign that may well backfire.
The Promise is set in 1914 at a turning point for the mighty Turkish Ottoman Empire, which at its height consisted of 32 provinces stretching from Central Europe all the way down to the Horn of Africa and across to Western Asia. The movie tells the story of a love triangle that is ignited in Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul). The sights and sounds of Constantinople are vividly brought to life with some great cinematography and clever use of CGI. Sipping absinthe and living the high life are a dashing war photographer, Chris Myers (Christian Bale) and his young Armenian girlfriend Ana (Charlotte le Bon), who has grown up in Paris but is keen to trace her roots. They get to know Mikael Pogosian (Oscar Isaac), a poor medical student from an Armenian village. The two men vie for Ana's affection while the First World War rages and the extermination of 1.5 million Armenians begins. The film includes brutal scenes of work camps, death marches, lynchings and mass murder that reflect documented accounts of atrocities committed by the Ottoman military.
To this day the Turkish government refuses to acknowledge the treatment of the Armenians as a genocide. And so every year on April 24, Armenians around the world launch protests and lobby governments in a bid to highlight their cause.
Some opponents argue it can't be retrospectively labelled a genocide because the things that took place happened before the term existed. Others believe that to admit genocide would give Turkey legal, financial and even geographic responsibilities, perhaps even allowing the Armenians to challenge existing borders. Whatever term is used it seems virtually impossible to deny the scale and horror of what was experienced by the Armenian people.
After watching Terry George's Hotel Rwanda, I and many other viewers made a promise to ourselves that never again would this happen without us speaking out. With another epic movie released about a tragedy of the same proportions it's time for us to renew that promise for our day. There's not a lot we can do for the victims of Armenian genocide, except perhaps join their plea for recognition and repentance for what took place. However humanitarian disasters continue in our lifetime – and perhaps there is something we can do for them.
For both Armenian and Turkish people the themes raised in this film are not ancient history but a current reality. This may go some way to explaining the fact that the International Movie Database has already had 96,000 ratings for the film, even though it's only just out in the US and most of them can't be based on actual viewings. Most of them are negative, in a bid to undermine the movie before it was even launched; Turkey, and the Turkish diaspora, are clearly in the frame as the film portrays its heinous crimes so clearly.
Personally, I was very moved by the film. It tells a compelling story with the genocide as the context rather than just the staging for a romance. This is similar to the approach taken in Stephen Spielberg's Schindler's List (the screenplay for which was written by an Armenian) which used the personal story of Oscar Schindler to expose a new generation to the barbarism of the Holocaust.
The characters at the heart of the movie offer an interesting challenge to movie goers. Christian Bale's character demonstrates an unwavering commitment to truthful reporting so that compassion might be shown to those most in need. I wonder if his example will inspire other Americans to rethink their national attitude to the current refugee crisis?
Oscar Isaac's portrayal of Mikael Pogosian particularly hits home when he is challenged as to how to treat his enemy when all of his training has been to be a healer. This helps us to ask questions about how Christians should treat enemies of the state when we are called not just to love our neighbours but our adversaries too. In Charlotte Le Bon's character Ana we are confronted with the question of how to wrestle with our personal feelings and emotions in the middle of a major humanitarian crisis too big for anyone to solve on their own.
This film raises important questions about our responsibility to vulnerable children and is yet another cinematic example of the theme of adoption running through a movie.
I would recommend you to watch this film and allow its subject matter both to inform you about a forgotten genocide and challenge you – perhaps to make a new promise to offer refuge to those fleeing terror.
Damaris Media is offering free resources which will help your church or small ground to dig deeper into the themes raised by the film. These will be available when the film releases nationwide in April.
Dr Krish Kandiah is the founding director of Home for Good. His latest book, 'Paradoxology: Why Christianity was never meant to be simple' is published by IVP USA.