By Michael Winship,
Here’s a different kind of story about media and politics.
It demonstrates how the monstrosity of a crime a century old still divides and scorches the world. And it’s one more example of how digital technology is changing geopolitics at every level, from interfering with other nation’s elections to the current wave of ransomware cyberattacks and even the release of motion pictures.
Last Tuesday, Donald Trump had a chummy meeting with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. There was a lot to talk about — NATO, Syria, ISIS. They also discussed the continued presence in the United States of Fethullah Gulen, the Erdogan foe on whom the Turkish leader blames last summer’s failed coup d’etat.
In a Washington Post op-ed just prior to Erdogan’s visit, Gulen wrote, “The Turkey that I once knew as a hope-inspiring country on its way to consolidating its democracy and a moderate form of secularism has become the dominion of a president who is doing everything he can to amass power and subjugate dissent.”
No wonder Erdogan wants Gulen extradited to Turkey, where he would probably face certain death. So far at least, we have refused to do so. Meanwhile, as Erdogan looked on, his security detail viciously beat protesters outside the Turkish ambassador’s residence in Washington.
So given this particular White House, and Trump’s expressed admiration for Erdogan, you know that one topic not up for discussion was Erdogan’s ever-escalating suppression of human rights, especially in the aftermath of the unsuccessful coup and the recent referendum in which he consolidated even more power.
Here’s another forbidden but related subject that wasn’t on the agenda: the horrific Armenian genocide committed a century ago by Turkey’s Ottoman Empire. Between 1915 and 1922, at least 1.5 million were massacred, some 80 percent of the Armenian population.
Like his predecessors, and unlike the government of Germany after the Holocaust and World War II, Erdogan still refuses to acknowledge what the Turkish government did. Instead, he has admitted that yes, Armenians lost their lives, but as Cara Buckley at The New York Times wrote, “… He implied that they were victims of a war in which all Ottoman citizens had suffered — rather than the victims of a genocide.”
(Although Donald Trump and Barack Obama have condemned the atrocities committed against Armenians, for fear of offending their NATO ally neither used the word “genocide” while president. During the 2008 campaign, Obama pledged he would but never did).
This year, the anniversary of the beginning of the genocide has been marked by the release of two movies, each offering a very different account of what happened. Only one of them is truthful and the response has been both fascinating and troubling.
At the center of all this is the movie The Promise, co-written (with Robin Swicord) and directed by Terry George. It’s about a love triangle: an Armenian medical student (Oscar Isaac), an American photojournalist (Christian Bale) and a worldly, beautiful Armenian woman (Charlotte Le Bon) with whom both men are involved. As Turkey aligns with Germany during World War I and begins the systematic extermination of ethnic and religious minorities, their romantic rivalry is put aside and the three unite for survival.
In the interest of full disclosure, Terry George and I have known each other for a long time. Last year, he asked me and a few other friends to come screen The Promise while he still was adding the finishing touches. I thought it was terrific then and still do. The movie’s an old-fashioned love story in the style of David Lean’s Doctor Zhivago or Ryan’s Daughter, an epic set against a vast historical landscape devastated by cruelty and bloodshed.
With Jim Sheridan, Terry George wrote the movies In the Name of the Father, Some Mother’s Son and The Boxer, all of which dealt with the “troubles” in Northern Ireland. In 2004, Terry directed and co-wrote Hotel Rwanda, nominated for three Academy Awards, an unflinching look at the Rwandan genocide of 1994 and the world’s indifference to it. So jumping into the middle of the Armenian genocide dispute was not unusual for him. He joked, “If it doesn’t cause controversy, what am I doing it for?”
Last year, Terry realized that another picture on the topic was about to be released. The Ottoman Lieutenant has a similar story structure but it presents a sanitized version of the genocide in which the murders of Armenians are not part of a systematic, state-sanctioned policy but random acts of violence committed by rebellious soldiers.
The New York Times reports, “According to several people familiar with the project, Turkish producers oversaw the final cut, without the director’s knowledge.
“The people familiar with the project said that tensions emerged on the ‘Ottoman’ set after producers pushed to minimize depictions of Turkish violence against Armenians. Several people who worked on the project felt that the final version butchered the film artistically, and smacked of denialism: Dialogue that explicitly referred to systematic mass killing had been stripped out.”
Writing for The Daily Beast, Michael Daly discovered that one of The Ottoman Lieutenant’s producers, “ES Film is based in Istanbul and its co-founders include Yusuf Esenkal, who is said to be a business partner in other ventures with Bilal Erdoğan, son of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. The younger Erdoğan has been accused by Russia of trading in oil with ISIS and is being investigated by Italy of laundering massive sums of money there, all of which he has denied.”
ES Film also is behind a current TV series that glorifies the life of the last sultan of Turkey, “perpetrator of the first wave of mass killings that were the lead-up to the Armenian genocide.”
So suddenly a film appears running counter to The Promise narative, produced by Turks whose motives might be less than pure. (It should be noted that The Promise got most of its funding from the late movie mogul, Armenian-American Kirk Kerkorian).
Then things got even stranger. The Promise premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival. After just three screenings, IMDB, the Internet Movie Data Base, was flooded with 85,000 terrible reviews, a statistical impossibility. Only a handful could have seen the film.
As Mary Wald noted at HuffPost: “85,000 is not a few irate people. It is an organized mob. Or more likely a small network on laptops or in a boiler room working to make it look like a mob. Either way it is coordinated. And to coordinate something of this magnitude, you pay for it.”
IMDB removed all but the 32 or so reviews that they believed to be legitimate. But that wasn’t the end of it. According to Terry George, a similar smear campaign took place on the Turkish version of Twitter and the comment section at YouTube briefly had to be shut down. And he says that in Chicago and other cities large blocks of tickets were bought via the Fandango website and then refunded just before the movie was scheduled to start so that patrons would walk into near-empty theaters.
In the great scheme of things, this may seem like small ball when put up against election hacking, vast troves of leaked documents or taking down an entire national health service, but these insidious tactics add up, pile onto the “fake news” trope and give comfort to the denialists of every stripe. As Mary Wald wrote:
“Governments who are accustomed to controlling the media have put considerable energy into working out how the supposedly open and objective Internet can surreptitiously be harnessed to enforce a political agenda.”
That seems to be precisely what the Turkish government and its friends are doing as they continue to resist the reality of the Armenian genocide.
In 2014, Turkish President Erdogan tried to ban Twitter and YouTube, describing social media as a “knife in the hand of a murderer” when it was effectively used to mount protests against him. Now he has a Twitter account all his own and the knife is in his hand as well. Like deniers and haters here and everywhere, he and his allies have come to realize that the Internet, like any weapon, works both ways. It’s all about where you aim it.
The Promise opens in Spain next month and in Germany in August, and Terry George wonders whether the hostile reaction will be even more strident in Europe. Whatever happens, “We’re in it for the long haul,” he said, noting that he intends to utilize social media to generate outreach programs for classrooms that will heighten awareness of a bleak and overlooked time in world history. It’s a monstrous tale that must be told wherever it can, on movie screens or in cyberspace, never to be forgotten.
Michael Winship, senior writing fellow at Demos and president of the Writers Guild of America-East, was senior writer for Moyers & Company and Bill Moyers’ Journal and is senior writer of BillMoyers.com.