By Dr. Eric Esrailian
The world has been fighting for the recognition of the Armenian Genocide for years. At a time when some global politicians are once again stoking the flames of populist nationalism, as a direct descendent of survivors, my fight to Keep the Promise and never stay silent has made me a canary in this coal mine.
For the last seven years, thanks to the support and encouragement of my late friend and mentor Kirk Kerkorian, I have been inspired to tell our story of the Armenian Genocide. Our greatest challenge was how to make this film relevant to my fellow Americans. Now, with the effects of the rising nationalism — not just in this country but around the world as well — our story couldn’t be more timely as it awaits its release. “The Promise” is not just a tale of tragedy. It also demonstrates love, hope, the plight of refugees, and the kindness of brave individuals helping those in danger. It is inspired by the testimonies of those who survived the horrific Genocide of Armenians at the hands of the Ottoman Empire.
In fact, the term “genocide” was created by Polish lawyer Raphael Lemkin in 1944, in referencing the Armenian experience and the Holocaust. However, denialists and human rights abusers have created revisionist arguments to throw up a smokescreen and deny the application of the word to the very events that defined it. Let that sink in for a moment…or 102 years worth of moments. However, the narrative of the Armenian Genocide is not only about its 1.5 million victims or the hundreds of thousands of Greeks and Assyrians who were murdered. Just as important are the Genocide’s nearly half a million survivors, whose cautionary tales of targeted raids, suppressed rights, mass deportations, starvation, concentration and slave labor camps, and mass killings reverberated in places such as Germany, Bosnia, and Rwanda, and continue to echo today within the refugee camps of those now fleeing South Sudan, Myanmar, and Syria.
There are currently more than 65 million displaced people worldwide. Eleven million of these refugees are Syrian, making the Syrian Civil War the worst humanitarian crisis since World War II. The world is now descending into fear of diversity. In many ways, today’s anti-immigrant, anti-refugee rhetoric of extreme nationalist politicians around the globe recalls the rhetoric utilized by the Ottoman Empire against Armenians. In both cases, systematic discrimination is rationalized within the context of war and the fear for national security. Silence, indifference, and denial of past atrocities only encourages and rewards this behavior. History has taught us that security and compassion are not diametrically opposed. In fact, one cannot exist without the other.
The Genocide is not a matter of historical debate. We all know it happened. The denialists know it as well as anyone else, and they have carefully wiped the crime scene down for 102 years. Offering descendants of victims an “opportunity” to relive their family’s pain through kangaroo courts is insulting and naive. Government recognition will help healing, but it will not bring back the dead or erase horrors etched on the hearts of every Armenian. False promises by politicians of both political parties have the eroded confidence of not just Armenian Americans, but that of educated observers from all backgrounds, with respect to the motivations behind people seeking elected office. We can start to change that perception by standing up for decency and the truth.
The horrific treatment of Native Americans and African Americans still has painful effects and repercussions today in our country. As Americans, we have a golden opportunity to own up to that history, instead of glossing over it, to avoid repeating the same mistakes. As “The Promise” demonstrates, it is through the lens of history’s darker periods that we can bear witness to the actions of our everyday heroes and the greatest values we espouse. Desmond Tutu once said: “We learn from history that we don’t learn from history!” The same patterns of genocide have occurred again and again: dehumanize a group of people, rationalize mistreatment towards them citing war and matters of security, and eventually, cleanse an entire population.
In 2017, the perpetrators of human rights violations, and the complicit denialists who fuel and support them, are not using lasers, robots, and instruments out of a science fiction film. They are using the same narratives, rationalizations, and sadly, barbaric tactics. Nazi Germany. Cambodia. Bosnia. Darfur. Rwanda. And now Syria. We will remain silent no longer. We must keep the promise to live on, tell their stories, lead by example and to stand up not just for ourselves — but for anyone whose rights are suppressed — until this vicious cycle of fear and inhumanity is broken.
For all of these reasons, I urge the President, his followers, and his opponents to see The Promise. No political party is blameless here, and everyone needs to look in the mirror. I have seen Republicans shout down refugees and journalists, and I have seen Democrats support a show called “The Young Turks” — named after the murderous masterminds of the Armenian Genocide. I urge them all to direct any emotions “The Promise” stirs towards healing divisions and protecting the marginalized. In this current political climate, our film is a warning for how a civilized nation can be driven by fear and rhetoric to commit unfathomable acts such as those committed against my ancestors by the Ottoman Empire. However, our film is much more than a glimpse into the dark period of the Genocide. It is a window into the humanity of our once marginalized culture and the spirit that remains in spite of persecution: survival, resilience, love, family, and charity. While we suffered greatly at the hands of some, we also benefitted from the kindness of others. In this way, what “The Promise” ultimately shows, is that despite all odds…the best parts of humanity still find a way to shine through.
(Dr. Eric Esrailian is a producer, known for the films “The Promise” and “Intent to Destroy.” He currently serves as the co-manager for production company Survival Pictures, and is a member of the faculty at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA. This commentary originally appeared on The Huffington Post.)