Made for television and now playing on the big screen, Screamers, an exploration of holocausts that focuses mainly on the 1915 mass murder of the Armenian people in the land that is now Turkey, renders moot the question of where this film should be seen. The point is, the film's hugely important subject of mass slaughters of innocent peoples must get to audiences any way possible.
Armenian-American documentary director Carla Garapedian certainly understands the challenge with such material. Wisely, she has elected to get the first words across via song, songs in this case from System of a Down, a multi-platinum, Grammy Award-winning quartet of Armenian-American rockers.
The film gets into gear with concert footage of the band. The sound is largely assaulting, angry, edgy rock on the order of heavy metal. But it's metal with a message. The group's lead vocalist Serj Tankian, articulate and deeply engaged in the cause to wipe out denial and stop genocides, also serves as lead catalyst and outspoken activist. His own grandfather Stepan Haytayan, interviewed in his 90s, was a witness to the actual massacres. The sad memories Tankian coaxes from his grandfather recall the more familiar but equally horrifying stories from World War II Holocaust survivors.
Other talking heads include Peter Galbraith, invoking the recent ethnic killings in Bosnia. Harvard professor Samantha Power connects denial of the Armenian holocaust with the eruption of subsequent genocides. And Henry Morgenthau III, whose grandfather had been the U.S. ambassador to the Ottoman area, remembers that his father had witnessed the Armenian massacres but failed in his efforts to get the U.S. to respond to what was happening.
The late ABC newscaster Peter Jennings called the holocaust "the first genocide of the 20th century." The mass killings, perpetrated by Ottoman Turks and Kurds, took place in Anatolia, whose land Turkey today embraces with its short memory.
The film references the holocaust of Hitler's Germany and the mass slaughters in Pol Pot's Cambodia and those of Rwanda, Bosnia and now Darfur, but makes clear that recognition of the tragic Armenian experience is especially problematic. Time has taken its toll, making denial easy. Modern Turkey refuses to acknowledge the slaughter. (Estimates are that between a million and 1.5 million people died.)
Adding pain to this oversight and denial is the fact that, while dozens of countries (17 other "nation-states") do recognize the Armenian holocaust, the U.S. and the U.K. officially do not. To this end, Tankian does a Michael Moore-lite kind of hounding (far less confrontational and not at all clownish) of outgoing Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert, reported to have taken campaign contributions from the Turks as an incentive to discourage passage in Congress of an Armenian genocide recognition bill.
Another idea the doc forces us to chew or choke on is that, according to another System of a Down band member, 25 million native Americans were massacred as this country expanded. And Power makes the point that genocide must not be confused with war.
Tankian has the last word with a glimmer of hope: Maybe the atrocities would end if only countries would switch their priorities from profits to people.
As much as this documentary gives, it would have been edifying to better understand who the Armenians are and what the Ottoman Turks and Kurds have against them. Wikipedia, here we come!