Film Review: Architects of Denial

David Lee George’s documentary offers a stark and compelling, if occasionally muddled, testament to the Armenian genocide and its ongoing geopolitical repercussions.
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Nobody in their right mind, or so you would think, could argue with the sentiment articulated multiple times throughout David Lee George’s Architects of Denial that “genocide has to stop.” And yet these brutal wholesale purges along ethnic, racial and/or religious lines continue to occur with horrifying regularity. For that matter, the precise mechanisms that might bring about the end of something as historically pernicious as the persecution of “otherness” by those in political power remain frustratingly unclear.

Awareness of the historical facts and alertness to contemporary geopolitical developments—two areas in which George’s documentary succeeds admirably—will get us only so far. That’s all the more the case when those holding political power continue to deny the very terms of the debate. The Turkish government, naturally enough, maintains a position of complete disavowal when it comes to the deaths of 1.5 million Armenians in 1915. More disturbingly for Anglophone audiences, Great Britain and the United States, owing to their close diplomatic ties with Turkey, are the only two First World countries that refuse to acknowledge the very existence of the Armenian genocide.

Quite a few documentaries nowadays begin with what can be considered, in musical terms, an overture: a series of often unidentified talking-head commentators who issue pithy, pointedly phrased bullet points to be expanded upon later in the film, typically intercut with startling imagery intended to stoke viewer interest. Architects of Denial is no exception to the rule. Here, however, this formal conceit engenders a bit of clutter: By dwelling at length at the outset on other examples of genocide (in the Sudan, for instance), it’s unclear how much of the focus of George’s film will be on the notion of genocide per se, and how much on the particulars of the Armenian genocide. But once the film settles into a rhythm during its middle section, the steady accumulation of historical detail and the specifics of eyewitness testimony (quite a bit of which comes from centenarian survivors) make for stark, compelling stuff.

One of the more fascinating episodes concerns Aurora Mardiganian, a survivor of the genocide who, at the tender age of 18, played herself in Auction of Souls, a silent-film adaptation of her own memoirs. A scene from that film that’s included in Architects of Denial shows young Armenian girls being crucified by Turkish soldiers, a brutal enough punishment made all the more terrible by Mardiganian’s later assertion that the actual method of crucifixion (tantamount to impalement) was far more unpleasant. Lest this segment seem ghoulish and even gratuitous, it serves as a through-line later in the documentary, where footage from the recently inaugurated Aurora Awards (named in Mardiganian’s honor) is introduced. This footage also adds a little star power to the production in the person of a speechifying George Clooney.

Invoking the handy tagline “Genocide Denied is Genocide Continued,” Architects of Denial continues the story into the Soviet era and beyond, drawing attention to an ongoing series of skirmishes between Azeri Turks and Armenians in Azerbaijan, where simmering tensions have erupted as recently as last year. As with a lot of recent documentaries, the final ten or fifteen minutes of Architects of Denial get a bit jumbled, as the film makes a bid to be as comprehensive as possible, offering three or four ideal ending points before actually arriving at one.

There’s also the somewhat more serious matter of a few Michael Moore-style “interventions,” in which a youthful interviewer armed with a mike ambushes various members of Congress, grilling them about their position on the Armenian genocide. These bits come across as tactically wrong-headed. It would have been more effective, aesthetically speaking, just to go with the scrawl stating that the filmmakers reached out to 31 Congresspersons and heard back from not a single one of them. Sometimes less really can be more.

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