Film Review: Intent to Destroy

Research for the feature film 'The Promise' gives documentarian Joe Berlinger the opportunity to examine the Armenian genocide of the early 20th century.
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An early casualty of "fake news," the state-sponsored genocide of Armenians in the early 20th century is still being disputed by the Turkish government. Intent to Destroy builds a strong case against that stance.

Essentially a "making of" look at The Promise, a Terry George feature starring Oscar Isaac and Christian Bale, Intent to Destroy spends considerable time introducing cast and filmmakers, among them George, Eric Bogosian, Shohreh Aghdashloo, production designer Benjamín Fernández, executive producer Ralph Winter, associate producer Carla Garapedian and others. (The leads are seen working, but do not give interviews. In one long segment, Bale is especially considerate and thoughtful coaching a child extra through a difficult moment.)

While Intent to Destroy shows how sets were constructed and scenes staged for The Promise, it has the advantage of ignoring the melodramatic plotlines that so badly compromised the completed feature. George cites Schindler's List and The Killing Fields as inspiration, but in theatres The Promise failed as drama and was only slightly better as political tract.

Berlinger also interviews several academics and politicians, and this material is cumulatively stunning. After decades of repression against Armenians, in 1915 the Turks set about killing them with the kind of brutal efficiency later employed by the Nazis against Jews, gypsies and other "undesirables." In fact, German officers helped with the logistics of eradicating an entire ethnicity, and adopted innovative techniques developed here for their own Holocaust.

Berlinger assembles archival material expertly, using newsreels, photographs, previously filmed interviews and newspaper headlines to cement the case against the Turks. Filmmaker Atom Egoyan is especially articulate, but it is the testimony from elderly eyewitnesses that makes the strongest impression. Berlinger also includes several examples of Turks trying to intimidate and threaten those who even use the word "genocide" in connection with the Armenians.

Why the facts are even in doubt today is a lesson this country has yet to learn. As the documentary points out, The New York Times ran 145 articles about Armenian troubles in 1915. Yet today the Turkish government, as well as many apologists in the U.S., deny that a genocide ever occurred. (One argument is that the term "genocide" was not defined in political terms until 1944.)

Justin McCarthy, a professor at the University of Louisville, uses the same tactics lobbyists used with tobacco and climate change. "I'd like to see a real debate," he says, before pivoting into demonstrably false statements like "Most of the Armenians were killed by Russians" and "Basically everyone killed everyone."

The Promisemay not have been a very good movie, and "making of" documentaries may be inherently flawed. But Intent to Destroy goes well beyond the genre to build a terse, infuriating case against a monstrous injustice, one with frightening relevance to events today.

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