This week marks the date we officially commemorate the 106th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide. Many people are not aware that it marked the first time that Western governments, including the US and Canada, launched a humanitarian appeal for an international human rights tragedy. The crimes against the Armenian people were so severe that it was one of the reasons legal jurist Raphael Lemkin created the term “genocide” in the first place.
The history of the Armenian Genocide on film is a curious one. One survivor, Aurora Mardiganian, wrote a biography about the horrors she experienced, titled Ravished Armenia, and she later starred in a Hollywood adaptation of it. The process of making the film was horrifying for Mardiganian, who was not fairly compensated and forced to act out traumatic events that were still raging half a world away — Anthony Slide’s Ravished Armenia and the Story of Aurora Mardiganian is a good read on the topic. The film was one of many initiatives that helped raise some $117 million (roughly $2 billion today) for Armenian and other refugees fleeing persecution. The film has since been almost completely lost, though roughly 20 minutes survive (accidentally discovered in Buenos Aires decades later). Ravished Armenia would be the only time Hollywood seriously and extensively tackled the topic for roughly half a century (though they certainly tried) until 1963’s America America, directed by Elia Kazan, whose Cappadocian Greek parents survived the same genocide.
This year, there’s some indication that US President Joseph Biden might actually acknowledge the historical fact of the Armenian Genocide. If that’s the case, it will be the first time this happens in such a formal way, and it comes after both the US House and Senate acknowledged the genocide with a non-binding resolution in 2019. Here’s hoping the US, which has benefited from denial of the event because of its cozy relationship with NATO ally Turkey (the successor state to the Ottoman Empire, which perpetrated the genocide, and which continues to deny it), will turn a new page and do the right thing. These four films highlight not only some of the strongest work made on the Armenian Genocide, but also the range of material available about the topic.
The Cut (2014)
In my opinion, this is hands down the best fiction film about the Armenian Genocide, and it’s directed by Fatih Akin, a German director of Turkish descent. A moving tale that follows Nazaret Manoogian (expertly played by Algerian-French actor Tahar Rahim) from the city of Mardin to track down his daughters and escape certain death. Western Armenian is spoken throughout — an incredible feat, given that the director and most of the crew didn’t speak the language. It tells the story in a moving and graphic way (be warned). Akın does a great job of illuminating contemporary parallels in the story without being heavy-handed. Though the ending is a little corny, the film is a great introduction to the psychological realities which survivors of the genocide faced.
Watch it on various platforms.
Atom Egoyan is one of the finest directors of Armenian descent working today, and his film Ararat has become a classic in the way it grapples with history and mourning. In Egoyan’s typically heady style, the film follows a fictional director who is seeking to make a film about the genocide, the Van Resistance, and painter Arshile Gorky, who was a survivor. The result is a curious meditation on the nature of history and its relationship to the present. It demonstrates how the genocide continues to inspire contemporary artists to explore different themes and styles to tell its story, even as its truth continues to be denied by the perpetrators. Charles Aznavour, Christopher Plummer, Arsinée Khanjian, Eric Bogosian, and others appear in this favorite of film studies programs the world over.
Watch it on Paramount+.
The Armenian Genocide (2006)
This is probably one of the finest straightforward documentaries, done in a classic PBS style, about the events of 1915. Directed by Andrew Goldberg, who uncovered important footage of Raphael Lemkin explaining the genocide, it does a wonderful job of telling you the history, providing a ton of important context for the disaster. The film includes interviews with leading figures, including Vartan Gregorian, Peter Balakian, Samantha Power, and Taner Akçam, and it is also narrated by Hollywood celebrities, including Orlando Bloom, Ed Harris, Laura Linney, Jared Leto, Julianna Margulies, Paul Rudd, and Natalie Portman. If you’re looking for a quick orientation on the topic, this may be your ticket.
Available via PBS International.
Grandmother’s Tattoos (2011)
This documentary is Suzanne Khardalian’s initiative to explain the curious tattoos her grandmother had on her face and hands, which she hid throughout her life when she could. Such tattoos were a source of shame for many women who survived the Armenian Genocide, as they often broadcast their enslavement and sexual abuse. The documentary uses these historical scars to explore the topic, centering women in the process. Her project is one of many that have recently focused on female survivors, who were forced to endure the most horrific crimes after their fathers, husbands, sons, and other male relatives were forcibly removed from households and killed by Ottoman Turkish authorities.
Available via Cinema Guild.
Khardalian’s film is part of a fairly recent wave of personal films that have been made in the last few decades about the Armenian Genocide. Others include the pioneering documentary An Armenian Journey (1988) by Ted Bogosian (art lovers may be interested to know that Miriam Davis, who is extensively interviewed in this film, was the sister-in-law of renowned US painter Stuart Davis), The Genocide in Me (2008) by Araz Artinian, and I Love the Sound of the Kalachnikov It Reminds Me of Tchaikovsky (2001) by Philippe Vartan Khazarian.