It seems like everything is about immigrants and the question of endangered populations these days, from La Naranja Maldita clearly having a grudge against anyone he doesn’t consider “American” to the current (and ongoing) refugee crisis in the Eurozone. It’s apt then that now would be the time when a film like The Promise is set to drop. Directed by Terry George and starring Oscar Isaac, Christian Bale, Angela Sarafyan and more, the film covers an oft-still-overshadowed human tragedy – The Armenian Genocide. Told through the eyes of a young Armenian doctor studying in Turkey in 1914, The Promise is as much a human story as it is a history lesson.
A sweeping epic modeled after Lawrence of Arabia and other long-winded historical adventures, The Promise begins by grounding itself in personal dramas. But as the film progresses, the grander moments overtake the narrative, broadening the experience and flattening some of the stories. This is best embodied by the named promise of the film — Mikael (Oscar Isaac) is betrothed to a young woman, Maral (Angela Sarafyan), in his village before he ships off to Turkey to study. But of course, he falls in love with another woman, Ana (Charlotte Le Bon), who’s entangled with AP reporter, Chris (Christian Bale.) This love quadrangle establishes characters and provides some solid intrigue amid the backdrop of countries at war. Things shift however when these tensions rise to a point. As Turkey locks itself from the outside world and begins purging Armenians, everyone is up for grabs: Miakel is thrown into a concentration camp, Chris becomes a “spy” by any other name, and Mikael’s best Turkish friend is forced to choose an allegiance. In turn, the women of the film are caught in the middle, for better or worse. Ana commits herself to humanitarian work and Maral eventually reunites with Mikael…for a time.
These interwoven dramas are important because they put a face to something that for many is an obscure fact of history. That empathetic connection is important. Because Armenians and their diaspora know this tragedy, intimately, deeply. But there’s so much to do when you’ve got to teach those who never knew about this event in the first place. Humanizing it makes that work much easier. It also doesn’t hurt that the film is helmed by a star-studded cast, lending it space for recognition if only because of the power of celebrity. While some may see it as a crafty strategy, you can’t really knock it. At least, from a storytelling standpoint. As the players are swept into the rush of history, these humanizing elements ground the viewer, allowing us to follow along.
However, things at times become so grand that we too get lost. In a bid to provide history lessons and compelling drama, The Promise falters a bit, juggling the two to the point that you may ask yourself what is the point of the film. Which isn’t bad, in of itself. Rather, it’s an issue, again, of trying to sell a movie while also speaking poignantly and accurately to a moment in time that very few folks are educated about. I personally lay that fault at the hands of those who gate-keep history, and not the filmmakers. But you do you. All that said, in a world where the simple synopsis of this story caused people to get into a fervent ratings war before the movie even released, you take what you can get because the history is important and needs to be shared.
When I got to hop on the phone in March with one of The Promise’s producers, Eric Esrailian, he admitted as much. Born and raised in the Bay himself, Esrailian is the child of Armenian Genocide survivors. So his impetus for producing this film comes from being witness to the effects the genocide had on his family and friends. Despite there being a lot of intimidation put on people who wanted to see it, like the digital comment wars, the film actually flew under the radar for the majority of production. This was probably due to the cagey decision to shoot in Portugal, Malta and Spain (and New York,) away from the prying eyes of genocide-deniers. Ultimately, he impressed upon me that this film was more than just a venture into cinema. Rather “[the team’s] hope is that people are moved and feel inspired to help [other] people in the world today.” He later added that “hopefully we can be inspired to be kind and not discriminate against people fleeing persecution.”
Given the state of the world and our current march towards new wars on foreign soils, I too hope we can embrace kindness in a way that acknowledges the sins of the past without erasing them.
Dap owns Timberland boots and is committed to loving black women, eating good food and diversifying media as he sees fit and while he can. He can be found yelling into the abyss and being snarky on the following: IG | Twitter