The cast and director of the new film “The Promise” (which opened this weekend), including stars Christian Bale, Oscar Isaac, and Charlotte Le Bon, gathered for a press conference in New York this week.
The film depicts the Armenian genocide in Turkey in the early 1900s. It’s a beautiful but harrowing epic that includes Isaac as an Armenian who travels from his small village to Constantinople for medical school; Bale as an American journalist who risks his life to tell the truth about the genocide; and Le Bon as the Armenian woman they both love, who also risks her life to help others.
Considering the seriousness of the film’s subject matter, the press conference was also serious, as all of those involved with the film are painfully aware that genocide is hardly a thing of the past. The Armenian genocide specifically continues to be denied by the Turkish government, and previous attempts to make a film on the subject were stopped when Turkish authorities intervened with the film industry and the U.S. State Department.
Director Terry George (“Hotel Rwanda”) purposely toned down some of the violence in the film in order to receive a PG-13 rating so that young people could see it.
Below are some of the highlights from the press conference:
Oscar Isaac on why he wanted to make the film:
To me, to my shame, I didn’t know about the Armenian genocide before I got the script and spoke with Terry. So, it was new to me. And to read about that, to read that 1.5 million Armenians perished at the hands of their own government was horrifying. And that the world did nothing. And not only that, but to this day that it’s so little known. There’s active denial of it.
So that really was a big impetus to be part of it, and also the cast that they put together, and then to learn that 100% of the proceeds would go to charity. It was just an extraordinary thing to be part of….
Of course, we’re just actors, but sometimes even within that, you can’t separate yourself from politics totally. It is a political act sometimes. Just telling a story can be a political act.
On their approach to developing their characters:
Oscar Isaac: My approach was to read as much as I could, to try to immerse myself in the history of the time. Also in L.A., there’s a small museum that a few of us got to go to and see some stuff.
Then, for me, I think the biggest help was I have these videos and recordings of survivors that would recount the things that they witnessed as little boys and children, whether it was seeing their grandmother bayoneted by the gendarmes or their mothers and sisters sometimes crucified. Horrible atrocities, and to hear them recounted – almost they would sound like they’d regressed to those little kids again. And that was heartbreaking, so I did feel some responsibility to try to tell their story.
Christian Bale: For me, continuing on from what Oscar was saying, he was talking about the documentaries where you see survivors talking about these horrific experiences, seeing your loved ones, family very barbarically killed. And to try to get into that mindset and to try, even in a very small way, to understand the pain that they must have gone through in the fact that people were telling them they were lying about what had happened.
They had witnessed it with their own eyes, had all of that emotion, but there were people who refused to call it what it is, a genocide, and still people today refuse to call it that…. It’s this great unknown genocide, and the lack of consequence may well have provoked other genocides that have happened since.
Charlotte Le Bon: I talked a lot with Armenian friends in France just to get their take on the story and their families’ stories…. A couple of months before the shooting, I was in Greece just on a holiday. I was on Lesbos Island, which is the door to Europe from Turkey, and it was the beginning of the massive arrival of the refugees. They were coming like 1,000 a day….
I just remember being in the car and watching hundreds and hundreds of people [on] the street trying to reach the capitol of the island…. And a couple of months later, I was on set, and we were recreating the same scene I saw just a couple of months before.
Angela Sarafyan: I had known about the Armenian genocide because I grew up hearing stories from my grandparents, the stories they’d heard from their parents about their grandparents. So, doing this film was very, very close to my heart because it was a chance for me to give some light to that world in a very different way. It’s never existed on film. It’s a very controversial issue….
All of my great-great-great-grandparents were orphans. They didn’t have parents left. They were all taken away.
On resistance to the film:
Terry George: I had a very healthy exchange with a Turkish journalist in L.A. who represented the Hollywood Foreign Press, who presented the Turkish perspective that the genocide didn’t happen, that it was a war and bad things happened and lots of people died on both sides. I pointed out to him that’s exactly true, but in the case of the Armenians, it was their own government who was killing them. So we talked that out.
We had this thing where IMDB was hijacked. We had the sudden appearance of “The Ottoman Lieutenant” movie four weeks ago where it was like a reverse mirror image of this film right down to the storyline….
Our idea, as always with any of these subjects, is get it out there; let’s discuss the thing. I’d be more than willing to sit down with any representative of any Turkish organization and talk this out in terms of different perspectives and present our perspective on it.
Christian Bale: Maybe I shouldn’t say this, but don’t you think also, though, that there’s a kind of a false debate created – a bit like climate change – as though there’s as strong evidence on one side as on the other. But there isn’t. There isn’t as strong of an argument. Similarly with this – the evidence really just points to the fact that it was genocide.
Terry George: Well, the Turkish journalist’s perspective was, “Let’s have a convention about this, and everyone sit down.” Yeah, 100 years later, the evidence has been shredded. Every respected historian in the world recognizes it was a genocide. Almost every government that isn’t swayed by Turkish strategic position recognizes that it’s a genocide. So let’s sit down and figure out what went on? It’s a bit late, guys. The whole world acknowledged what took place, and find a way toward some kind of reconciliation.
On Armenian heroes they learned about as a result of making the film:
James Cromwell: I think [Henry] Morgenthau [U.S. Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire from 1913-1916 during the Armenian Genocide] was pretty impressive. I didn’t know anything about him when I started…. Today, there are no people with that sort of moral outrage as part of our State Department. There are ambassadors to Yemen, there are ambassadors to Sudan and Somalia and Syria and Libya, and you hear nothing. No one stands up for the people who are being oppressed all over the world as far as taking responsibility in the way Morgenthau took responsibility….
As far as a cause is concerned, it just shows us that from the top down to every average citizen, we have been so desensitized to the suffering of other people that we cannot recognize ourselves in the other, which is one of the reasons you do a film like this, that it has a narrative at the core so that an audience can come in and feel what other people feel. And by doing that, you do what Shakespeare said – hold a mirror up to nature….
Terry George: There was an ambassador quite recently, Ambassador Evans, who was the ambassador to Armenia, who refused to not say the word “genocide,” who said the word “genocide” and was forced to resign. In the Clinton Administration?
James Cromwell: Bush.
Terry George: So he’s a latter day hero in the mode of Morgenthau and rightly stood up and recognized it for what it was and paid for it with his job.
On how citizens can make a difference with regard to the current atrocities committed around the world:
Christian Bale: The film was just the beginning of a whole big social campaign. There’s this Promise Institute for Human Rights that just opened up at UCLA…. A fact that 100% of the proceeds has gone toward charities (Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and others). Getting involved with people who are out there on the front lines, so to speak, trying to hold people accountable for genocide.
The press is obviously vital in doing that as well in getting evidence, in getting paper trails, data, that’s all essential. And then compassion, isn’t it, on a daily basis? And who you vote for is vital. But just compassion. The hope very much with this film is to be able to decrease hostilities, and hopefully, people will have compassion for the refugees and the crisis that so many people are going through nowadays.
Terry George: We’re partnered with one organization that I got involved with during “Hotel Rwanda” called Global Nomads. We’ve made this video that we hope to distribute and show in schools around the world.