In the early 1980s, I used to pay regular visits to the aging Mohammad-Ali Jamalzadeh (1892-1997) in Geneva. He was a legendary literary figure long before his death at the age of 105. A founding father of modern Persian fiction, Jamalzadeh came from an eminent revolutionary family and had soon left Iran for Europe where he spent most of his life writing some seminal works that inaugurated modernist fiction.
My meetings with Jamalzadeh were mostly because of my interest at the time in the rise of modernist Persian prose, about which he had an encyclopedic knowledge. I recall in one of our meetings he was telling me about a trip he had made from Berlin to Baghdad soon after the beginning of World War I when he was active with leading Iranian intellectuals, who at the time of the Constitutional Revolution in Iran (1906-1911) lived in Berlin.
At a point when he was in the heat of telling me about his trip back from Baghdad to Berlin, he said he was traveling on the back of a horse-driven cart as he passed through the Ottoman territories and suddenly he said he noticed blonde-haired decapitated heads popping up in the landscape around him.
“Those were Armenians,” he said nonchalantly. Our conversation had nothing to do with the Armenian Genocide, and we were both in the midst of reconstructing a critical moment in early Iranian intellectual history. But the image he was describing became so compelling in his mind and so unsettling in mine that he dwelled on it for a few minutes and repeated a few times the phrases “blonde-haired decapitated heads” and “they were Armenians”.
In Turkey, talking about the Armenian Genocide is a taboo. There are Turkish nationalists who categorically deny such a thing as the Armenian Genocide, in which nearly a million human beings are alleged to have perished, ever took place – all the testimonies and documentations to that effect notwithstanding.
In this context, the making of an epic film on the Armenian Genocide by Fatih Akin, a Turkish filmmaker based in Germany, signals a particularly poignant turning point. As evident in the case of the widely popular book, Hasan Cemal’s 1915: Armenian Genocide (2012), and as Fatih Akin acknowledges, he is not the first Turk to address the issue. Journalists, artists, public intellectuals etc. have been talking about the slaughter of Armenians in Eastern Anatolia and the subject is increasingly less of a taboo in Turkey.
Akin’s film has all the evident anxieties of a young filmmaker carrying the marks of the filmmakers he admires up its sleeves – with Elia Kazan, Sergio Leone, Martin Scorsese, Bernardo Bertolucci, and Terrence Malick chief among them. This gives the film a bit of concocted character, too much of a nervous filmmaker rookie on display to evince the signs of a mature filmmaker with a serious thing to say about a monumental tragedy.
But perhaps the screening of a major motion picture epic in a major European film festival (Venice 2014) marks an iconoclastic moment in the public conversation. Of course not everything is ripe and ready in Turkey to deal with the public acknowledgement of the Armenian allegations and there have already been death threats against Akin.
Perhaps the most poignant aspect of Akin’s film “The Cut” (2014) is its narrative structure, which mimics the story of the Armenian diaspora after this definitive national trauma. While it takes the genocide of 1915 as its point of departure, it then roams around the world as we follow a father – Tahir Rahim/Nazaret Manoogian – who has survived the slaughter and now looks for his lost children. His search takes him from the domains of the crumbling Ottoman Empire to Havana to North Dakota, etc.
Akin shot his film in Jordan, Germany, Cuba, Canada, and Malta – in and of itself an indication of not just the director’s penchant for the classical “road movie” but more to the point reflecting the trauma of the Armenian diaspora after the genocide – a trauma that has already become global by virtue of its survivors’ narratives, entirely independent of the Turkish admission or not.
The key question is what can this epic narrative achieve in making that global awareness more palpable. Shot on 35-millimetre film with Cinemascope lenses, with locations in five countries and a budget of $20 million, “The Cut” exudes a lavish and gaudy proclivity towards the epic narrative that already demands and wishes to exact a grandiloquence that is too late and too kitschy at this stage of cinema history. As all other colossal catastrophes – from the Jewish Holocaust to the Palestinian Nakba – no epic narrative can any longer do justice to the mimetic crisis at the heart of the Armenian Genocide.
Akin’s film has all the evident anxieties of a young filmmaker carrying the marks of the filmmakers he admires up its sleeves – with Elia Kazan, Sergio Leone, Martin Scorsese, Bernardo Bertolucci, and Terrence Malick (as he lists them all in an interview) chief among them. This gives the film a bit of concocted character, too much of a nervous filmmaker rookie on display to evince the signs of a mature filmmaker with a serious thing to say about a monumental tragedy.
Point of comparison
The film creates an immediate point of comparison with Atom Egoyan exquisite film “Ararat” (2002), which addresses the Armenian Genocide in a far more cinematically accomplished and provocative directorial confidence, and after which all grand narratives of the Armenian Genocide have already been dismantled. Egoyan’s masterpiece is so powerful that in fact it makes Yousry Nasrallah’s attempt to tell the story of the Palestinian Nakba in a similarly grand epic narrative in “The Gate of the Sun” (2004) an unqualified failure. Instead of tabulating the old masters of the cinematic archive, Akin should have watched Atom Egoyan far more attentively in order to learn how not to tell that story.
The key issue in telling any epic story of dispossession, exodus, catastrophe or Holocaust is precisely the manner in which the story is to be told in the literary and cinematic context when all such grand narratives have become suspect. By virtue of a sustained course of more than 100 years of poignant and powerful remembrance, the Armenian tragedy has advanced far too deeply into our political consciousness for a tired old cliche kind of cinematic narrative to do justice to it. If a director is not aware of that fact, he walks perilously between tragedy and kitsch.
Filmmakers like Atom Egoyan and Arby Ovanessian, poets and novelists like Peter Balakian, scholars like Marc Nichanian, Anahid Kassabian, David Kazanjian, and many more have already pushed the boundaries of narrative far beyond any point of return and registered the emotive history of the Armenian Genocide in a visual and verbal vocabulary in tune with the crooked timber of our world. Akin is too late and his narrative too visually self-conscious and archival to come anywhere near the emotive complexity of that universe.
At this stage of world history and world cinema, it no longer matters if a bureaucrat in Turkey acknowledges or does not acknowledge that the Armenian Genocide actually took place. What matters, and what generations of Armenian scholars, historians, poets, novelists, journalists, oral history archivists, and filmmakers have already achieved – commemorating the tragedy by having it embedded in the other criminal atrocities in world history (from Rwanda to Bosnia to Palestine) – is where the memory of those perished innocently resonates best and matters most: as in the effervescent subconscious of a literary giant like Mohammad-Ali Jamalzadeh when remembering the trials and tribulations of his own homeland.
Hamid Dabashi is Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University in New York.