AGHET: GENOCIDE, POLITICS, AND PROGRESS THROUGH FILM

By Satenik Harutyunyan

It appears that the developed world has lately been fascinated with championing for human rights— for serving as the voice of justice in an unjust world. Young people everywhere are sporting t-shirts that read “Save Darfur”, internationally known celebrities are adopting children from third-world nations on a regular basis, and well-to-do businesspeople are opening charities for impoverished children. These efforts are commendable, but indirectly raise the question of what it takes for an individual (or any given entity) to create a sustainable message for human rights. Crimes against humanity have been constantly presented to politicians and today’s governmental authorities, yet the primary combatants of human rights abuses have often been non-government forces relentlessly striving to speak out for justice. Creating a message with a global appeal and the ability to catalyze political change against
inhumanity, however, is no easy task.

Knowing the obstacles that would inevitably hinder his efforts, a German filmmaker by the name of Eric Friedler took on such a task. Equipped with the funding of German Public Television (NDR) and an ensemble of 23 notable German actors bringing historical texts to life, Friedler created a documentary to depict the Armenian Genocide perpetrated by the Ottoman Empire during the First World War. Many historians believe that the Armenian Genocide was the first genocide of the twentieth century, during which approximately 1.5 million Armenians perished as a result of death marches, deportation to nowhere, and starvation. This interpretation of the Genocide, however, is not globally accepted. Firstly, the Turkish government exercises an uncompromising policy of genocide denial, and the U.S. government does not officially recognize these atrocities of WWI as genocide. Ninety-five years after the fact, the story of the Armenian Genocide faces the risk of easily slipping away into forgotten antiquity. In light of these points, the factors contributing to Friedler’s opposition in this case are easy to understand.

Turkey’s role in the Western world makes international recognition of the Armenian Genocide a nearly taboo topic of discussion. A secular democracy in the Muslim world, Turkey serves as a desirable ally to many Western nations, including the United States and Germany. Many U.S. officials look to Turkey as a model for the Middle East—an example for its neighbors to follow. The question of the Genocide and its recognition can be answered simply. Turkey’s message to its allies is clear: recognition of the Genocide yields consequences. As mentioned earlier, the current Turkish government dictates policy that does not hold the Ottoman Empire, its predecessor, guilty of Genocide. In fact, Section 301 of the Turkish penal code makes it a federally punishable crime to “insult Turkishness” , which includes mention of the Armenian Genocide. In effect, any government or individual that thinks otherwise ultimately undermines Turkish policy.

Despite the obvious difficulty ahead of him, Eric Friedler went forth with his film which was first screened in Berlin on April 8th, 2010. Friedler’s documentary is a unique effort at presenting history that many legislators and governments have been aware of for years. From its conception in Germany, Aghet has made its way to the United States, and into the heartland of American politics on Capitol Hill. The documentary, which is heavy and heart-wrenching, yet beautifully executed, displays the Armenian Genocide through a new light. It is important to note that the point of the movie is not to appeal to any one group—Friedler himself claims that he had “no target audience” in mind when making the film. He is not playing to the emotional capacities of the Armenians, nor is he seeking to speak out against Turks. He is merely attempting to portray, through raw and invigorating footage, history he believes to be “a fact that has already been proven”. In this way, the film’s appeal is universal. The viewer does not have to be associated with the history to be moved by Friedler’s message.

Perhaps because of this, Aghet has drawn both admiration and controversy. During the Capitol Hill Screening on July 23, 2010, host and California Representative Adam Schiff commented on the opposition from the Turkish side when he said, “Today I received a copy of a letter from the Turkish ambassador, decrying the fact that this film is being screened here in Congress and claiming that “Aghet” attempts to simplify and worse, to falsify the nature and force of this sad chapter in history.” Ultimately, when it comes to foreign affairs, the Armenian Genocide remains a constant tug of war. With neither side willing to yield, reconciliation between Armenia and Turkey is unlikely to come in the near future. Today, the Turkey-Armenia border remains indefinitely closed, eliminating trade between the two nations. Not to mention that in 2007, Hrant Dink, a Turkish-Armenian journalist who wrote about the Armenian Genocide, was gunned down outside his office in Istanbul, causing a worldwide reaction from the Armenian Diaspora.

The House Foreign Affairs committee passed House Resolution 252 (The Armenian Genocide Resolution) in March of this year, recognizing the massacres of WWI as genocide. House Resolution 252 calls for U.S. recognition of the Armenian Genocide—there is no mention of action on behalf of the Turkish government. The resolution has yet to be voted upon by the full House of Representatives. At the July screening, Eric Friedler noted, “I do not know if my film Aghet will have any impact on the way the American Congress will deal with the issue of Armenian Genocide in the future. It is more than amazing and absolutely unusual that a German documentary might be considered to have any meaning to a political decision-making process. I feel very honored to be invited to Washington and that Aghet is seen by members of the Congress.” At this point, it is too early to gauge the political impact of Mr. Friedler’s film.

Nearly a century after the Genocide occurred, some beg the question as to why vehicles of information such as Aghet, as well as the idea of recognition are so important to Armenians, the Armenian Diaspora, and those who actively partake in their cause. Others fear the political repercussions of such a move and allude to the fragile U.S. alliance with Turkey. After all, no material benefit will come to a government for officially recognizing the massacres as genocide. If the issue were looked at through black and white terms in the United States, recognition may even be arbitrary to Washington. For those connected to the issue, however, the Armenian Genocide is not only a question of policy. It is a question of symbolism, closure, and progress. It is a ma¬tter of illustrating to the world that the modern concept of human rights can be a powerful contender in a ruthlessly politically constructed global community. After all, gestures of symbolic recognition—such as the Germany ban of the word “Nazi” from the country’s vocabulary and the Japanese Prime Minister’s recent apology to Korea for colonial rule and mistreatment—ultimately hold weight when it comes to reconciliation.

Although the world’s outlook on the issue of the Armenian Genocide has yet to reach a consensus, Eric Friedler’s Aghet ultimately shines light on an aging issue begging a modern question. With genocide continuing to plague the world, widespread education and recognition bring out remote hope that the new perpetrators of genocide will rethink their course.

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