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Arpafilm festival in LA focuses on film from Armenia

"AGHET, a German View of a Turkish Genocide"
by Alex Deleon, for

ARPA is the name of the river that flows through Yerevan, the capital of the free Armenian Republic, which until 1991 was part of the former Soviet Union. Consequently, it is not surprising that an international film festival so-named is primarily (although not entirely) concerned with the presentation of films from Armenia, films dealing with Armenian topics, and/or films made by Armenians or with Armenian participation in the Diaspora. The Los Angeles area (including the city of Glendale) has possibly the largest concentration of Armenians of any metropolitan area in the world outside of Yerevan itself, and being the home of the Hollywood film industry is the ideal place for Armenian filmmakers to display their wares. What these wares consist of is extremely diverse --as diverse as the Armenia diaspora itself -- and we will come to the films in a moment. But first a few words about the specifics of the Armenian Diaspora.

The historic Armenian homeland, going back to Biblical times, was located in what is now the central and eastern portions of the vast Turkish peninsula, the part known as Anatolia. The Armenians were among the very first nations to accept Christianity en masse and so the Armenian Apostolic church is one of the oldest Christian establishments in the world. When the Turks moved in and conquered the entire peninsula Islam was established as the state religion and the Christian Armenians, now a minority, began to be oppressed, persecuted, and finally "ethnically cleansed" which is to say driven out of Turkey and massacred in the process. The massacres, now officially recognized as the Armenian Genocide, reached a peak in 1915 when some 1.5 million Armenians were either butchered outright by Turkish soldiers or driven from their traditional homes and put on forced death marches through the Syrian desert where most perished. Many did however escape to surrounding countries like Syria Persia and Egypt, while others were able to get on ships to France, America, and even as far as Australia. The section of original Armenia that was just beyond Mount Ararat in Czarist Russia remained intact as a small Armenian state but the Turkish homeland was completely wiped out.

Apart from the Middle East and Iran where large numbers of Armenians are still to be found, the main countries where significant Armenian communities were established were France, the United States, and Canada. All of the latter three countries can boast of major film directors of Armenian descent, as well as actors and musicians --to name only a few: Rouben Mamoulian, of Hollywood, Henri Verneuil (Originally Achod Malakian), France, Atom Egoyan, Canada, and Sergei Parajanov of the USSR --all recognized masters of the craft. Among actors; Akim Tamiroff, Hollywood, Charles Aznavour, actor/singer, France, and Serge Avedikian, 55, French actor/director who was honored at this festival with a life time award.

Armenians in the diaspora have generally prospered and been accepted everywhere as respectable citizens but one very big unresolved issue remains; the continued official denial by Turkey that a genocide of Armenians ever took place and, if a couple million or so Armenians died in a short period of time on Turkish territory, they claim, it was only as the result of wars between Turkey and Russia, with no official collusion on the part of the Turkish government. According to the Turks the Armenians needed to be "resettled" because they were in cahoots with the Russians. Even to mention the word Genocide on Turkey today is a crime against the state punishable by long term imprisonment. France, which has a highly influential Armenian population has officially declared the massacre of Armenians by the Turks in the years 1915 - 1923 as a Genocide and remains strongly opposed to the accession of Turkey to the European Union -- as long as they insist on denying this egregious blot on their history. In contrast, the Obama regime continues to hedge their bets by refusing to call a G. a G. so as not to offend a theoretically friendly Moslem country -- where we have important air bases!

Over the years there have been a number of films addressing themselves to various facets of the genocide, notably Canadian Armenian Atom Egoyan's "Ararat" (Cannes, 2002), and others, but until now there has not been a film specifically addressing the Turkish denial of the Armenian Genocide. Surprisingly such a film now comes from Germany and is made by a German, Eric Friedler. The film in question is a 90 minute documentary entitled "Aghet: ein Völkdermord" (Aghet: a Genocide") where the Armenian word "Aghet" literally means calamity or catastrophe. This film became the centerpiece of the festival and director Friedler was presented with a special award, the Armin T. Wegner Humanitarian Award, established by ARPA in the name of the heroic German of the same name who, as a member of the German sanitary corps in Turkey during WW I, witnessed the massacres of Armenians and became a major German voice of protest against them. He was later arrested by the Gestapo for openly protesting Hitlers anti-Jewish policies but survived internment in several concentration camps.

Raphael Lemkin, a Jewish-Polish emigré lawyer, coined the term "genocide" (Murder of a people) in 1948 and called the mass murder of Armenians in Turkey from 1915 to 1923 "the first systematically executed genocide of the 20th century" -- by implication, the prequel to the genocide of the Jews by the Germans, now known as the "Holocaust", a scant twenty years later. Friedler's film investigates the motivations behind the continued frenzied denials by the Turkish government and the consequences thereof in terms of international foreign policy today. The first screening of this 90 minute documentary took place in Berlin in April of this year where it was attended by German politicians, foreign diplomats, and Armenian community representatives. The method of this film is to bring back to life the actual Words of foreign diplomats, engineers, and missionaries who were there and witnessed the atrocities, their testimony being read by an ensemble of 23 professional German actors narrating the original texts, not in the style of docu-drama where events are re-enacted with semi-fictional dialogue, but as simple interview sessions deriving their power from the integrity of the performances and the power of the words themselves.

Friedler also present the cold facts of current political reality. We see a school in Istanbul named after Talaat Pasha, one of the top butchers of Armenians, a kind of Turkish Heinrich Himmler. Equally harsh on his own country Friedler proves beyond any doubt Germanys complicity in the Genocide. In the film we hear a German Chancellor (long before Hitler) state: "Our only goal was to keep Turkey on our side (in WW I) until the end of the war, regardless of whether or not Armenians perished". Armenians all over the world still cannot comprehend the reason why Turkey to this day keeps denying events that took place over ninety years ago. They feel betrayed by a world that accepts the Turkish interpretation of history. In the Berlin political archives there are over 1000 reports. letters, notes, and essays which the German Reich collected in those years, documents which have been kept hidden all these years to prevent the besmirching of Turkey's international image. Now unearthed they leave no doubt that a horrific genocide had indeed taken place. These are firsthand reports from German and American diplomats, doctors, teachers, and nurses who lived in Turkey and recorded their observations.

Henry Morgenthau, the American ambassador to Turkey at the time, wrote: "These people were ripped from their homes without any reason, and were sent on a march through the desert, Thousands of women and children died on this journey, not only because of hunger and exhaustion, but because of the cruelty of those who were watching over them".
A Swedish missionary nurse named Alma Johansson, (Actress Martina Gedeck) wrote: "Can you comprehend what it means to witness such things and not be able to do anything about it?"
Leslie A. Davis, (Actor Friedrich von Thum) an American consul in Harput at that time wrote: "It was no secret that the Armenians were being killed. But the measures were more horrendous than I had imagined. The streets were filled with dead bodies. The cities were more like morgues, or rather, like slaughter houses. When one sees the killing of innocent, children, mothers, newborns, old men and women, then it is impossible to find a plausible reason that would justify such measures".

All these reports presented in the film, describing in lurid detail the horrific genocide of the Armenians and the incredible brutality of the Turkish (in some cases, Kurdish) murderers, constitute incontrovertible evidence that the official Turkish position today is nothing but one incredibly Big Lie. One non Armenia gentleman I spoke to after the screening said that what impressed him most was that the Turks were far more brutal than the Germans in World War II. (Nailing horse shoes on the feet of live victims!)

What is, perhaps, most significant about this film is that it presents a German view of the Genocide, from a country that is identified with the largest genocide of all time, the Holocaust, but is at least a country which has had the integrity to face up to the horrors of it's own history without "gilding the lily". What is also of special interest is the fact that since Turkey was on the side of Germany in World War I, there were many German military advisers in Turkey at the time of the genocide, who may have rendered a certain logistical assistance to the Turks, and who certainly learned some basic lessons on how to get rid of large numbers of people you don't like, which would be put into practice back home eventually on an even greater scale. It is slightly stomach turning to think that the current America administration finds it convenient not to condemn the Turkish denial of the Armenian genocide because "we have important air bases on Turkish soil". Makes one realize that in international politics Hypocrisy is clearly the Name of the Game.
In any case the film "AGHET -- the story of Genocide" is a film which needs to be widely seen as an eye opener to an issue which is bigger than it seems, because official Genocide denial at the highest levels is not a Turkish monopoly -- there is this funny fellow in Tehran by the name of Ahmedinajad ... for instance.

Tomorrow: Other films of interest at ARPA
"Three evenings", (Armenia) "Five Tales from Kars" (Turkey), etc.

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