It isn’t unusual for some movies to have more interesting stories about what happened behind the scenes than what ended up onscreen, but in some cases, the most fascinating stories about movies are about the ones that never made it to the screen in the first place. Knowing this, Joe Berlinger’s ears perked when he heard that there was going to be a big-budget production in the works concerning the story of the Armenian genocide, the 1915 massacre at the hands of the Ottoman Empire in Turkey that has rarely been portrayed on film despite being one of the greatest atrocities of the 20th century. This was no accident, as filmmakers throughout the years saw their efforts thwarted at various stages often due to pressure from the Turkish government, the most prominent being an epic adaptation of Franz Werfel’s definitive “The Forty Days of Musa Dagh” that was to be produced by MGM once during the 1930s and subsequently the 1960s. With more distance and stars Christian Bale and Oscar Isaac onboard as well as “Hotel Rwanda” director Terry George and a benevolent independent financier behind it, the late Kirk Kerkorian, whose family had fled Armenia shortly after the genocide, it was unlikely the film that would become “The Promise” was going to be derailed and soon enough, Berlinger found himself embedded in the 72-day shoot witnessing history in the making, both literally and figuratively.
For the filmmaker who has investigated the sociopolitical implications of the artistic process for some of his most provocative work, whether it be “Under African Skies,” his chronicle of the making of Paul Simon’s controversial but triumphant “Graceland” album or the TV series “Iconoclasts,” which observed the connections between artists in different mediums as they spent time with one another, the opportunity to sit in on the production of “The Promise” offered an irresistible chance to reflect on the responsibility of recounting such a painful event as the production was unfolding. What’s so compelling about the resulting film, “Intent to Destroy: Death, Denial and Depiction,” is that beyond joining the small group of films to acknowledge the genocide simply by existing, it’s a gripping examination of the power of art to keep history alive, doing so itself by spending time with survivors and scholars directly connected to the real-life tragedy and those involved in recreating it, expressing what would be narratively inefficient in a drama and simply ineffable in a more traditional historical document.
After premiering earlier this year at the Tribeca Film Festival, “Intent to Destroy” is making its way to theaters this week and to mark the occasion, Berlinger spoke about how this unique documentary came about, navigating the line between being respectful of another filmmaker’s set and what he needed to do to make his own film work, and shedding light on an area of history that’s all too often ignored or unknown.
How did this come about? I understand “The Promise” wasn’t initially part of the proposal for this.
Right. Some people reached out to me wanting to make a film about the Armenian genocide and it’s a subject that interested me, but I’m not a talking heads/historical footage kind of filmmaker. I’m a verite filmmaker, so initially I wasn’t interested and a mutual friend had introduced us, but the producers weren’t telling me where the funding was coming from in these initial meetings. They just wanted to make a documentary, so I was polite and suggested who else they should talk to. Then I later learned that these very same people were making “The Promise,” so I went back to them and said, “Hey, you know what? If you want a film about the Armenian genocide, the way to do it is through the making of “The Promise” because that’s a historic event [in itself].” If you know anything about the story, any time anybody in Hollywood has attempted to make about the Armenian genocide, arms have been twisted and the projects have been shut down. Now [these independent producers were] making one – not a Hollywood studio, so that’s why it’s getting made, and I was interested in making a film not just about the history of the genocide, but denial, and how the fact that a film that has long been repressed or attempts to make a film like this have long been shut down.
[So I said,] “Let me embed with the film, and let the making of the film [serve] as the present-tense structure to tell the underlying history of the genocide,” which is what [the producers] had wanted, but in addition, it gives me a vehicle to tell a part of the story that I actually think is more interesting, which is how denial works and the aftermath of denial. At first, there was some hesitancy because the making of a [big-budget] movie’s a big deal, so the idea of throwing a documentarian in there had to be discussed. I had to pitch the producers and Terry George on access, and eventually I convinced everyone to let me do it. The other reason I wanted to do [the documentary] this way was – again, I’m not a talking heads/archival footage kind of filmmaker – I thought by hooking my wagon to the making of a feature film, it gave me this great present tense device to hang everything on. Not in a gratuitous [Electronic Press Kit] way. We’re not really telling the story of “The Promise.” But we’re using it as a vehicle to tell the much larger story of the genocide, getting into the kind of historical detail that a feature film never could, as well as talking about how denial works, which I think is an important subject, particularly in this day and age of “alternative facts” and “fake news.”
These two productions were independent of each other, but since you both had to do research, was there any cross-pollination in that regard?
Not really. “The Promise” did its own thing and we did ours. The one cross-pollination is a woman who was this historical consultant and co-producer on “The Promise” also functioned as our historical adviser and co-producer on the documentary, Carla Garapedian. She suggested the footage [of the survivors’ testimony] and we had a hard time actually accessing it. Then once we finally did, at the 12th hour, it just kicked the film up to a whole other level, because the other chapter in the film is depiction. One of the other interesting themes in the film, and why it was important for me to go behind the scenes, is that this film is very much about storytelling. Part of the tagline for the film is whoever controls the narrative controls the history, and it was fascinating [to see] how do you depict the horror of a genocide in a PG movie?
The movie all comes together for me at that massacre scene because you see Terry George – and he pulls it off beautifully, but he presents a sanitized version of what the massacre would look like. You see the actors being laid down and how the actors are acting emotionally to it, and that’s where the behind-the-scenes come in – the layer that really makes that sequence in the film show how all the moving parts can really work together is the addition of the survivor testimonies.
When watching the horror of genocide, it has to be done in a certain way. And when you see the survivors juxtaposed [with] the actors portraying something that’s digestible…[this is] not a criticism of “The Promise” at all, but it’s why I juxtapose the wrap scene [where] Terry pops the cork [to celebrate the end of the production] with the very last moment in the film after that [where you see] one of these survivors saying, “I just can’t talk about it anymore” because for him, [the genocide is] literally a daily nightmare that he has. [For the crew of “The Promise”], the movie’s over. They’ve all had this memorable experience that’ll be a positive memory for them and they get to go back to their lives, as they should, but [the survivor] doesn’t get to go back to a nice existence. He has these horrible memories of genocide. So the few places that these survivor testimonies are in the film – because I didn’t want to overdo it either – they work really well in elevating the film in all three of its themes – theme one is death. This genocide happened and here are the witnesses. [Theme two is] denial. You can throw in all the denial arguments you want, but when you have an eyewitness testimony, it’s a little hard to deny. And depiction – like what’s the right level of atrocity you should be showing in a movie and how do you reconcile that with the real lives of the people that lived it.
After the filming of that massacre scene, you get some of the most powerful moments in “Intent to Destroy” when you go up to the actors, who are clearly emotionally raw from being in the moment. It must’ve been an incredibly fraught environment, so was that interesting to navigate as far as not interfering with the film that was being made, but getting what you needed for your film?
That’s interesting you should say that because up until that day, about halfway through the movie, I had been warned, “You can film, but don’t talk to people as the film was being made.” With the exception of Terry – Terry was more accessible than everybody else, but Christian Bale and Oscar Isaac, in particular, have a policy of not doing interviews even for an EPK until after they’ve seen the movie. So I was very cautious about blowing my all-access pass by being too intrusive. But when we were just observing, it was feeling too EPK-like. I wasn’t getting the content I was hoping to get. And I knew [the massacre scene] was the emotional center of “The Promise,” but I also felt it was the emotional center of my documentary, so I took a bold step. That day was the first day I said, “Fuck it, I cannot abide by these restrictions and I need to take a chance and start moving in and talking to people. Otherwise, this is never going to get to the next level.”
In fact, I had a DP who did a brilliant job, Bob Richman, and another second cameraman, but I also carried a very small camera. So without a sound man – I just had the onboard mic – when Christian Bale was rehearsing with that kid, I just felt instinctively that’s a moment I have to cross the line today and get more aggressive. I had not eavesdropped on his rehearsals before, but I literally walked into the situation with my little camera, filming Christian working with that kid, half-expecting him to turn to me and say, “Get away.” And he didn’t. He knew I was filming – he allowed for me to film and didn’t say anything. It was very natural. I felt like that was a great human moment and there’s stuff that didn’t make it into the movie, but that was the day that I felt, “Okay, I need to interact with this film more to get what I’m looking for.” That’s when I pushed in on Shohreh Aghdashloo, and approached her and I approached Angela Sarafyan and from there on in, we got other great material.
You mentioned the tagline earlier — “Whoever controls the narrative controls the history, which leads me to another element of narratives – the idea of telling a story in order to keep it alive, which is something you had to do through the “Paradise Lost” series. Was your own personal experience something that you felt you could apply to this film as you see all these efforts to keep awareness of the Armenian genocide alive through various attempts at making a film?
It’s not something that actually dawned on me while I was making it. Each film has its own reason for being and aesthetic choices, but I’m definitely interested in how do you use film to approximate the truth. Even in a film like “Paradise Lost,” it’s a very subjective film. The three films change perspective on who the potential perpetrator might be, which is fascinating because in the first film, it’s a little more open who might be the actual killer; in the second, it zeroes in on the suspicion of John Mark Byars; and in the third, it zeroes in on the suspicion towards Terry Hobbs, so what does that say about the truthfulness of any piece of media? The films were very truthful to me at the time and there’s certainly an emotional truthfulness to all the films – and there’s certainly the truth that rises to the top that these guys are not guilty – but the perspective shifts. So all media is inherently subjective, and when you’re documenting something as atrocious as genocide for a PG audience, versus making it as a documentary, [I was interested in] what are those tensions? Every filmmaker needs to make a million subjective decisions and this is a story of contested history that you want people to believe, so how do you represent those images so that it’s a truthful document of what occurred?