Published May 01, 2017Part history lesson, part making-of a film-within-a-film, Joe Berlinger's Intent To Destroy is a difficult documentary, but it's also a hugely important one. Broken into three chapters, the film uses its framing as a behind-the-scenes look at the film The Promise to fully explore the Armenian genocide that occurred around the time of the World War I and the ensuing denial that any genocide actually happened.
Berlinger (Paradise Lost) embeds himself with the production of director Terry George's (Hotel Rwanda) film The Promise from the onset, capturing everything from its first table read right up until the end of shooting on location in Portugal and Spain. But this is hardly the kind of typical production diary that you would find as an extra on any DVD with actors and the crew continuously praising each other. Instead, Berlinger uses this conceit merely as a foothold into detailing the atrocities that happened during the days of the Ottoman Empire and the 1.5 million Armenians who were killed by the Turks.
Through interviews with historians, we learn all about how the seeds of the mass killing were sown years before it even happened. It's a complicated backstory that's explained in such a way that's rarely too confusing and overwhelming, shedding light on a particularly ugly chapter of history. Ultimately, a growing sense of nationalism led to the Turkish Muslims engaging in a holy war with the Christian Armenians that would see Armenians deported from the area and systemically exterminated.
The slaughter of the Armenian people becomes most visceral when described by its survivors, who clearly remain haunted by its impact even in old age. The horrific nature of the killings reverberates even while filming The Promise, with depictions of the genocide becoming incredibly emotional for some of the actors on set and reducing them to tears.
The final chapter on the ensuing denial of the genocide is perhaps even more disturbing, as many Turks argue to this day that they suffered just as much the Armenians. In fact, even the US refuses to put the appropriate label on what happened, with no president ever referring to the events as a genocide despite those like Obama having no problem doing just that prior to ascending to the presidency. It's all part of the complex business of politics and wanting to maintain good relations with an important nation like Turkey that serves as a gateway to both the Middle East and Russia.
Of all the people interviewed in this chapter, one of the most illuminating happens to be Canadian director Atom Egoyan, who describes the difficult process of making his own 2002 film about the genocide, Ararat. He was subject to all manner of threats at the time, and there was even a book written about him. He amusingly recounts how the book suggested his entire career up until that point had only been a smoke screen to allow him to make this pro-Armenian propaganda film.
It's anecdotes like this that help to justify the making-of angle, even though it does seem to distract at times from the realities of what happened. It doesn't help that when The Promise was released in April, the film was widely ignored by audiences and largely dismissed by critics. But perhaps that only means that Berlinger's film becomes even more crucial, considering it seeks to present a more unvarnished truth about the destruction of a people and succeeds in this way as a valuable education tool.