Balakian Focuses on Kazan’s Seminal Film ‘America, America’ in Depiction of Ottoman Oppression of Armenians and Greeks


Peter Balakian

Peter Balakian

By Alin K. Gregorian

Mirror-Spectator Staff

Balakian Focuses on Kazan’s Seminal Film ‘America, America’ in Depiction of Ottoman Oppression of Armenians and Greeks

WATERTOWN — Author, professor and poet Peter Balakian was the main speaker on December 1 at a program at the Armenian Museum of America (ALMA) about Elia Kazan’s film “America America.” The program was organized by the Tekeyan Cultural Association and Facing History and Ourselves, and cosponsored by the National Association for Armenian Studies and Research, ALMA and the Armenian Mirror-Spectator.

Two books by Balakian were published this year by the University of Chicago Press this year, Ozone Journal, a collection of

see FILM, page 12

FILM, from page 1

poetry, and the other, a book of essays, Vise and Shadow, Essays on the Lyric Imagination, Poetry, Art, and Culture. It is in the latter that Balakian wrote about his fascination with Kazan’s film in an essay titled “The Anatolian Embrace: Greeks and Armenians in Elia Kazan’s ‘America, America.’”

“It is about the journey of a Greek boy, 18-20 years old, out of Turkey, between 1896 and 1900,” Balakian explained, near Kayseri. “It is about the plight of the Christians in the Ottoman Empire.”

Kazan himself was born in Constantinople (now Istanbul) in 1909, an ethnic Greek, as Elias Kazancioglu, and immigrated with his family to the US in 1913.

Other Armenian-related subjects he covers in the book include painter Arshile Gorky, Armenian poet Yeghishe Charents, Genocide martyr and poet Siamanto, as well as Primo Levi and Dante at Auschwitz. The topics, he said, cover “a lot of my obsessions as a writer and thinker.”

The film, he argues, rightfully deserves a place of honor among America’s great films and should be celebrated by the Armenians.

Kazan’s most personal film, it is a tribute to his uncle, who left the Ottoman Empire and made his way to the United States. The majority of the film takes place in the rural Ottoman towns, where minority Greeks and Armenians are subject to the whims of the Ottoman overlords, which they have to tolerate with an “Ottoman smile,” showing their servility as they are insulted, robbed or arrested by those in authority.

“America America,” released in 1964, was one of five nominees that year for an Academy Award; the others were “The Birds,” “Tom Jones,” “Cleopatra” and “How the West Was Won.” “Tom Jones” won the golden statue.

A 20-minute snippet of the film was shown, mesmerizing the viewers with the stifling atmosphere shown, including the burning of an Armenian church with worshippers inside.

“I would argue that he’s the greatest director of film and theater,” Balakian said, noting that during the 1940s, Kazan was a major theater director in New York, while later he turned to Hollywood and made some of America’s film classics, including “On the Waterfront” and “Gentlemen’s Agreement,” both of which won the Academy Award for Best Picture.

The empathy inherent in the film makes it one that needs to be seen by more people, Balakian said.

The DVD of the film is available for sale from Amazon or Warner Brothers.

Kazan has been widely regarded as one of cinema’s greats, though his cooperation with the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1952, which sought to root out and punish a supposed communist hotbed in Hollywood, hurt his credibility with his peers.

Introductory comments were made by Tekeyan’s Aram Arkun, who praised Balakian as “one of the foremost public intellectuals” in the Armenian community, who has been “very important for us for making Armenian-related topics” a part of the national discourse in the US. “He writes prose with the intensity of a poem,” Arkun added, noting that as a result his works is “more powerful and more accessible to Americans.”

Balakian praised Facing History, saying that their curriculum guide has touched many lives across the country. With the Armenian Genocide, the body of scholarship grew in the 1980s and 1990s.

“I have heard from people all over the world who are using it,” he said.

Balakian noted that in 2015, he has given 34 talks, three in Turkey. The last one was a reading in Diyarbakir in May, he said, something that may not happen during the current political atmosphere.

He also expressed his pleasure that the organizations had come together for the event, suggesting that such collaborations should happen more often.

“2015 was a very interesting year” for the Armenians, he said, noting that there was intense self-reflection, as well as coverage of the Armenian Genocide on a global scale.

“The New York Times ran three full two-page segments on the Armenian Genocide and pointed its finger at the Turkish government. We would not have put our money on that happening on March 1,” Balakian said.

“The conversation has changed dramatically,” he said. “We are seeing a conversation that was not possible a year ago, a decade ago.”

It was, he said, in part to “work done by many people, and the community coming together.”

He emphasized the role of genocide education in this greater recognition of the Genocide.

At the end of his talk Balakian read a poem from Ozone Journal.

Also speaking was Roger Brooks of Facing History and Ourselves, introduced by Haig Der Manuelian of ALMA. Brooks stressed his organization’s strong ties with the Armenian community and its commitment to the dissemination of knowledge about the Armenian Genocide to teachers and students as part of its broader educational efforts. Facing History and Ourselves, headquartered in Brookline, Mass., but now an international non-profit organization, combats racism, prejudice and anti-Semitism.

Berj Chekijian, ALMA director, welcomed guests at the start of the program.