By Alin K. Gregorian
LOS ANGELES — “The Promise,” the eagerly awaited movie about the Armenian Genocide, has found a distributor and release date for 2017.
The movie, which was spearheaded and funded by the late billionaire philanthropist Kirk Kerkorian, will be distributed by Open Road Films starting on April 28.
The film, said producer Dr. Eric Esrailian, is technically an independent film, produced by the small production company, Survival Pictures, which had been founded by Kerkorian. However, the film has the look and feel of a throwback Hollywood sweeping, romantic epic, in the vein of “Dr. Zhivago” or “Lawrence of Arabia.”
The film stars some of the most buzzed about and successful actors working currently, including Oscar Isaac, Charlotte Le Bon and Christian Bale. Also starring in the movie are noted stars such as the Iranian-born actress Shohreh Aghdashloo, Angela Sarafyan, Jean Reno, James Cromwell, Daniel Giminez Cacho and Marwan Kenzari.
Hollywood veterans Mike Medavoy and William Horberg produced the film along with Esrailian.
The plot, according to Survival Pictures, revolves around Michael Boghosian (Isaac), who in the period immediately before the launch of the Genocide, arrives in Constantinople as a medical student determined to bring modern medicine back to Siroun, his ancestral village in Southern Turkey. Photojournalist Chris Myers (Bale) has come here only partly to cover geo-politics. He has fallen in love with Ana (le Bon), an Armenian artist he has accompanied from Paris after the sudden death of her father. When Michael meets Ana, romantic sparks fly and thus, a romantic rivalry is created between the two men. As the Turks form an alliance with Germany and launch the Genocide, their conflicting passions must be deferred while they join forces to survive even as events threaten to overwhelm them.
Directing the film is Terry George, the Academy Award-nominated director of “Hotel Rwanda.” George co-wrote the screenplay with Robin Swicord, based on a treatment by her.
Survival Pictures was founded in 2012 by Kerkorian, Esrailian, and Anthony Mandekic to fulfill Kerkorian’s vision for a film on the Armenian Genocide.
Though Esrailian was not a film producer previously, Kerkorian insisted that he oversee the film because of their trust and their shared heritage. Kerkorian has an executive producer credit on the film – as do other close associates Mandekic, Patricia Glaser, Dan Taylor, and Sheri Sani.
“Kirk was living with his vision for the film so many years,” he said. “I feel incredibly honored considering what this film means to the Armenian people and advocates of human rights around the world.”
Esrailian wears many hats, most of which are far removed from the world of cinema. He is co-chief of the Vatche and Tamar Manoukian Division of Digestive Diseases and Lincy Foundation Chair in Clinical Gastroenterology in UCLA’s David Geffen School of Medicine. Esrailian’s division and medical building were named after his close friends and prominent Armenian philanthropists, the Manoukians, following a recent $30-million gift to the university. Esrailian is responsible for coordinating efforts for philanthropy and community engagement for the university with partners and other organizations.
Kerkorian could have made such a film in years past when he owned studios, but the timing and team he wanted never came together to fulfill his vision. Despite being years apart, Kerkorian and Esrailian formed a close friendship that set the wheels in motion for the long-awaited project. “He just became a dear friend and mentor. He was incredibly smart — smarter than anyone with multiple degrees after their name, including myself. He really identified certain things that he wanted to pursue and used his instincts to drive him to success. He thought about the film project. He wanted it to have a love story. And he wanted to have some of the best actors in the world. He didn’t want a history lesson but wanted a sweeping throwback movie.”
The whole idea, Esrailian said, was to make the movie marketable.
“If he wanted the film to be seen by a wide audience, he knew he had to make it appealing not just to history buffs,” Esrailian said.
Unfortunately, Esrailian said, the events of today, in some of the same regions depicted in the film, harken back to the dark days of a century ago.
“Events today make it more important than ever. The events happening in the Middle East and other parts of the world, the forced migration, the persecution of different ethnic groups and patterns that were experienced by Armenians 101 years ago,” are still happening, he said.
For Kerkorian, the film had to have upbeat elements of Armenian culture, too, Esrailian said. “We wanted to capture not just the Genocide but raise awareness about and celebrate the Armenian culture. We wanted the film to tell people in the non-Armenian world that our identity and existence is much more than just the Genocide. We want people to understand that Armenians have not just survived the Genocide but thrived. We wanted to show that celebratory aspects of our culture exist, such as music, art, family, intellect, creativity, and resilience.”
For the American-born Esrailian, the Genocide is not just part of history; it is part of his narrative. His great-grandparents were Genocide survivors and in fact, his great-grandfather sang in Komitas Vartabed’s choir in Constantinople (Istanbul). One of the family’s treasures is a photo of this historic choir with Komitas.
“It’s in my DNA,” he said.
The Stars Align
Director George was “available and extremely interested” in the subject of the Armenian Genocide, Esrailian said, based on his intensive research into the Rwandan Genocide. In addition, he said, they had many mutual friends and interest in the human rights community.
“All the stars started to align,” he said.
The two male leads of the film, Isaac and Bale, regularly receive rave reviews in movies, and in the case of Bale, Academy Award nominations.
“Not only were our lead actors excited to work on the film, but they were deeply committed to be part of a project like this, which has significant potential for social impact,” Esrailian said. “People have wondered or said why not have Armenians in the movie [for the male leads] but we found the best actors we could for each role.”
Actress Angela Sarafyan, a successful Armenia-born actress, is also cast in the movie in a major role.
The film will have a wide release in April, meaning that it will play on about 2,000 screens around the US. The international distribution plans have not yet been announced.
An advisor to the producers of “The Promise” was the writer/director of the other major film on the Armenian Genocide, “Ararat,” Atom Egoyan.
“Atom Egoyan is a good friend and he came to our Toronto [Film Festival] premier and loved the film.”
The film, famously, received online bashing from Azeri and Turkish groups after it debuted at the Toronto Film Festival. About 80,000 reviews of the film, mostly negative, were posted in the wake of its initial showings. The sheer number of those negative reviews was enough to indicate that they were clearly not based on viewing the film, which has only been shown in Toronto.
“It was well-planned, but that is not surprising. There has always been denial after genocide and the modern day denialist kind of trolls the Internet,” he said. “It is an attempt to throw up a smokescreen and distract from the truth.”
“I think Atom did something that was never done before. We owe him a huge debt of thanks,” Esrailian said.
“Ararat,” he said, took place in modern times, using the device of a film-within-a-film to show scenes from the Armenian Genocide.
“It was an ingenious way to make the way and the subject matter connect with people who lived in 2002,” when the film was released.
“The Promise,” of course, is “set in a historical time.” It was shot in Spain, Portugal and Malta.
Esrailian acknowledged the huge amount of support and goodwill generated in the community over the film.
“The outpouring of support has been unbelievable. One woman came up to me in Toronto in tears after a screening and said her ancestors now have a voice and can rest in peace. It makes you so much more resilient to face the naysayers.”
Esrailian recalled that actor Oscar Isaac said in Toronto, “when the truth is on your side, there is no controversy.”
“We are hopefully going to inspire people to help those in need in the world today” he said.
Visit https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zwut1DUXaZc to see a trailer for “The Promise.”