By Aram Arkun
NEWTON, Mass. — By now there are a good number of documentaries on the Armenian Genocide, but as good as some of the older ones are, with the passage of time, they begin to appear dated. New documentaries have the challenge of providing us with a fresh new look at historical events which still impact our lives. The nonprofit educational organization Facing History and Ourselves screened one such film called “They Shall Not Perish: The Story of Near East Relief,” on the evening of February 16 to a small group of Armenian community leaders at the West Newton Cinema. This new documentary on the Armenian Genocide focuses on the role played by Near East Relief (NER), an important American philanthropic association. Award-winning producer, writer and director George Billard, and Near East Foundation (the successor organization to NER) board member Shant Mardirossian, the executive producer of the film, spoke at the event.
Roger Brooks, the president and chief executive officer of Facing History and Ourselves, began the evening by pointing out that his organization has been teaching the lessons of the Armenian Genocide for forty years now, and has always sought a way to make this topic accessible to high school and junior high school students, so that they choose to behave in ways that will create a future we would all want to live in. He said that he hoped that millions of students would be reached through this new film.
The film was then shown. Approximately 53 minutes in length, it had to convey information about Armenians, the Ottoman Empire, genocide and American philanthropy in an abbreviated fashion. It used a series of actors with familiar voices as narrators, headed by Victor Garber, costar of Ben Affleck’s Academy Award nominated film “Argo,” with six Emmy Award nominations for television roles, and four Tony nominations. Others include Tony Shalhoub, an award-winning character actor in many films and most notably the star and producer of the TV series “Monk,” Ron Rifkin, who has played a wide variety of roles on stage, television (e.g. “Gotham,” “Alias,” “Limitless,” and “Law and Order”) and film, the well-known Armenian-American actress and comedian Andrea Martin, and Kathleen Chalfant, Michael Aronov, Dariush Kashani, and Kara Vedder.
A number of academics were featured as commentators, including Peter Balakian, a professor at Colgate University who has penned several books of prose on the topic, including The Burning Tigris: Armenian Genocide and America’s Response, the memoir Black Dog of Fate, and the translation of Krikoris Balakian’s Armenian Golgotha, as well as works of poetry. Professor Keith David Watenpaugh, director of the University of California Davis Human Rights Studies Program, and author of Bread from Stones: The Middle East and the Making of Modern Humanitarianism, is another. Professor John Milton Cooper, Jr., spoke as a historian focusing on the era of World War I and a biographer of US President Woodrow Wilson. He retired from the University of Wisconsin-Madison as the E. Gordon Fox Professor of American Institutions.
A non-academic dentist, Dr. Hagop Martin Deranian, spoke movingly about American philanthropy. Son of a mother who survived the Armenian Genocide in part due to aid from Dr. Jacob Kunzler, Deranian wrote President Calvin Coolidge and the Armenian Orphan Rug about Near East Relief orphans, as well as other books on modern Armenian history.
The narration and commentary are paired with historical photos, film clips and contemporary images in a seamless fashion. The visual impact is great, with the historical images restored and presented powerfully.
The story begins prior to World War I, and depicts the basic components of the Armenian Genocide during the war, along with the role of Americans as eyewitnesses and humanitarians. Their reports and efforts, especially of Ambassador Henry Morgenthau from Constantinople, led to the foundation of the Near East Relief initially under the name of the American Committee for Syrian and Armenian Relief in 1915. It used sophisticated modern media and advertising techniques to promote this major humanitarian cause, including graphic posters and Hollywood films.
The film charts the growth of the organization after World War I, as it attempted to not only save Armenians and others from starvation but also educate and raise a generation of 132,000 orphans despite renewed violence against Armenians during the establishment of the Republic of Turkey. The film notes that during 15 years, the Near East Relief raised over 116 million dollars (over 2 billion today), provided medical care to 6 million, and fed over 12 million people. A great connection was established between ordinary Americans and the Armenian victims of genocide, which continued at least until the Great Depression caused Americans themselves to have to worry economically.
Of course, the issue of Armenian orphans continued for some years after the end of Near East Relief efforts.
After the film was screened, Adam Strom, Facing History’s Director of Scholarship and Innovation, who was the lead writer/instructor of its Armenian Genocide curriculum, spoke about teaching this topic today when there are so many refugees. This film, Strom said, “shows a toolbox for responses” which can alleviate a feeling of powerlessness during contemporary problems. Strom declared that this is an opportunity to change the way people think on a large scale.
Facing History, he continued, wants to develop educational resources to support this film, and train educators on its use, as well as to update its own resources on the Armenian Genocide. This, he said, is a two-hundred-thousand-dollar project, so Facing History is looking for financial support to reach non-Armenians around the world.
Mardirossian and Billard then joined Strom to have a conversation about the film and answer questions from the audience. Mardirosian is a philanthropist and the chief operating officer of an American middle-market private equity firm, with an MBA from Pace University’s Lubin School of Business. His motivation for making the film comes from the fact that his grandparents were Armenian Genocide survivors, and, in particular, his paternal grandmother received refuge in an American orphanage.
Billard, producer, writer and director of photography of this documentary, has been involved in productions of commercials, television, documentaries and film in over 40 countries. He is currently in production on “Amateur,” a documentary film about amateur cagefighters in New York, and “They Call Me Killer,” a documentary about an unusual state executioner.
Billard said that commissioned by Mardirossian, he began working on the film a little over two years ago. It took a lot of research to find film and photos from the period which was in poor condition and scattered in various collections.
Mardirossian began his connection with the Near East Foundation, the successor to Near East Relief, as a board member ten years ago. He told the audience: “My hope is that this film will be in every single public school in America. The most powerful use of it is in schools.” This is why he partnered with Facing History.
Mardirossian said that its story is part of both American and Armenian history, and shows the dichotomy in American foreign policy between humanitarian values and strategic interest. Choices always have to be made, even today, along these lines. In any case, Mardirossian said, “It reminds us to what great lengths this country went to help us in our hour of need.”
He revealed that a public television distributor has selected this documentary to be distributed across all 300 affiliates nationwide, and now local stations must be convinced to air it. In addition to Facing History’s network, educational film distributors and international distributors (who will add subtitles) will be approached as other venues for the film, and streaming and DVD rights will also be made available.
Entrepreneur and cofounder of 100 Lives Noubar Afeyan suggested from the audience to “use this film to awaken Armenians and do for others what has been done for us. Let us do it for Syria and this would become a part of the healing of the Armenians. It would increase our worth in American society by leading by example. … We should be recognized not for something that has happened to us, but for something we have done.”
Mardirossian replied, “We have thought about this deeply. This is a special event we did for Facing History, but I produced this film independently. I financed it, but I wanted to benefit the Near East Foundation.” He said that funds would be raised on tours jointly with the Foundation for responding to the refugee problem, including Syrian refugees in Armenia. Furthermore, Near East Foundation will begin operations in Syria as soon as the situation stabilizes there.
He concluded, “There is nothing more symbolic than the Armenian community helping this organization 100 years later.”
Facing History is organizing the official premiere of “They Shall Not Perish” on April 8 in New York City with two showings at the Times Center, along with a panel discussion by documentary contributors. More information about the film, and a trailer, are found at theyshallnotperish.com.