Saturday, June 09, 2007

Rockumentary rages against genocide machine

June 8, 2007
Globe & Mail

Before I watched Screamers, a new documentary by the BBC's Carla Garapedian, I thought the film was just another concert documentary - this time about the U.S. prog-punk band System Of A Down, who sound a lot like the Red Hot Chili Peppers and look a lot like Rage Against The Machine, two bands I cannot stand.

Screamers, however, is much more than a backstage-pass movie. The members of SOAD are Armenian-American, and have dedicated themselves to educating the world about the Armenian genocide and the Turkish government's continued denial of the crime.

Remember the good old days, when concert films were all about Jack Daniels, bouncy groupies named Candy and the purple haze at the back of the bus?

A rockumentary about the Armenian genocide must be a first.

One idea was definitely to reach a younger market, because who's going to want to go to the movies to see a genocide film? But what impressed me when I first went to a SOAD concert, and I wasn't a fan, was the number of human-rights groups camped out around the concert area. The young fans knew all about Armenia, Rwanda, Darfur - I was shocked by this. I guess I was rather cynical about the next generation.

I'm not questioning the sincerity of the band, but isn't there a danger, especially when you're talking about pop music and kids, that the discussions about genocide will become just another part of their PR package?

I would say yes, of course. But in the case of this band, if you look at their record, they are very publicity-shy. They shy away from the usual trappings of publicity that surround rock stars. Their message is: We are our performance. They don't really even talk publicly, and they were very reluctant to do the film. The only reason they agreed to do it was because they knew of my record with human-rights films - but it took a lot of persuading. They were afraid the concert aspects of the film would detract from the politics. They were worried about exactly what you describe, so this was an act of faith on their part.

The other danger was that the film would end up being too serious and po-faced, so I included some tour humour, and really needed to show the kids at the concerts having a good time. Part of talking about genocide for the band is also talking about survival, about enjoying life and saying I'm here, I'm making noise, I am here because my grandparents survived the horror.

The band comes across as fun-loving. They don't seem to suffer from Bono-itus.

They are. They don't take themselves seriously. They never tell their audiences that they should feel only sorrow or pity, but that they should be passionate about life.

Are you in danger now if you visit Turkey?

Well, looking at the evidence - one of the contributors to our film, the journalist Hrant Dink, was assassinated after he gave an interview to us. I don't attribute his death to our film, but I've been told, unofficially, that all the people who are Turkish citizens in our film are on a hit list, are considered traitors. I don't know if that's true, because authoritarian states often create these rumours to frighten people into censoring themselves, but there's certainly a climate of fear. To answer your question directly, I have not received any threats, and I'm touching wood here. I would very much like to go to Turkey to show the film, but I'd like that to happen without the cinema owner being arrested.

Your film posits that all genocides are interrelated. I have to admit, I get a bit queasy when the specificity of historical events is diminished.

This is my answer: The semantics and linguistics of this phenomenon are important to consider and are part of the problem. When we used to say the word holocaust, it meant a specific event, but it also meant the most horrific thing you can imagine. And I think that word has become devalued. But the policy is always the same - it is the policy of systemic extermination by a government. If one wants to make a distinction with numbers or scale, that's a fair argument, but part of the problem is that the Jewish community, in general, has not wanted to get involved with the Armenian genocide because Israel is an ally of Turkey. In Los Angeles, where I live, however, a group of rabbis have publicly supported the film and called for the recognition of the Armenian genocide. So, the answer to your question is, yes and no.

And who am I to argue with rabbis? So, you've made a film about the Armenian genocide, and a film about Zahra Kazemi, the Canadian journalist murdered in Iran - after all that, don't you want to relax and make a film about doll collecting or baby animals?

I was just at Cannes, and I kept asking myself, Why can't I make a gentle little film about wine, in the south of France?

See review of Screamers, R20

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