The documentary film by the German-Turkish film director Fatih Akin, “Crossing the Bridge: The Sound of Istanbul” (2005), was one of the most beautiful love songs ever created for and about Istanbul. A musical documentary, it depicts the rich and varied music scene in modern Istanbul. While it also sets forth the tensions and conflicts in this complex city with its many cultural influences, it shows love and appreciation for each one.
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But Akin, who was born in Hamburg to a family that had emigrated from Turkey, has dealt mainly with the integration, or lack of it, of Turks into Germany. His films combine political and social criticism and a sharp look at the situation with a bit of humor. The most prominent of his works, “Head-On” (2004) and “The Edge of Heaven” (2007), won him many awards at prominent film festivals worldwide.
But in contemporary Turkey, awards and loving homage apparently are not enough to enable a film director to criticize his beloved ancestral country or touch one of its taboos — the Armenian genocide of the early 20th century.
Akin’s latest film, “The Cut,” focuses on that topic and will be competing at the Venice Film Festival opening late this month. It has already aroused the ire of Turkish radical nationalists, who are calling for a boycott of the film and for Akin to be prevented from entering Turkey.
Following an interview in the bilingual weekly newspaper Agos, which is published in Istanbul in both Turkish and Armenian, fanatical Turkish nationalists sent death threats to Akin both directly and through Agos’s editorial board.
The Armenian genocide — the mass murder of the Armenian inhabitants of the Ottoman Empire during World War I — was preceded by years of massacres of the Armenians by mobs of Turkish and Kurdish villagers. They had been incited to believe that the Armenians sought to weaken the empire, whether because of their desire for national independence or their support for Russia, the Ottomans’ major foe.
The Armenian genocide started on April 24, 1915, when the government of the Young Turks arrested about 250 Armenian leaders and intellectuals in Istanbul and put them to death. With that murderous act, the Turkish government began a campaign against the Armenians that included expulsion, abuse, rape and starvation, killing an estimated 1.5 million people. April 24 is the day of commemoration of the Armenian genocide.
The Armenian refugees were imprisoned in camps, where many of them died of starvation or disease. Others were killed by burning, drowning or poison gas as the world’s countries did nothing. When the war ended, the Turkish government leaders were tried by military courts in Europe for war crimes and were sentenced to death in absentia. While the three leaders mainly responsible for the Armenian genocide managed to evade the death sentence, they did not escape fate: Three years after the trial, two of them were killed by Armenian assassins and the third was killed by the Soviet army.
Only about 20 countries officially recognize the Armenian genocide and the Turkish government’s responsibility for it. The others have chosen to distance themselves from the issue out of a desire to keep their relations with Turkey stable. Turkey’s relations with countries that have recognized the Armenian genocide — such as France, which also outlawed denial of it — have fallen into diplomatic crises that even led to the recall of ambassadors.
Recent public debate in Turkey about the Armenian genocide seems freer and more open than ever. During his term as prime minister, President-elect Recep Tayyip Erdogan even issued an official statement apologizing to the grandchildren of the survivors of the Armenian genocide, saying that a probe of that painful period in history was both a human and a historical obligation.
But even his stance is not accepted by radical Turkish nationalists. Next year, Armenian communities in Turkey and elsewhere will be commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide. But some in Turkey still do not wish to acknowledge past crimes.
Akin’s original idea was to direct a film about the late Armenian journalist Hrant Dink, editor-in-chief of Agos, who called for dialogue between the Armenian and Turkish nations and wrote and spoke a great deal about the Armenian genocide. On January 19, 2007, he was shot dead at the entrance to the building that housed the newspaper’s offices.
His death shocked Turkey. Hundreds of thousands of people attended his funeral, carrying signs in Turkish, Armenian and Kurdish that read “We are all Armenians” and “We are all Hrant Dink.” Others carried placards reading “[Statute] 301 is the murderer,” a hint at Statute 301 in Turkish criminal law, which prohibits “insulting Turkey.” Under Statute 301, anyone who accuses Turkey of having committed the Armenian genocide can be sent to prison. The Turkish writer and Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk was put on trial under this statute for having said in an interview with a Swiss newspaper that a million Armenians and thousands of Kurds had been murdered in Turkey. The charges were dropped following an international outcry.
Akin could not find a Turkish actor willing to play the role of Dink. All the actors to whom he sent the screenplay reacted similarly, saying the subject was too emotionally loaded. Only after he spoke about that in an interview with Agos did some of the young and popular actors, such as Riza Kocalogu (the star of the Turkish suspense series “Karadayi”), say they were willing to play the role of Dink if only they were of the right age.
Akin, who insisted that the actor playing the role of Dink be Turkish, was compelled to give up the original screenplay. The plot of the new film focuses on a young man, Nazareth Manoogian (played by the French-Algerian actor Tahar Rahim), a survivor of the genocide who discovers that his daughters may be alive as well. He searches for them in Turkey, Syria, Cuba and the U.S.
The film, shot in Jordan, Cuba, Canada, Malta and Germany, contains appearances by the Franco-Moroccan singer Hindi Zahra and the Arab-Israeli actor Makram Khoury.
“Turkish society is ready to deal with the topic of the Armenian genocide,” Akin says. But the radical Turkish nationalists show that the opposite is true. The statements they sent to Agos’s editorial board threatened that if Akin’s film was screened in Turkish cinemas, their activists would be waiting outside the theater in white berets. That’s a reference to the hat Dink’s assassin wore in a photograph that was published after the murder. The article of clothing symbolized these groups’ anti-Armenian demonstrations.
Despite pressure from the Armenian community in Israel, the Israeli government still has not officially recognized the Armenian genocide. It does not wish to create a parallel of the Armenian genocide with the Jewish Holocaust in Europe, nor does it wish to destabilize its relations with Turkey. At least regarding the latter reason, such considerations seem useless since Israel’s relations with Turkey are shaky in any case. Either way, everything seems temporary, even Turkey under Erdogan, and the significance of the full recognition of the other’s pain cannot be ignored. They are not forgotten, and they are not resolved on their own, not even after 99 years of trauma, and certainly not after 66.