There was a time after law school my aunt sat with me, and for the first time in my life I could tell she was somewhat disappointed in me. She said, "I just don't understand how someone with your legal background and language background is not working for the UN, making international law for the greater good." I love the UN. To work for the UN and fight for human rights has always been a dream of mine. I just knew in my gut there was somewhere else I needed to be first.
There was something else calling my heart, and I knew I had to start there and God would lead the way to help me see through my purpose in life. Since I was a little girl, music was my first love and I understood the power music has to touch, move, and inspire people. It has the incredible power to unite people as well. Certain movies can do the same, too.
I thought of this conversation with my aunt after watching The Promise, here at the Toronto International Film Festival. It has not received the reviews I think it deserves, so let me tell you why this movie matters and why you should watch it.
The Promise, from director Terry George (Hotel Rwanda, In The Name of The Father), is a love story, a survival story, a family story, an inspiring story...a human story. It's got a great cast, who give strong performances that carry this emotional journey. Michael (Oscar Isaac) is the town apothecary in a small Armenian village. He dreams of becoming a medical student, so promises to marry a girl from his village and uses the money from the dowry to pay for medical school in Constantinople. You can tell he’s a man of his word and he promises that he will also grow to love her. When he gets to the big city, he stays with his aunt and uncle and two younger cousins in a beautiful house. City life is a dream. In medical school he makes friends with a Turk, whose sole motivation is to stay out of the army by attending medical school. He also builds a friendship with his cousins’ nanny, Ana (Charlotte Le Bon) a former dancer who had grown up in Paris, but was originally from another town in Armenia. Predictably, and nonetheless significant, Ana and Michael grow closer, though both are attached to others—Ana to an American journalist, Chris Myers (Christian Bale). During this time, war breaks out and the Turks turn on the Armenians.
It is an eventful story with our main characters brought together and torn apart several times, and Michael is an easy protagonist to invest in; but what struck me the most is that though a hundred years have passed, there are many parts of the story that resonate today—the hatred, the violence, and even the human compassion. It’s a reminder that the events that splatter our news today aren’t events new to human history; but if we don’t look back and learn from those mistakes—those grave human errors—how are we to help ourselves now?
Some people will say that here is another war story trivialized by a love story, but I beg to differ. Sure, you could tell a story focused strictly on the events of the genocide and the horrific atrocities committed, something the Turkish government to this day refuses to acknowledge, and it could be a powerful and moving historical piece. You could achieve great sympathy and open people’s eyes to this particular piece of history, which was the first mass genocide of a peoples in the 20th century. There’s no doubt that that is what is important here.
That's why every part of Michael's journey matters, from his family, to the love story, the comradery, because what we need to remember are the people of the war. By getting to know Michael, his love for his family, others, medicine, and his country, empathy is created. In any lifetime, this could be your son, your brother, or your best friend. Empathy is the power that moves this film from an eventful war movie to something much bigger. The genocide is still what lies at the center of this film, and it is what drives the story. But when we are able to make the human connection to the characters, and realize that Michael might be fictional, he was a real person of the genocide. He was one of the lucky ones that got out. His mother, was many real Armenian mothers who worried about their sons. His slain family was many slain families of the genocide.
I get the sense though, that people are afraid of this movie, but I'm not sure why when I think of the countless WWII movies made--in fact, I screened another movie that took place during WWII at the festival. With everything going on, are we afraid to upset Turkey? I love Turkey. It is a beautiful country with such rich history, and hope to visit it again someday. However, that doesn't mean what happened during the Ottoman Empire didn't happen. We all have history that we must face and accept. If we cannot accept our mistakes and our harm done, we will never be able to move forward. Isabel of Castilla was an incredible woman and leader, but she too committed terror, which I know the Catholic church would not condone despite her religious reasons for doing what she did. The United States had its own version of internment camps during WWII after Pearl Harbor, which President Reagan formally apologized for through the Civil Liberties Act.
The Promise is the kind of movie I know matters. If you took out the genocide, you just have a classic Hollywood hero’s story—a righteous man, who unexpectedly finds true love and does everything he can to protect and save his family. But it's a Hollywood story with a message. Terry George did a fabulous job here. He remembers those who didn’t make it, and reminds us of the strength and hope of those who did. Maybe for some people that’s too Hollywood, but I think that’s just human connection. To do a story like this justice, you have to make the human connection and that’s what George does here. Moreover, whether or not he intended to do so, he brings to light our current world problems. Times are different, but our problems are not always so different.
I really hope that many of you will get the chance to see this film--it really is beautiful.
BIG LOVE & HUGS