Joe Berlinger on Armenian Genocide and Efforts to Suppress the Story

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Copyright Falkun Films 2017

The word “genocide’ was created to describe the massacre of 1,500,000 Armenians by the Turks, a century ago. And yet, the story has all but been eliminated from our understanding of the 20th century, a more devastating erasure of history than the genocide itself because it erased the story, and because it erased any hope for justice.

A new documentary from director Joe Berlinger is the story about the story, about what happened, and about the efforts to prevent what happened from being told. “Intent to Destroy: Death, Denial, and Depiction,” in theaters November 10, 2017, has three chapters: behind the scenes in the filming of “The Promise,” starring Oscar Isaac and Christian Bale, an exploration of the denial that it ever took place, and the deception that led to repression of efforts to tell the truth and creation of a false counter-narrative.

Why start a documentary with the behind the scenes of a production about a fictional version of the event?

There are a couple of reasons why. From an aesthetic standpoint, this is complex and dense history and you want to make it digestible for a modern audience. I’m not a historical filmmaker who normally does things with talking heads and archival footage. From a practical standpoint it put me in a familiar place to tell an unfolding story and that gave me the dramatic structure to then hang all of this history.

From a thematic standpoint, there have been other documentaries about the facts of the genocide itself but what’s more interesting to me, what I actually wanted to make a film about, was the mechanism of denial, the aftermath of the denial and how denial operates. There is a checkered history of movie making on the theme of the Armenian genocide in Hollywood because any prior attempt to do a mainstream movie has been basically shut down. The Turkish government complains to the State Department and the State Department twists the Hollywood studio’s arm and it drops the project. As early as 1935 that’s what happened to Irving Thalberg when he was trying to make “Forty Days of Musa Dagh” and so when I heard a film was actually being made independently financed by Kirk Kerkorian, an Armenian, so clearly this was private money but it involved a lot of Hollywood people, an A-list director, I saw “The Promise” as a historic event.

So it wasn’t just embedding with the film to get some visual eye candy of behind the scenes of a movie. It was the perfect way to express what to me is the more important aspect of the film which is not just the history of the genocide but the actual hundred years of denial and how all that happened. I can tap into that thing that I think is the most interesting aspect of this story, how the narrative has changed. In 1915 when the genocide was beginning there were 145 articles in the New York Times and it was the largest humanitarian relief effort up until that point ever mounted to help people in a foreign country. Babe Ruth’s 50th home run bat was auctioned off to raise money so it was a shining moment in American history and yet today we have lost that vision of our past because it’s been systematically repressed and a counter narrative has been put out there. So what better way to talk about dueling narratives than by making a film about filmmaking?

A really special moment in the documentary is where we see them filming a character finding all the dead bodies because it’s where all the scenes kind of come together. You have Terry George trying to present an atrocity for a PG audience intercut with the actual survivors’ testimony so that it’s real for them while it’s a movie for these people, intercut with the archival footage of the day showing those gruesome photographs just to give an inkling to an audience of what it’s really like in a way that could never be shown in a mainstream motion picture and then we have the true behind the scenes with tender moment with Christian Bale working with a child.

Part of what made the third chapter so powerful was the way that it resonates with the era of fake news, Nazis being called “good people,” fights over Civil War statues and climate change denial.

For many of these people that history is still present today and if we discount those histories, if we don’t understand what we do when we blow up Iraq and unleash the wave of the ethnic strife as a result, we will keep getting it wrong. I’m not saying Saddam Hussein should have remained in power; it’s too complex to go so deeply into that. The Armenian Genocide is like the quintessential example of history that’s not been reckoned with and accounted for and beyond that you see how techniques are used to invalidate a historical reality.

Much smarter people than me have said that the final stage of genocide is denial. It’s absolutely essential that we recognize the historical realities of a situation and I find it morally reprehensible that the United States does not recognize the genocide because we’re afraid of losing our strategic allies because they have air force bases where we can launch missions from. Even if we do lose our strategic air force bases. I just believe that we have to be accountable to our history and as Serj Tankian says so eloquently in the film genocide should not be bargained as political capital and that goes for our own reckoning with history. These are all painful aspects of history that we have not fully dealt with and that’s why we’re seeing the repercussions that we saw in Charlottesville so the lesson of the movie is that you have to respect the history and account for it and hold people accountable.

Originally published on Huffington Post.

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Directors Documentary Interview

Rory Kennedy on Laird Hamilton and Her New Movie “Take Every Wave”

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Copyright 2017 Moxie Firecracker

Rory Kennedy usually makes documentaries about complicated issues, with more than 30 films on topics like poverty, political corruption, domestic abuse, drug addiction, human rights, and mental illness. Her latest film is something different. Take Every Wave: The Life of Laird Hamilton is the story of a man who became one of the world’s most accomplished sports figures even though he does not compete in organized events.

Your cinematography of the surfing scenes is remarkable. I kept asking myself as I watched, “Where is the camera? And how can it be so steady?”

To capture Laird on these ginormous waves was certainly something that I had never come across before in my own career. I explored using a drone or jet-ski or somebody in the water but they all had their own limitations and ultimately I really leaned on the helicopter shot. The thing is about these waves that is funny and interesting is that you can have a really huge wave and if you shoot it at a certain angle it looks teeny. And what I found is actually being below the wave looking up at it with a little bit of distance was the most dramatic shot but of course that means the helicopter needs to be below the wave. Don King has worked extensively with Laird and Don Shearer has also worked with him as a helicopter pilot.

You assembled an extraordinary collection of archival footage with some rare and very personal material. Where did it all come from?

It’s a bit of a scavenger hunt really trying to find the best footage. We went to Laird and Gabby first and foremost but there was also footage through the archive houses at NBC, ABC, and CBS, who had some archives that we used. Then reaching out to friends and family and really asking people to go deep into their garages and their basements to retrieve some of the footage, a lot of which has never been seen before. The footage of Laird rescuing his friend came from the production company that they had because that was something that they were filming as it happened. We were able to track it down and it was pretty dramatic.

Laird is married to a world-class athlete who competed in the Olympics, Gabrielle Reece. He is covered by sporting journalists but he does not participate in conventional competition.

He has a comfort in competing in say a foot race where there’s an objective winner but what bothers him in surfing competitions was the sense of judgment. Laird is probably one of if not the most competitive person that I know and there are pretty extreme stories about him in that respect but I think ultimately he didn’t want to bring that to his surfing experience. Part of what he loves about surfing is being out on the water and being in touch with nature and being up against these gigantic waves. And I think that you’re up against your own kind of personal chatter in your head that’s telling you to get off the wave and that you might die. You know that’s a pretty intense adrenaline moment, right? So then you add on other things to that like competition and judgments and all the rest of it and it might feel a little deflating or less interesting.

He is an extraordinary athlete and a big part of that is his exceptional mental focus and drive.

That was part of a huge part of what drove me to make this film. Surfing is really the backdrop of the film but the story is what you’re tapping into which is what drives a guy to surf and go up against 80-foot waves. He has the personal drive towards water. I think that manifests at his very young age. I think he was exposed to some of the biggest waves in the world and he was surrounded by surfers. From age two, three; he was in the ocean every day and going out into water that most of us would never even dream of going into even as adult. He had a childhood that was a broken home. He’s lived in poverty. He had an abusive family situation and I think the outside environment was also difficult where he was one of the only white guys in Hawaii at the time. There was a lot of anger towards people who were not Hawaiian and who were white who had brought a lot of disease and devastation to the island though. Because of all those factors he ended up really focusing and finding refuge in the water.

Even though he doesn’t have much formal education he and the other surfers have really PhD level understanding of the properties of water; the physics of it.

Their level of knowledge is striking. One of the scenes that we have in the film is Laird working with the Oracle team, Jimmy Spithill who is the captain of the America’s Cup because they really looked to him for expertise in terms of foil boarding. And these are guys are engineers and they’re analyzing with computer technology the most efficient way to get a boat to move across a lot of water and they’re looking at Laird for his personal expertise in that and I think there’s a good reason for it. When you have spent that much time as a human being engaging in something, you have kind of an instinctual understanding of it that they’re able to translate in pretty beautiful ways both in terms of the language that they use and the poetry and the beauty of it but also on a very technical level in terms of how it works and how a wave is formed. He’s incredibly articulate and knowledgeable about that.

Would you say that there’s a common theme in your films?

A great story.

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Anatomy of a Scene: Battle of the Sexes

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I love the “Anatomy of a Scene” series at the New York Times, where filmmakers explain what went into creating a moment in a movie. Here, Valerie Dayton and Jonathan Faris talk about something most filmgoers never consciously notice, the “soundscape” and how that affects our sense of what is happening. I was very intrigued to hear their reference to AMSR because I actually thought of that when I was watching the film.

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RT Interview with “American Made” Director Doug Liman

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I’m a fan of Doug Liman, director of four “Bourne” movies, “Mr. and Mrs. Smith,” and the neglected gem “Edge of Tomorrow.” I really enjoyed his list of five favorite movies for Rotten Tomatoes (I love “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?” too) and his fondness for flawed heroes. Here are his comments on making a feature film based on a true story.

A movie like this, there’s a lot of research that goes into it. It’s a true story, so we want to honor that. But we’re not making the movie because it’s a true story, we’re making the movie because it’s a great story and has great characters in it. But I’ve often found sticking to the truth makes for better movies, at least when I make them. I come up with better scenes when I’m hemmed in by the reality of the situation. Limiting the CIA’s power in Bourne Identity – what they really could do at the time versus, you know, other movies that came up with magical command centers, where the CIA has eyes in the sky that can see everything in real time, and not deal with the reality that a spy satellite that’s low enough to see people on the ground isn’t geo-stationary, but is travelling across the land at a very high rate of speed. And it can be over a site for maybe 30 seconds. I’m interested in those limitations. I think they make the scenes more exciting.

So, making a movie like American Made, I’m interested in the reality of the story, because in my career up to date, the reality of the situation has always made my scenes more entertaining and more dramatic. And here I can always go back to the well, so any time I felt like the screenwriter was taking a shortcut, I’d say, “Well, let’s look at how it really happened.” And inevitably, I’d find a more exciting scene.

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Directors

“Loving Vincent” — Interview With Directors Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman

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On Huffington Post, I interviewed the directors of a remarkable new animated film, “Loving Vincent,” a story about Vincent van Gogh and inspired by his paintings. Each frame is an oil painting. Directors Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman described the process:

HW:We painted on canvas, seriously; I mean Vincent painted on canvas and we painted on canvas. When they were painting they were looking at the Vincent paintings and they were trying to get the same brush stroke. Piotr Dominiak, our head of painting animation, has been to all the museums taking photographs and we interviewed the experts at the Van Gogh Museum about which Vincent put the paint on, what type of equipment he was using, what exact color he was using so all of that research then went into us replicating and reimagining that on to our canvases.

DK: Our biggest problem that with animation was you have to obviously light the canvas and you need to light it evenly, while in a museum the lighting is directional, so you can see the shadows of the actual paint in them. It was a challenge to make sure the texture is visible on the screen and they were all sculptural.

HW: And once you’re committed to a big thick impasto stroke then they have to animate that. They have to scrub it out and leave it a little bit to the right, a little bit to the right, a little bit to the right. So for those big impasto shots they’re actually animating every brush stroke.

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