The Promise – epic film about Armenian genocide chimes with twenty first century conflicts and displacement

The Promise documents the displacement and genocide of Armenians in the last days of the Ottoman Empire during the First World War. It’s a shocking piece of European history that director Terry George beautifully captures in his new epic film.

Michael Boghosian (played by Oscar Isaac) travels from his rural village to the bustling city of Constantinople and lives with relatives while he pursues his dream of studying to become a doctor. He meets fellow Armenian, a family tutor and artist Ana (Charlotte Le Bon) who lives with American journalist Chris Meyers (Christian Bale).

Michael’s somewhat idyllic existence – only complicated by his betrothal to a young woman back in his village – is shaken up by the upsurge in anti-Armenian sentiment and the attacks on property and arrest of community leaders.

A protracted love triangle illuminates the conflict’s human impact on the Boghosian family. This is woven around universal scenes of mass displacement, slave labour, battles, massacre and escape by sea that explain the vast scale of the genocide.

“I made a promise: I can’t go back on that.”

Conversations around The Promise will mention other iconic films like Hotel Rwanda, Schindler’s List and it certainly has a splash of Titanic about it.

Thankfully The Promise is more than a one-dimensional tale seeking to make its lead characters into heroes. Terry George has returned to the theme of genocide and explores the complexity of propaganda, state lies to cover up killing – “war, or the evacuation of the Armenian people to a safer location?” – conscripted soldiers, church-sponsored NGOs assisting the most vulnerable, trust and cross-community sacrifice.

Eastern Orthodox choral laments are effectively used to signpost moments of terror. The Belfast preview of The Promise was held on 24 April, the annual day of commemoration for the 1.5 million Armenian people killed in the sustained genocide that peaked in 1915. The Turkish government – of the state that succeeded the Ottoman Empire – continue to deny that genocide took place.

The mention of Aleppo during the film as a place of refuge for Armenians fleeing their homes reminds modern day viewers that one hundred years after the on-screen atrocities, ethnic and religious cleansing and killing still carries on across the world. So too does the displacement of people, forced out from homes and areas that no longer feel safe to live in.

The Promise is released in cinemas across UK and Ireland on Friday 28 April.

Damaris Media have created complementary – and complimentary – background material, home group discussion questions and suggestions for reflection and prayer.

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