Screamers, a film about genocide featuring System of a Down, opened this weekend in Los Angeles and will open in January in New York. The film recounts the mass murder of Armenians by the Turks, and suggests that world tolerance for this crime made the genocides that followed possible. "No one remembers the Armenians," Hitler famously commented.
A well-intentioned but inaccurate comment by an NPR reporter this weekend illustrated the timeliness of the film's message. He made a side comment about genocide in an interview about a different topic, saying that the term and the concept were invented in response to the slaughtering of Jews during the Holocaust.
The word was actually coined in 1943 by legal expert Rafael Lemkin to encompass the Holocaust, the mass murder of Assyrians by Iraqis in 1933 - and the first such horror in modern European history, the Armenian genocide of the early 20th Century.
In 1933 Lemkin, a Polish Jew, saw the parallel between the treatment of the Assyrians and the earlier massacre of the Armenians. He tried to draw the world's attention to the horrors at the time, because he felt that world acceptance of the Armenian slaughter created the climate for the Iraqi actions in Assyria.
I spoke with System of a Down's lead singer Serj Tankian a couple of weeks ago, and recently had lunch with director Carla Garapedian. Said Garapedian, "I feel that this genocide is unfinished business. When the Holocaust happened we said 'never again' and believed that our policy had changed. But look at Darfur. It hasn't changed at all."
I asked her the same question I had asked Tankian: what's your definition of 'genocide'? "It's different than war," she began. "It's the systematic extermination of a people, usually based on the belief that the group is a threat. One barometer of genocide is, what do they do to the babies? When they murder babies, it's unquestionably genocide."
Garapedian's challenge was to make a film that told the story of a long-ago tragedy, linked it to ongoing horrors -- and incorporated the music and notoriety of System of a Down.
"It's always best to tell a story with a linear narrative," said Carla. "The only narrative I had was this band." The film features footage of Tankian with his grandfather, a genocide survivor, providing a personalized framework for the history.
Carla herself has an interesting history for one who is still young. Daughter of a journalism professor, high school valedictorian, graduate studies in International Relations and Communications -- a high-achieving profile not unusual for the talented offspring of refugee families.
And like all Armenian-American families, theirs was a family with a hidden past, a genocide that was not then (and is often still not) recognized by the world. Carla, like Serj, spoke of life with an inherited secret, an unacknowledged truth that created a sense of 'otherness.'
Armenian-American life centered around the church, the community, the sense of a heritage in danger. Her descriptions of the pressure to marry within the group, and to retain the traditional customs and beliefs, reminded me of the Jewish side of my own family.
Plaintive traces of Armenian melody resonate in the System of a Down's music, cross-cut with steel-edged rock and roll. Carla recalls how Serj Tankian's vocals reminded her of the singing 'Der Hayr,' the "Our Father" sung in Armenian. (It's almost as if there's an inherited emotional memory for music. I respond to songs that echo the chanting of the traveling cantor that visited our synagogue in upstate New York in the fifties and sixties. )
But, where Serj and his Armenian-American bandmates turned to music, Carla was obsessed from an early age with becoming a foreign correspondent. She later became the only American on-screen journalist for the BBC, and later became a freelance reporter and producer for the BBC and other outlets. She made prizewinning documentaries about Afghanistan ("Lifting the Veil"), North Korea ("Children of the Secret State"), and Chechnya ("Dying For the President").
These films formed a narrative arc -- oppression, secrecy, murders known and unacknowledged. Kierkegaard wrote, "Life can only be understood backwards - but it has to be lived forward." In retrospect, her biography and her work seem to point inevitably toward Screamers.
She made the film for all the social and political reasons you might expect - and to trace the ghosts of an ancestral tragedy to their source. How do you do that? "You follow what novelist Micheline Aharonian
Marcom called 'the maps of melancholy,'" said Garapedian. (Marcom is a contemporary Armenian-American who won the PEN award for fiction for
the book, Three Apples Fell from Heaven. )
An early influence in this effort was film maker Michael Hagopian, who made several documentaries about the Armenian Genocide -- "The Forgotten Genocide," "Voices from the Lake"(narrated by Garapedian), and
"Germany and the Secret Genocide."
Portions of the film are shot on Armenian land, where Garapedian had an unexpected reaction. "I smelled the land there, saw the apricot trees, tasted the food. And I felt it. This land is my land."
Can trauma extend across generations? Ask the children of concentration camp survivors. If murder and exile can create inherited emotions, so can return and recovery. How would Carla Garapedian describe her reaction to System of a Down, that hard rock sound touched by the sound of melismatic Armenian chants?
"It's survivor music," says Garapedian.