Intent To Destroy


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Intent To Destroy
"Berlinger has assembled an impressive parade of experts whose testimony is thorough and backed up by rare film footage and photographs from the time."

What's in a word? Sometimes enough to shape the fate of nations. The United Nations has a very specific definition of genocide; that it's a fitting description of what happened to the Armenians between 1914 and 1923 is still denied by some. What debate there is hinges on three other words: intent to destroy. Is it possible to kill more than a million people from one ethnic group without that? Some say they were just incidental casualties of war. Joe Berlinger's documentary sets out to prove otherwise.

There's a lot going on here. Berlinger is interested not just in the violent episode itself but in the attempts made since to erase it from the history books, in attempts to resist that, and in the impact of these matters on subsequent conflicts. Most viewers will be familiar with Hitler's famous quote, "Who now remembers the Armenians?", but he's hardly the only person to have concluded that the slaughter of an entire people here and there may well become an obscure detail in the history books. Denial doesn't just cause distress for the Armenian survivors and their descendants - it puts lives in danger today.

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Last year the Armenian experience was brought to wider public attention by a feature film called The Promise, described here as "Like the Armenian Schindler's List" (a little generous in quality terms but otherwise fitting). A large part of this film is framed around how that film was made and it features extensive behind the scenes footage, notable for what it reveals about the emotional impact that recreating the experiences of their ancestors had on many of the actors. What's also interesting is Berlinger's examination of the opposition faced by the film, which struggled to gain support from studios and attracted warnings - threats? - about the impact its release might have on Armenians still living in Turkish territory. To put it in historical context, there's also a look at the challenges faced by earlier feature Ararat, which led to problems for the then US ambassador. Whilst Ararat is a good film, it was never likely to reach an extensive audience - yet the Turkish government treated it as a threat.

Perhaps the most interesting part of this film is the space given over to the genocide deniers themselves. Berlinger is firm about them having a right to speak, suggesting that they too are victims of a decades long propaganda campaign. their arguments provide much needed context and make it easier to appreciate the psychology of the wider subject. There are also interesting parallels between them and deniers of other widely accepted historical events, though Berlinger does not make a point of this - viewers are left to draw their own conclusions.

Few modern documentaries offer this density of information. Berlinger has assembled an impressive parade of experts whose testimony is thorough and backed up by rare film footage and photographs from the time. Accounts from disparate sources support one another yet the film never feels heavy with repetition. It's not just a film you will feel obliged to watch out of horror at what it depicts, but a film that genuinely fascinates throughout, such is the breadth of thought contained within it. If you only ever watch one film on the subject, make it this one.

Reviewed on: 06 Nov 2017
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Intent To Destroy packshot
A documentary about the fate of Armenians living in Turkey in the early 20th Century.

Director: Joe Berlinger

Writer: Joe Berlinger, Cy Christiansen

Year: 2017

Runtime: 115 minutes

Country: US


Tribeca 2017

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