When he was doing research about the Rwandan genocide for his 2004 Oscar-nominated film, “Hotel Rwanda,” filmmaker Terry George learned of other mass slaughters in recent history.
One that particularly troubled him was the Armenian genocide, which began in 1915, when Turkish leaders of the Ottoman Empire ordered the systematic eradication of Armenians during and after World War I, resulting in the deaths of 1.5 million Armenians.
So when George was approached three years ago about co-writing and directing “The Promise,” a movie about the Armenian genocide, he was intrigued. The film, starring Christian Bale and Oscar Isaac, opens Friday in Boston.
“Before ‘Hotel Rwanda,’ I had heard at some point in my history lessons about Turks massacring people, but then when I started to do research on the Rwandan genocide — particularly from Samantha Power’s book ‘A Problem From Hell’ — I learned about this Armenian genocide and what a great catastrophe it was,” the Irish director said in a recent phone interview. “Because of the Turks’ denial and repression of what happened, Adolf Hitler [on Aug. 22, 1939] said to his generals before invading Poland, ‘Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?’ ”
The groundwork for “The Promise” began many years before George became involved.
The late Kirk Kerkorian, a wealthy Armenian businessman who once owned Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer film studios, was intent on bringing the story of the genocide to the masses with an epic film — complete with a love story — along the lines of “Doctor Zhivago” and “Lawrence of Arabia.”
He created a production company called Survival Pictures and envisioned making a film that would not only engage but educate people worldwide about the atrocities that occurred in the early part of the 20th century.
“He wanted it called Survival Pictures because we’re still here,” said Eric Esrailian, a doctor at UCLA who worked closely with Kerkorian and, along with Mike Medavoy, executive- produced “The Promise.” Esrailian, who is a great-grandson of genocide survivors, and Medavoy enlisted screenwriter and director Robin Swicord (“The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” “Little Women”) to write the initial story, then hired George to co-write and direct “The Promise.”
Kerkorian knew there had been pushback — mainly from the Turkish government, whose leaders to this day refuse to acknowledge the genocide — in the past when producers tried to make movies about the Armenian genocide. George said that in the 1930s, for example, MGM was going to make a movie based on Franz Werfel’s book “The Forty Days of Musa Dagh,” about the Armenian genocide, but “basically the Turkish government leaned on the State Department and the studios and had it shut down.”
Because of that precedent, “The Promise,” which cost roughly $100 million to make, was shot “under the radar, and with no publicity,” said George, who filmed for 70 days in Spain, Portugal, and Malta.
“There’s a history of interference on this subject matter,” he said.
The director maintained that a propaganda campaign is in the works to discredit “The Promise” and dissuade audiences from seeing it. When the film premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival last September, there were two screenings in a theater that held 1,500 people, George said.
“That means that 3,000 people saw the film. But, somehow, 86,000 people decided to vote on the film’s IMDb page after the screening and most gave it a one-out-of-10 rating,” he said, adding that while he has no proof, he believes the Turkish government was involved. “For that many people who didn’t see the movie to give it negative ratings, I think it was probably a bot,” he said, referring to computer software that can cast votes — or in this case ratings — at high volumes and make it appear as though they’re coming from people rather than being computer-generated.
When contacted by the Globe, Omur Budak, counsel general of Turkey in Boston, said he was not authorized to speak about the matter and that media inquiries need to go through the Turkish embassy in Washington, D.C. An embassy spokesperson said someone would respond “if he has any information [to] share.” As of press time, no response had been provided.
“The Promise” takes place during the final days of the Ottoman Empire as the Armenian genocide begins, and centers on a love triangle among an Armenian medical student (Isaac), an American journalist based in Paris (Bale), and an Armenian-born dancer raised in France (Charlotte Le Bon).
The events — from life in the labor camps to the death marches — are true, George said, but the love story is fictional.
“We re-created historical events and had the characters walk through those events,” he said. “Remember, the Armenian genocide was well publicized at the time in the United States — especially by The New York Times, which had stories about it almost every day, and other reporters, Christian missionaries … all who sent reports about the various massacres, so we had plenty of documented information.”
Esrailian is confident that Kerkorian, who died in 2015 at 98 years old, would have been pleased with the film — and proud of the message to “keep the promise to never forget.”
“This whole movement of keeping the promise … it’s not just about keeping the promise of never forgetting the Armenian genocide, but keeping the promise to fight HIV-AIDS, the promise to help immigrants, the promise to fight racism, the promise to maintain freedom of the press,” he said. “There’s a whole social movement concurrent with the movie, and that is what it’s all about.”
Esrailian said that Survival Pictures is donating all proceeds from “The Promise” to nonprofit humanitarian organizations — one of which is the Elton John AIDS Foundation. At his annual Academy Awards viewing party in February, John told the Globe that he has close Armenian friends and is “very pleased” that his foundation is one of the intended beneficiaries from the film.
“As an organization, one of our mottos is that no one gets left behind, and ‘The Promise’ is about people who got left behind and denied their rightful place in history,” John said.
New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft, who was at John’s Oscars party, referenced Berj Najarian, director of football/head coach administration for the Patriots, who is Armenian-American. He called Najarian “a special part of our organization.”
“I don’t think [the Armenians’] history has been treated very fairly, so I’m glad that this film was made,” Kraft said. “I’m happy that Elton is [giving the film a platform through his foundation]. He’s a man of great principle and always does the right thing — even if it’s unpopular with certain people.”
Esrailian said that he knows this film is — and will continue to be — controversial, but he said the “revisionist propaganda” cannot continue.
“Sadly, there have been injustices all over the world — including in this country — and the ripple effect and trauma to the descendants and to the survivors is significant,” he said. “There’s no healing until there’s recognition and acceptance.”
Juliet Pennington can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.