It comes across as a gimmick, using clips and behind-the-scene footage of 2017’s THE PROMISE to tell the story of the Armenian Genocide, and of Turkey’s ongoing campaign of denial about it. Yet, Joe Berlinger’s moving and maddening documentary, INTENT TO DESTROY: DEATH, DENIAL, & DEPICTION, is anything but a gimmick. By cutting and those clips and making-of footage with the real-life witnesses, historical footage, and a fine selection of knowledgeable, engaged talking heads, the intensity of the massacre, and the deep psychic wound inflicted on the victims and their descendants, is presented with crystal clarity and devastating impact.
A witness starts the film, explaining how he received the scar on his face when he was a boy. The story is horrifying, preparing us for the history beneath the artifice of THE PROMISE, which we follow from first table reading to final shot. Yet, it is much more than how a film crew transforms Spain into Turkey, or the careful choreographing of a riot. Every scene has its own context, so that the insult imperiously aimed at Oscar Issac’s Armenian character isn’t just a man being told to remove himself to the back of the room. It is how the seeds were sown of the genocide of a million-and-a-half Armenian that started in 1915 and continued for seven year.
Berlinger’s history lesson is as gripping as drama of the film he uses as the backbone of his documentary. He richly annotates scenes from the film with such backstories as 1930’s Hollywood succumbing to government pressure to abandon a film about the genocide, and drawing the line between the presence of German officers in Turkey during World War I, and the cattle cars used to transport Jews to the death camp during World War II.
Along the way we become acquainted with THE PROMISE’s director, Terry George, a man of exceptionally dry wit and a talent for maintaining the same cool, determined exterior no matter what is happening around him. After hearing stories of the slaughters, we know that George’s coolness while directing the recreations is about telling truth, not emotional detachment. It makes the images even more affecting, even though we see the “corpses” get up after a shot is done. It is during those recreations that the past and present mesh, bringing home better than any intellectual argument, why it is necessary in a just world for Turkey to acknowledge its culpability in the genocide, starting with the use of that word for the organized extermination it instigated in the 1920s. At one point, a supporting actress of Armenian descent surveys the extras strewn over the ground and chokes back sobs at being surrounded by the tableau of what her own relatives experienced. Yet it is Shohreh Aghdashloo, an Iranian actress living in exile, who links past and present. While filming that same scene, she breaks down entirely, overcome by the infernal repetition of such scenes across time and countries until the present day, walking away while asking the unanswerable but inevitable question of why humankind continues to do this to one another.
The determination of the Turkish government to keep the story of the genocide buried will make your jaw drop. Canadian Atom Egoyan, whose ARARAT angered the Turkish government, describes ominous meetings with their representatives. The United States ambassador to Armenia, John Marshall Evans, is forced by his government to formally apologize to Turkey for using the word “genocide.” Mexican actor Daniel Gimenez Cacho mentions that he will be in a film dealing with that subject, and receives a visit from the Turkish government, and a copy of a book denying the genocide. A book he doesn’t want to show Berlinger while on the set of THE PROMISE, but whose author Berlinger includes in the film for a display of smug sophistry.
INTENT TO DESTROY is a stunning examination of genocide’s roots. An ominous study of official denial. A story with contemporary resonance that reminds us that to allow criminals to rewrite the past is to become compicit in the crime.