'Architects of Denial': Film Review

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An earnest but flawed plea for attention to ongoing persecution.
10/6/2017

Montel Williams and Dean Cain executive produced a doc calling for official acknowledgement of the Armenian genocide.

Recent years have seen increasingly high-profile efforts to draw attention to the 1915 slaughter of 1.5 million Armenians in the Ottoman Empire and to protest the U.S. government's refusal to use the word "genocide" to describe this horror. On the film front, these efforts — like Terry George's formulaic melodrama The Promise — have sometimes seen their good intentions thwarted by failures of skill or judgment.

That's substantially the case in Architects of Denial, an ardent documentary that tells more of this story than casual observers will know, but which also gives viewers reason to question the messenger. Though certain to be embraced by Armenians, its chances of breaking through to outsiders are limited. Given how easy some of its flaws would be to fix and the clear truth of much of its message, that's a small tragedy.

The film was executive produced by Dean Cain and Montel Williams — two celebrities carrying around a bit of baggage, and neither of them known for journalistic rigor. It was directed, according to onscreen credits, by David Lee George. But no filmmaker of that name seems to exist online; press materials offer no bio; and producers refused, after multiple requests, to supply any background on him. More strangely, the film's Kickstarter and other sources credit a Kevin Day as director — but that name appears nowhere in the film.

The use of a pseudonym might be justifiable on a project where several contributors are listed as "Anonymous": When filming in Turkey, a government that violently objects to the use of the term "genocide," secrecy may be a matter of survival. But the production's refusal to address this confusion raises red flags, especially given how central conspiracy and cover-up are to its narrative.

To the extent that we should set aside this sketchiness, viewers will appreciate the film's fleshed-out picture of the persecution of Armenians. Not only does it go to some length to refute the Turkish government's claims that what happened was not a systematic extermination of Armenians — we meet a 108-year-old woman and other survivors who beg to differ; we hear from historians and from the Turkish scholar who uncovered "smoking gun" documents — but we learn how this atrocity is connected to others across the last century, to what the film calls "three generations of genocide." The doc charts how many of the genocide's survivors fled to parts of Azerbaijan, where violence awaited them and their descendants. In this account, a 1990 massacre in Baku and grisly killings last year are directly connected to the work of 1915's Young Turks.

This account is moving and gives us little reason for doubt. Also persuasive is the movie's recurring argument that "genocide denied is genocide continued" — that is, that refusing to hold those behind one year's ethnic cleansing accountable emboldens a leader tempted to do the same thing later. (It is widely believed that Adolf Hitler used the Armenian example as a way of selling his own extermination plans.)

Somewhat shakier — especially given the heavy-handedness of John Ross' score — is the film's attempt to put a conspiratorial gloss on America's official refusal to call genocide "genocide." The doc uncritically interviews Julian Assange on the subject, and relies heavily on dramatic assertions made by Sibel Edmonds, a former FBI contractor who was fired for whistleblowing. We're told that Edmonds uncovered evidence of "treason at high levels of the U.S. government." Among other things, she accuses disgraced Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert of taking sexual favors and cash from Turkish drug cartels in exchange for quashing a House resolution labeling 1915's events genocide.

Everything Edmonds says may be true. (The film offers a "we were unable to independently verify" disclaimer, but clearly believes her.) And ambush-interview footage of members of Congress who refuse to speak when asked about the Armenian issue lend credence to the doc's claims of shady influence. But Architects of Denial has done, in some ways, the very thing it is rightly angry at others for doing: It has opened the door to doubt.

Production company: Architects of Denial, LLC
Distributor: Dada Films
Director: David Lee George
Screenwriters: John Ross, Robert Corsini, Dan Goldman
Producers: David Lee George, John Ross
Executive producers: Dean Cain, Ser Sar, Montel Williams
Editors: Michael Antonik, Chris Merrill, John Ross
Composer: John Ross

In English, Armenian and Turkish
102 minutes

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