'Intent to Destroy': Film Review

Informative but digressive.

Joe Berlinger's documentary recounts the story of the Armenian Genocide and Turkey's denials of it.

It must have seemed like a good idea at the time for director Joe Berlinger to tie his documentary about the Armenian Genocide with a behind-the-scenes account of the making of The Promise, Terry George's dramatic film about the same subject. Unfortunately, that $100 million would-be cinematic epic starring Christian Bale and Oscar Isaac sank like a stone upon its premiere last spring, attracting critical brickbats and going virtually unseen. That the film bankrolled by Armenian-American businessman Kirk Kerkorian was a box-office disaster lends an unfortunate aspect to the otherwise excellent and informative Intent to Destroy.

The documentary, divided into three sections corresponding to its subtitle Death, Denial & Depiction, begins with the filmed testimony, shot in 1991, of an elderly survivor of the atrocities. After a title sequence explaining the background of the film, we see the first table reading of George's screenplay, with Eric Bogosian providing the stage directions. It's noted that the reading is occurring on the exact 100th anniversary of the beginning of the genocide.

Intent to Destroy delivers an account of the events surrounding the horrific events that began in 1915, using archival photographs and film footage and interviews with scholars, historians and authors. It also chronicles the extensive efforts of the Turkish government to not only deny that what happened to their Armenian population constituted a genocide but also to suppress information about it. For instance, when MGM purchased the movie rights to The Forty Days of Musa Dagh, the hugely popular 1933 novel about the subject, they buckled to pressure from the Turkish government and abandoned their plans to make the film. It's also not surprising to learn that The Promise wasn't able to film where the events actually happened but rather in such places as Spain, Portugal and Malta.

Turkey continues their denials to the present day. The documentary includes an interview with Canadian director Atom Egoyan, who describes the pressures he felt while making his 2002 film Ararat, about a filmmaker working on a drama about the Turkish atrocities. We also hear from a Turkish government official who says that those who seek to define his country's actions as genocide are suffering from "Holocaust envy."

All of this material proves fascinating. It's a shame, then, that so much of Intent to Destroy plays like a special feature for the DVD edition of The Promise. There are some interesting aspects to pairing an account of the real-life events with a fictionalized depiction of them, but watching Bale gently working with a child actor who's supposed to play dead simply isn't one of them. And while it's deeply touching to see Iranian actress Shohreh Aghdashloo break down while lamenting that man's inhumanity to his fellow man remains undiminished, it doesn't add much to our understanding.

Production companies: Survival Pictures, Radical Media, Third Eye Motion Picture Company, Bloom Project
Distributor: Abramorama
Director: Joe Berlinger
Screenwriters: Joe Berlinger, Cy Christiansen
Producers: Joe Berlinger, Eric Esrailian, Chip Rosenbloom
Executive producers: Anthony Manderkic, Patricia L. Glaser, Dan Taylor, Sheri Sani, Jon Kamen, Dave O'Connor, Justin Wilkes
Director of photography: Bob Richman
Editor: Cy Christiansen
Composer: Serg Tankian

115 minutes