Radical Media

Interview: Joe Berlinger Talks Career and Intent to Destroy

Your film played an instrumental role in getting the West Memphis Three’s sentences overturned. Is part of you now always looking for another film that could have as profound an impact on people’s lives?

That was a career highlight. We walked the red carpet at the Oscars with the West Memphis Three, and though we didn’t win that night I went home really being proud and deeply moved that here I was walking the red carpet with guys who were on death row or life without parole only seven or eight months before. I have younger filmmakers come up to me and say “Paradise Lost made me want to be a filmmaker,” or that “Brother’s Keeper made me want to be a filmmaker.” That kind of impact on people is almost as fulfilling as changing the outcome of a situation.

I appreciate Intent to Destroy because its main focus isn’t the facts of the genocide. You establish those, for viewers who don’t know about it, but then you move on to your real subject, which is the campaign of denial that’s suppressed those facts over the decades. What made you choose that angle?

There are other films out there that have covered the genocide itself, but for me what’s most interesting is the mechanism of denial, the aftermath of denial—and American complicity in that denial. Everyone thinks that Hollywood is just this liberal environment where people can tell whatever story they want, but the fact is that as early as 1935 Irving Thalberg was being shut down [when he tried to make a film of the book The Forty Days of Musa Dagh]. It’s basically taboo in Hollywood to tell this story, because whenever a project is mounted, the Turkish government complains to the state department and the state department twists the arm of the Hollywood studio to drop the project. To me, it’s mind-boggling that a foreign country that gets billions and billions of dollars in aid from us can intervene in our internal artistic output, let alone lobbying congress to not pass resolutions about the genocide and funding alternative-facts “studies.”

There are parallels to the times we’re living in today. For Turkey, to have mounted this century-long campaign of obfuscation to the point where, at one point, helping the Armenians was America’s greatest moment of generosity, the Near East Relief effort was the largest relief effort mounted up until that point, and there were 146 articles in the New York Times—it was a well-known story—yet today most Americans have no idea that the genocide happened. I think stories like that, that are swept under the rug, are a parable for much larger issues, particularly in these perilous times, where alternative facts and fake news are bandied about, where Trump just bombards you with an alternative version of reality, until people just get so tired they tune out or they accept the other version of reality.

The Turks were very effective at suppressing evidence of the genocide from the start, making it difficult for people to take pictures or to get film developed or shipped out of the country. There were a lot of newspaper stories published at the time, but there aren’t a lot of archival images, right? Did that make for challenges in making a documentary about the events?

There’s not a ton. It’s not like the Holocaust. But there’s enough. The museum in Yerevan has a lot of documentary material. We had to dig deep to get some footage and photographs. And then there’s that survivor testimony footage, some of which is in the film. Using The Promise as the glue, so it’s not just talking heads and archival footage, was very helpful to allow people to have a picture of what these things looked like, but in terms of finding material to support the truthfulness of the genocide, it’s not that hard to find.

I wasn’t thinking about needing to prove the truth of it, just about making a film that’s cinematic enough to be interesting and not just, as you say, talking heads and a little archival footage. I read that you didn’t want to make Intent to Destroy until you were granted access to the filming of The Promise. Is that because you though you needed those images to supplement the archival photos and film?

Most of my films are cinema vérité, where you film things in the present tense, so my comfort zone is following a story as it’s unfolding. And if you remove all the Promise footage and you just have talking heads intercut with archival footage, that’s not the type of filmmaker I am. I think that would be just a lot of information bludgeoned over people’s heads, so therefore it won’t be effective. Experiencing the making of the film and illustrating certain moments, I think, helped the film breathe and work on a couple different levels. But I also wasn’t interested in just telling a story of what happened in 1915, because that’s been done, and I’m not a historical filmmaker. The making of The Promise, for me, was the window into the other parts of the film that I think are more interesting than just the facts of the genocide, which is denial.

Have you experienced any kind of pressure while making Intent to Destroy?

I haven’t. I think the threats today are less physical. They’re more about trolling on the internet. For example, no one had seen The Promise when it premiered at the Toronto Film Festival last September, but the night before there were already 5,000 negative reviews on IMDb, and by the end of the week, when maybe 5,000 people had seen the film, there were 85,000 negative reviews. So the lobbying is more behind the scenes, more cyber.

What kind of interest have you found in this documentary, from film festivals and journalists and distributors, compared to your other documentaries?

To be honest with you, the festival and popular response has been very strong, but I think the distribution response has been disappointing. I don’t want to name names, but I’ve had a number of people that I’ve done business with in the past be concerned that, “Well, we’re a global company and we do business in Turkey.” Or “Are we going to get threats and intimidation if we air the show?” Stuff that just boggles my mind. The film will get out there. It’s being released by Abramorama and we have a television deal that we’re negotiating. But a number of people who I thought would be interested in the film haven’t embraced it. So one can draw their own conclusions as to why. I can’t say, but I find it interesting, because what’s a good documentary? One that takes you into a world that you don’t know, necessarily, anything about. This film does that. It’s an important, little-known story.

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