In September 2016, The Promise – a historical romance, directed by Terry George (Hotel Rwanda) and starring Oscar Isaacs, Christian Bale and Charlotte Le Bon – aired in three small screenings at the Toronto International Film Festival. By the end of October, the film – not set for full release until April 2017 – had accrued over 86,000 ratings on IMDb, ranging from about 55,000 1-star ratings to over 30,000 10-stars. Even the most vaguely observant of readers must now be wondering: what exactly happened? How did The Promise, a film which by this point had only been seen by a select few hundred festival-goers and critics, manage to gain such an exceedingly polarising response from thousands of people who had yet to even watch it? Are 55,000 people just harbouring some irrational hatred for the loveable screen presence of Oscar Isaacs?
The answer lies not in the film itself (which reviewers have unenthusiastically dubbed a ‘solid, if overly soapy, drama’) (The Guardian), but in its setting. The Promise charts a love triangle against the backdrop of the Armenian genocide, beginning in 1915. Whilst it can’t entirely deny the mass extermination of the Armenian people as initiated by the Ottomans, the Turkish government still expressly denies the concept of an Armenian ‘genocide’, despite its recognition by prominent and relevant authorities around the world. The fact that The Promise shines a light – be it the sappy, pinkish light of the silver-screen love story – on this dire occurrence which so starkly underlines the formative period of the modern Turkish state has earned it the ire of Armenian genocide deniers, alongside the apparent reactive 10-starring of those who oppose them. With such controversy surrounding a film which is, superficially, just another historical romance, the question arises: where do we draw the line between entertainment and politics? Do films have a moral responsibility to illuminate, question, and render into the public conscious humanity’s darkest places?
Responsibility is, perhaps, a strong word. I would not for a second suggest that IMDb should become the ideological battleground of the future, and my local cinema become a fiery den of political dispute. Sometimes, I want to watch a film just to see Chris Evans punch things in a skin-tight, red white and blue costume, and that’s fine. Moral and political debate is by no means the raison d’etre of cinema, and nor should it be – yet it would be similarly ridiculous to suggest that filmmakers should steer clear of politicising their craft entirely. Indeed, to do so would be impossible. Observe the marked alterations in cinematic themes throughout shifts in world history, from Charlie Chaplain’s profound anti-fascism speech in The Great Dictator to the satirical nuclear paranoia of Dr Strangelove (“You can’t fight in here! This is the War Room!”). Like all art, film has the capacity to be both political and trivial. For every Fast & Furious, there is a Schindler’s List – to every Sharknado, a Last King of Scotland. Just as cinema can never be limited to the solely political, neither should it ever be sidelined to the inane.
The Promise is then both an unfortunate casualty and a prime example. Whilst the script clearly places emphasis on the film’s romantic aspects, it’s worth pointing out at this point that The Promise is one of the most expensive independently financed films ever made, funded by Survival Pictures – a production company co-founded by Armenian-descended businessman Kirk Kerkorian. Perhaps the romantic focus was a business decision, or perhaps not – regardless, it would be a clear fallacy to suppose that the filmmakers didn’t know the political quagmire they were getting themselves into. By creating a film – one featuring considerable star power, and intended for worldwide commercial release – set against the Armenian genocide, Survival Pictures have provided an undeniable reminder that cinema can be both political and consumable.
If not for the controversy, The Promise may well have been yet another paint-by-numbers love triangle to slip comfortably under the radar: so perhaps those Armenian genocide deniers, with their vigorous IMDb scoring, have shot themselves in the foot here in bringing attention to it. The arts, for all their occasional mundanity, are inseparable from the broader questions and foci of shared human culture. The Promise may be a particularly pertinent example, but the model holds – so long as tragedies such as the Armenian genocide remain present in popular culture, they cannot be simply swept under the historical rug. A film doesn’t have to be primarily political to serve a moral purpose, and nor does it have to intend a moral purpose to be considered a worthy or enjoyable film.
The question, then, is not one of moral responsibility but of resonant effect. Regardless of whether people remember The Promise in years to come, the result is the same – the fact that the film was made ensures that even if the film is forgotten, the Armenian genocide won’t be. The truth will out – and sometimes, the truth is coming soon, to a cinema near you. And even if it’s tied up neatly in a love triangle, that’s something 55,126 IMDb voters can do absolutely nothing about.