How ‘The Promise’ brings historical atrocity to big screen: An interview with producer Eric Esrailian

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Early in the 20th century, as the Ottoman empire entered the final death throes before its dissolution after WWI, a group of leaders known as the “Three Pashas” embarked on a campaign to systematically remove the longstanding Armenian population from the region of modern day Turkey — a population that had, for many years, coexisted there peacefully. They did this by driving entire villages of people out into the Syrian Desert to starve and killing those that refused to march. The term “genocide” had not yet been coined, but nearly all historians specializing in wartime atrocities and genocides have retroactively conferred the term onto what happened to the Armenians beginning around 1915. It is estimated that between 800,000 and 1.5 million Armenians died in this approximately seven-year period. To this day, the Turkish government denies that any genocide occurred.

That genocide created the first major refugee crisis of the 20th century. Kirk Kerkorian, the late, previous owner of the MGM Grand Casino and Metro-Goldwyn Mayer Pictures and noted philanthropist, was descended from one of the many immigrant Armenian families produced by the crisis. For years, Kerkorian harbored the desire to bring the Armenian genocide to cinema, despite the often escalatory intimidation employed by the Turkish government discouraging it.

Before he died in 2015, Kerkorian met Eric Esrailian — a practicing doctor and public health policy advisor, also of Armenian descent — and, with him, organized the creation of Survival Pictures, a production company focused on telling stories with social impact.

Esrailian had been interested in the story of the genocide since his time as an undergraduate student at UC Berkeley. “I grew up in the Bay Area, and my great grandparents were genocide survivors,” he explained. “So I had a background from my family, and from learning a little bit even at (UC) Berkeley, where, when I was studying English and anthropology, I had the opportunity to research some source material.”

He then went on to get a masters in public health from UCLA, a decision that influenced the scale on which he considers social impact. “In public health, you learn more about communities and populations and how to help people on that level,” he said. Under Survival Pictures, he and his team set out to bring the story of the Armenian genocide to a new, wide audience.

The result is “The Promise,” a sprawling historical drama that centers on the love triangle between a medical student Mikael Boghosian (Oscar Isaac), an Associated Press reporter Christopher Myers (Christian Bale) and Myers’ fiancée Ana (Charlotte Le Bon) as the genocide begins and turns their lives upside down. So given the circumstances, why the love triangle?

“Kirk (Kerkorian) always imagined that the film would be a throwback to cinema, to the classic films he grew up with, such as ‘Doctor Zhivago’ and ‘Lawrence of Arabia,’ ” Esrailian explained. “We didn’t want this to be a history lesson. We want people to be moved and lose themselves for a period of time in the movie.” In fact, Esrailian related that the original idea for the script focused on Mikael and his family dynamic, and that it was director Terry George (“Hotel Rwanda”) who introduced the Associated Press reporter character Christopher Myers into the mix.

In the time of the Armenian genocide, it was among the most heavily reported stories in the Associated Press. So (adding Myer’s character) really took the film to another level, not just in terms of the narrative but again, from the social impact standpoint,” Esrailian explained.

That emphasis on social impact extends beyond the film’s production as well. “(Kerkorian) also wanted us to donate all the proceeds from Survival Pictures to nonprofit organizations. So that’s actually what we’re going to do with the film,” Esrailian said.

Unfortunately, making money from “The Promise” is looking to be an uphill climb — and not just because it cost $100 million to make. Beyond lukewarm reviews from critics, the film, which has yet to open, has almost 100,000 one-star reviews on IMDb, reflecting a continued, concerted effort on the part of the Turkish government to ensure the film isn’t a success.

But Esrailian is still hopeful. “We’re proud of the opportunity to share the story, and we encourage everyone who actually sees the film to form their own opinions,” he said. “Voting on IMDb or Rotten Tomatoes is small potatoes compared to what has happened over the last several decades, with real intimidation and hostility on a political and humanitarian level. So if that’s the worst that happens, I think I’ll be happy with that.” Regardless of the film’s performance, its existence and the discussions around it are important steps in fostering global recognition and awareness about an oft-neglected piece of history.

“The Promise” opens at AMC Bay Street 16 on April 20.

Imad Pasha covers film. Contact him at [email protected].