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'As we filmed people being drowned, we saw the same things happen for real on TV'

Terry George, the Oscar-winning director from Belfast, says his film The Promise, about the little-known genocide in Armenia during the First World War, has frightening parallels with the current situation in Syria

By Ivan Little

There were no red carpets, no fawning interviewers, no hard-nosed reviewers and no hordes of selfie-seeking fans as Terry George held the Irish premiere of his big budget movie, The Promise, in Mullingar, where another notable absentee was a cinema screen.

Instead, the Belfast-born Oscar-winning director projected a rough cut of the film about one of the world's least remembered genocides, in Armenia, on two bedsheets that had been pressed into service at a function in Co Westmeath.

The occasion wasn't a glittering sparkler of a party night. But the audience were probably even more special for Terry, (64), because they were family and friends attending the wedding of his daughter Oorlagh, herself a talented film-maker.

Terry's brother Michael, who was in a Belfast cinema this week to speak before a more conventional screening of the final cut of The Promise, remembers that debut showing fondly. "The wedding was a fantastic affair which lasted for a few days," he recalls. "But getting to see Terry's new film in Mullingar was wonderful for everyone who was there.

"I'd been lucky to be on the set for part of the six-month filming but what happened at the wedding was the most thrown-together screening ever."

Not for the first time, a Terry George film has shone a light on a shocking and sickening genocide, 13 years after his award-winning movie Hotel Rwanda.

But while most of the world knew all - or at least something - about the killings in Rwanda, it's safe to say that the genocide of 1.5million Armenians by the forces of the Ottoman Empire during the First World War has largely slipped under the radar.

Terry freely admits that before Hotel Rwanda, he didn't fully appreciate what had gone on in Armenia. "I knew that something bad had occurred but it was only when I was researching Rwanda that I really got to learn more about the Armenian genocide. And I discovered that the actual word genocide was coined to describe what had gone on there."

It was on the strength of Hotel Rwanda that the producers of The Promise approached him to direct their film three years ago.And he dug deeper into the Armenian horror that Turkey still tries to deny ever happened.

Terry says that only a handful of the perpetrators were ever charged with war crimes, effectively meaning that hundreds got away with murder on an almost unimaginable scale.

He adds: "When the Ottoman Empire collapsed at the end of the war, the French and British governments, in particular, set about dividing the empire up. It became Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Syria and the like, but to achieve all that a deal needed to be struck with the Turks.

"And so the question of putting people on trial for what had happened to the Armenians and pursuing the crime itself was shelved."

Terry's research took him back and forward to Armenia and Istanbul and he still finds the parallels between the genocide of a century ago and modern events in Turkey and the Middle East uncanny.

He says: "The Promise is shockingly relevant. We were literally filming scenes showing refugees fleeing across the desert or trapped up mountains or drowning on the same days we were watching the same things happening for real on our TVs." In a horribly ironic twist, the movie features Armenians fleeing their homes talking about their hopes of finding refuge in Aleppo, Syria's second city, which has been devastated in the ongoing conflict there.

"The Promise went from being a period piece to a contemporary piece and there's a message for today in the film," says Terry, who adds that the movie would never have been made without the zeal of the Armenian people.

He explains: "The producers had been working on it for years. A billionaire American/Armenian business mogul called Kirk Kerkorian, who owned a lot of hotels in Las Vegas and who was a competitor of Howard Hughes, was the driving force. Kerkorian was typical of the American/Armenian community around the globe who have been striving to get the world to wake up to what was visited upon their people."

And while the Holocaust had Schindler's List and Cambodia had The Killing Fields, Armenians had nothing. Hence their determination to get The Promise to the screen. By the time Terry signed up as director of the movie, a script had already been drafted, but the west Belfast man rewrote it and took the narrative in a different direction.

From the very outset The Promise was always planned to be a love story. Terry adds: "The producers wanted a film on an epic scale in the style of Dr Zhivago or Ryan's Daughter, but in the original script it was a traditional two-hander love story.

"However, I introduced another character to make it a love triangle."

The plot focuses on a young Armenian (played by Oscar Issac) who leaves his remote village to study medicine in Constantinople, where he meets and falls in love with a beautiful dancing teacher (Charlotte Le Bon) who's in a relationship with an American journalist (Christian Bale) who's reporting on the outbreak of war.

The fact that The Promise has a romantic storyline set against the barbarism of the genocide has been questioned by a number of critics who've used words like "soapy" and "sentimental" in their put-downs. Meanwhile, others have given it rave reviews.

But Terry is philosophical about the less-than-euphoric responses. "We've got a bit of stick. But what can you do? La-de-da," he says, adding that the love story was a way of capturing the attention of a viewing public who might otherwise have had no interest in the political backdrop, as director David Lean did with Zhivago and Ryan's Daughter.

The 90 million dollar film, with its huge cast, massive production team, its hundreds of extras and its film locations in Portugal, Malta and Spain, was a world away from Terry and Oorlagh's home-grown short movie The Shore which was shot on the doorstep of their house at Coney Island near Killough in Co Down and which won them an Oscar.

But Terry is currently toying with the idea of revisiting The Shore for a feature film about his homeland. "My hope is to make a film about Irish people going into exile and coming home after the Good Friday Agreement," says Terry, who was an exile himself.

The former member of the Irish Republican Socialist Party, which had links to the INLA, was jailed for six years for arms offences in the mid-Seventies and then ended up with his family in America, where he went on to establish himself as one of the country's go-to movie directors.

He still spends time at his home in Ireland and he keeps his finger on the pulse of politics here, where the collapse of Stormont has perplexed him, though he believes the bricks can be put back in place. He says he was a huge admirer of Martin McGuinness, the Sinn Fein leader who was an IRA commander in Derry and became Stormont's Deputy First Minister.

Terry recalls: "I wouldn't say I knew him terribly well, but I met him when he and Peter Robinson staged a screening of The Shore at Stormont. He clearly was an amazing diplomat. If he'd been born somewhere else he would have been head of the United Nations. The ability to get along with your opponents and understand them or at least, humanise them, was one of his great traits. We were lucky to have him and that group around at that moment."

Now, though, Terry is worried about the impact that the "disastrous" Brexit moves could have on the whole of Ireland. He says: "From my perspective, the peace process is essentially built on the notion that with the European Union, the border doesn't exist in reality. But suddenly you have the prospect of the oxymoron that Theresa May talks about - a frictionless border. I'd love to know what that is.

"Maybe they'll go for something like Donald Trump's wall and borrow a few bricks from him. And will the refugee camps move to Dundalk? I don't know."

Terry does know, however, that the new American President doesn't fill him with confidence, adding: "I'm not exactly jumping up and down with joy about what's happening at home or in America. But let's see how it evolves. It's all up in the air at the moment, but we've lived through worse.

"I take a long term view of things, having been through leaders like Thatcher, Blair, Obama, Clinton and Bush. Trump is obviously a big sea-change - creating a fear-induced nationalism among people who see the world changing and who are afraid of what that means for them and they react accordingly."

Terry says he has no plans to quit America. And professionally, 18-months after completing The Promise, his thoughts are now turning towards television and a number of possible projects there. "Everybody is gravitating towards television," he points out. "The cinema has been taken over by superheroes and talking badgers."

  • The Promise is in cinemas now

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