No joke from Judge Erich Asperschlager today, folks. This documentary's message is too important.
"A 'Screamer' is somebody whose defenses and whose alibis somehow melt
away, and they actually process what a genocide is—without defense,
without guile. And when you do that—when you actually allow it all in,
there's no other alternative but to go up to people and to
scream…"People are being systematically butchered! We can stop
Though presented in part as a concert film, director Carla Garapedian's documentary Screamers features relatively little performance footage. Instead, it tells the story of the "forgotten" Armenian genocide, by interspersing footage from Armenian-American hard rock band System of a Down's 2005 tour with interviews and heart-wrenching imagery. Raising awareness of this atrocity—the first major genocide of the 20th Century—is a personal mission of band members Serj Tankian, John Dolmayan, Daron Malakian, and Shavo Odadjian, several of whom have relatives who survived the Ottoman Empire's campaign to get rid of all Armenians living in the Anatolia region of Turkey. But Screamers is more than a history lesson. It uses the Armenian genocide as a starting point for a discussion of the genocides that followed, why they continue to happen, and why governments and individuals ignore these atrocities even today.
In 1915, somewhere between one and one-and-a-half million Armenians died when the Turkish government drove them from their homes and villages. They were led on forced death marches into the wilderness. Families were torn apart. Men, women, and children were beaten, tortured, raped, and murdered. And no one came to their aid.
The government of Turkey, and many of its citizens, deny vehemently that this genocide ever took place. Some do so because they can't imagine their ancestors having done something so horrific; others, because they're afraid acknowledging it would leave Turkey open to the economic strain of reparations and land reclamation. According to the film, the Turkish government spends millions of dollars in support of their official denial (as evidenced by a freely distributed Turkish tourism DVD that contained a hidden feature refuting the "lie" of the Armenian genocide).
Worse than the Turkish denial of the genocide is the fact that the U.K. and U.S. still have not officially recognized the tragedy because of Turkey's importance as a Western ally. One of the film's Michael Moore-style subplots follows the story of an Armenian genocide resolution getting passed by the U.S. House International Relations Committee, then sent on to Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert so he can present it to the House of Representatives for an official vote—provided Hastert is willing to do so. System of a Down attend a demonstration outside Hastert's Illinois headquarters, and travel to Washington where they approach the Speaker and urge his support of the issue—despite his having blocked several past Armenian genocide resolutions.
Perhaps the most chilling of the film's arguments is that though world leaders often say "Never again" in the face of genocide, those declarations come after the fact—because to recognize an ongoing event as genocide requires action. Governments are not only loathe to act unless there is some economic benefit, they avoid action when doing so would incur some economic penalty. When Saddam Hussein carried out his gas attacks against the Kurdish people in the late 1980s, for example, the Reagan administration silenced calls for sanctions against Iraq, because the country was seen as a potential ally. Years later, in 2003, many of the same people who decided to do nothing in 1988 used those gassings as a justification for the Iraq War.
For some people, System of a Down is a reason to watch this film; for others, a reason to avoid it. I have to admit the band's music doesn't do much for me. Though I was relieved that the concert footage is limited to seven songs, fans of the band might be peeved there isn't more music. Instead of deciding whether the film was going to be about the genocide or about System of a Down, Garapedian seems to have split the difference to appeal to a wider audience. Though the film's message is important enough that people who don't care for the band should probably watch it anyway, they may wish to do so with one finger on the fast-forward button.
Visually, the film isn't great. Much of the band footage suffers from serious motion blur. The audio presentation is much better, provided you enjoy System's music. The 5.1 mix is dynamic and does a good job transitioning between concert footage and interviews. In order to help spread the film's message, the DVD contains a separate "educational version" audio track, which removes the strong language—though I suspect removing the band's live performances would have had pretty much the same effect.
The extras include extended backstage footage, a visit to an abandoned Armenian village, a bonus System performance, an AFI press conference, and a tribute to outspoken Armenian newspaper editor Hrank Dink, who was murdered after his appearance in the film. There's also a director's commentary, in which Garapedian provides interesting information, not only about the band and the filmmaking process, but also about the subjects addressed in the film. Her passion for the cause makes it worth a listen.
It is the terrible truth of the 20th, and now the 21st Century that genocides like those carried out in Germany, Bosnia, Rwanda, and Darfur happen because countries with the power to stop them do not. Some have suggested that passing a resolution to recognize a tragedy more than a century old is a waste of time. Garapedian's film makes the compelling argument that official recognition of the Armenian, or any, genocide is the first step towards forcing governments to act—to hold our leaders accountable when they say "Never again." While it's true your tolerance for System of a Down will affect your overall viewing experience, Screamers remains a documentary worth seeing.
The filmmakers aren't the guilty ones here.
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