Danny Peary Talks To… ‘Intent to Destroy’ Director Joe Berlinger

Scene from Joe Berlinger's "Intent to Destroy"
Scene from Joe Berlinger’s “Intent to Destroy”

I strongly recommend the ambitious and powerfully enlightening new documentary by Joe Berlinger (Paradise Lost and two sequels; Crude; Metallica: Some Kind of Monster). Intent to Destroy: Death, Denial & Depiction opens in Manhattan at the Village East Cinema on 12th Street and 2nd Avenue on Friday, November 10. I rated it among the best films—documentary or narrative—at the last Tribeca Film Festival and it was selected Best Documentary at Doc LA.

From the synopsis in the film’s Press Notes: “Pulling back the curtain on mass murder censorship in Hollywood due to U.S. government pressure to appease a strategic ally, Intent to Destroy embeds with a historic feature production [The Promise, starring Christian Bale and Oscar Isaac] as a springboard to explore the violent history of the Armenian Genocide and the legacy of Turkish suppression and denial over the past century…in the hope of inspiring a collective sense of international justice and humanity.”

The trailer:

In April, I was one of four journalists who participated in a roundtable with Berlinger about his impressive work.

"Intent to Destroy" director Joe Berlinger
“Intent to Destroy” director Joe Berlinger, Photo: Danny Peary

Danny Peary: Terry George’s The Promise was released earlier this year, so do you want viewers to see it as an introduction to your film?

Joe Berlinger: It’s great that The Promise is out there and raising attention about Armenian Genocide of 1915 and starting the dialogue going, but we always thought of Intent to Destroy as standing on its own. Obviously the two films are related but you don’t have to have seen The Promise to understand what you need to get out of Intent to Destroy. Really the design was to have them be independent of each other.

Journalist 2: Did your film, which contains on-set footage about the making of The Promise, impact that film?

JB: My role of documenting The Promise had zero impact on The Promise. My job as a documentarian was to come in and observe what is happening not to change the outcome of what they’re doing. I had no role on The Promise I was not there to tell them what to do or have any influence other than to observe.

J2: How did that film impact your creative process in telling your story?

JB: How the making of The Promise affected my approach goes to the heart of what my film is about. The producer of The Promise, Eric Esrailian, is not a film person but is in charge of Kirk Kerkorian’s foundation. Several years ago I was introduced to Eric by a mutual friend, another documentary producer, Chip Rosenbloom. Eric was a fan of my films and wanted to make a film about the Armenian Genocide.

Because The Promise was very much under wraps, a very secret production flying under the radar, Eric didn’t tell me it was being made. All he told me was he’s representing a foundation and wants to do a documentary about the Armenian Genocide. It was a subject I knew something about but after several conversations I wasn’t interested in making a film about it because I’m a present-tense, cinéma vérité filmmaker, not a historical filmmaker. So the idea of doing a talking-heads, archive-driven film wasn’t that appealing to me. It wasn’t my style of filmmaking and I knew several documentaries on the genocide existed already. I didn’t think I had anything to add to the conversation.

So I basically passed on the opportunity. But we stayed in touch and I learned that The Promise was being made and he started to reveal information to me about a big-budget independent movie being made with Hollywood people. That’s when a lightbulb went on for me and I said to Eric, “Look, if you want me to do a documentary about the Armenian Genocide get me into bed with this film you’re making. Because I think the eye candy of being behind the scenes of a big Hollywood movie would make the film accessible to a 21st century audience. Even though it’s a historical subject, this will give the film a present-tense narrative arc.

More importantly, going behind the scenes will allow me to add to the conversation.” I knew that it was historic that The Promise was being made because the history in Hollywood is that anytime a film on this subject is attempted the Turkish government calls the State Department and the State Department twists the arm of the Hollywood studio to drop the movie. So, it’s just one of those things in Hollywood that you don’t make a movie about the Armenian genocide, which I find really morally problematic. It’d be like pulling Steven Spielberg aside and saying, “Hey, don’t make Schindler’s List because we don’t want to offend the Germans.”

I felt the behind-the-scenes-of-The-Promise structure would allow me to tell not just the history of the genocide, but also the history of the denial, the mechanism of denial, and the aftermath of denial. That no one had ever made a film about that so I thought that would allow me to add to the conversation. Also, I’m fascinated by how you depict atrocity on screen. That’s why Intent to Destroy is divided into three chapters: Death, Denial & Depiction.

Cattle car in "Intent to Destroy"
Cattle car in “Intent to Destroy”

DP: Which is the subtitle of your movie.

JB: Right. Death: I’m going to give you an overview on how people were killed. Denial: I’m going to give you the definitive history of how this story in particular has been repressed and of the aftermath and effect of denial. Because as smarter people than I have said, the final stage of genocide is Denial. There are lessons today for that in this fake-news, alternative-facts universe, where Time magazine’s cover story is about the death of truth. Depiction: I’m going to be able to show in a documentary some things a narrative film can’t. Like with the massacre scene that Terry Jones portrays in The Promise. Every victim on screen is clothed because you can’t show what they really looked like and get a PG rating. But a documentary can. How do you deal with those kinds of storytelling issues? For me the film works on many levels and by embedding with The Promise I could really elevate the behind-the-scenes genre to tell an important historical story that gets into a lot of very weighty issues. I tried to make a film that’s not just about history but has real relevance for today and issues that we’re facing.

Journalist 3: History is often written by the winning country.

JB: And the Turkish education system doesn’t teach about the Armenian Genocide.

J3: How should children in Turkey be taught about it?

JB: That’s a tough issue.. How do we affect the victor’s educational system? By making films and getting the word out. I’m not sure we have the ability to affect what goes on in the Turkish educational system other than by the court of world public opinion and by standing up for what’s right. That’s why I find it so morally repugnant that the United States refuses to acknowledge the Armenian genocide just because we want to use Turkey for air force bases.

I think something as weighty and immoral as a genocide and its accountability should be political capital. I think only a greater emphasis on truth in the worldwide community will force countries to deal with their legacies as best as they can, including the United States. We still don’t appropriately deal with the genocide of the Native Americans in our own country. But, as you see in the film, when the genocide was happening there were 150 articles about it in The New York Times, and through the Near East Relief Effort, the largest relief effort that had ever been mounted, Americans were sending tons of money to help the Armenians.

Today, most Americans don’t know that positive chapter in American history because of our government’s policy. So to change the educational system of a country that doesn’t teach about its atrocities starts with the world community standing up for what’s right and truthful. In this instance, I find U.S. complicity in covering up the genocide to be really troubling. Other countries, like Israel, don’t recognize the genocide.

I think a country born out of the ashes of the Holocaust has a special moral responsibility to recognize genocide where it happens, but they’ve traded standing up for what’s morally correct for a relationship with Turkey and I think that’s particularly problematic. Especially since Israel and America like to hold themselves up as models for human rights around the world.

DP: In your film, you show that after the assassination of the activist journalist Hrant Dink in 2007, because he spoke about the denial of Armenian Genocide, there was a large protest in Turkey. So there was the seed of democracy before the recent crackdown by Erdoğan. Is there still any kind of movement of people who recognize there was a genocide?

JB: There’s a growing contingent of Turkish people who recognize it and who advocate for change. It’s not an easy opinion to have because it’s against the law in Turkey to talk what happened in 1915 as genocide. In this current regime with Erdogan’s widened powers and Turkey having the most journalists jailed of any country, I think it’s going to be challenging to have protests.

DP: Has there ever been a film like yours before? Has somebody ever done a mixed documentary that details the making of a film and uses footage from that film to fill in gaps in history?

JB: There have been great making-of-movies documentaries like Burden of Dreams, about the making of Fitzcarraldo, and Heart of Darkness about the making of Apocalypse Now. But I think I’ve pushed the genre in a considerable way. Actually, the behind-the-scenes story–the inside story about how that film was made–isn’t that relevant in my film. Burden of Dreams is all about the relationship between the director Werner Herzog and star Klaus Kinski and the extent to which making that film was just this arduous journey. But I am using the making of The Promise as a structural device to tell the history of the genocide and the history of denial and to pose questions about how one can portray atrocity on the screen.

DP: The Promise is a narrative with a true story as the background. And I say your film is unique in that you have taken that historical fiction, The Promise, and made it real again, taking the true story back by jettisoning the fiction—and making it a documentary. That’s really interesting.

JB: Exactly. I would like to think I pushed the envelope on this behind-the-scenes genre.

DP: In a Q&A in the film’s press notes you say, “I hope to create a dialogue to help bring closure to this painful chapter in history.” Is closure the right word? Can the Armenians ever have closure? And do they want to have closure? I don’t think you mean to say that once there’s no more denial everyone can move on.

JB: I was talking about closure to the debate about whether it really happened. I’ve done a ton of criminal justice stuff and closure is not about “Okay, I feel better” for victims of crime. Closure is a funny concept, but closure is about accountability. People want to know a crime has been solved and that the perpetrator is in prison. It’s not about having emotional closure because the pain will never go away. The pain for the Armenian people will never go away. The pain is exacerbated and amplified by the lack of acknowledgement. So, the closure is about the debate. It happened, the debate is over. As I said before, the final stage of genocide is denial so unless that’s pushed back and people have acknowledgment on the crime that has happened they can never have closure on that issue. As to the pain of losing family members, there’s never closure.

J3: You asked questions in your film of historians on the Turkish side, who argue that there was no genocide. Was it a challenge you faced to have more of a balance?

JB: Being balanced doesn’t mean you can’t have an opinion. My film is very clear on where I stand on the issue of whether or not there was a genocide. But I do believe that I should have balance. And this is where I differ from many of the people who are involved in this movement. They’ll probably read this and go, “Joe, why’d you say that?” I don’t believe that everyone who thinks the genocide was not a genocide has just been bought off or is morally deficient. I think that some people truly believe this opinion. It demonstrates how successful the Turkish campaign has been to discredit the genocide.

But I do believe there are people who genuinely believe there was not a genocide. My approach is that I treat everyone with humanity and respect. I don’t believe I throw any of those people under the bus or make them feel bad for having articulated their opinions, I let them have their say and I let the viewer deicide. I have faith in the viewer. I show both sides. My point of view is in the film and the truth rises to the top and that’s what I hope the viewer will gravitate to. The best example of that is the original Paradise Lost. I didn’t tell you exactly what to think, I presented all sides and I trusted the audience to come to their own conclusion, which I think is a different approach than taken by many advocacy filmmakers who are afraid to put in the opposing point of view. Probably 20 percent of people who saw the original Paradise Lost walked out of the theater thinking we’d made a film about guilty teenagers. That’s unfortunate because that was not my point of view, but that’s the price you pay when you are balanced. Certain films lecture to you and bang a point of view over your head. That’s a very passive experience where you’re being persuaded to agree with the filmmaker’s opinion.

I prefer to treat the audience like a jury. I’m not afraid to tell you my point of view, but here’s an opposing point of view and you in the audience will make the decision. And when you come to your own conclusion, as opposed to being lectured to, it’s a much more emotionally engaging experience. For Paradise Lost, the 80 percent who realized the accused boys were innocent came to that conclusion themselves instead of from me telling them that, and when you come to that conclusion yourself, it’s much more impassioned, and that’s what produced tens of thousands of people around the world banding together.

The three Paradise Lost films are given a lot of credit for getting these guys out of prison but it was the combination of the films and tens of thousands of people banding together saying, “We’ve got to do something about that.” And you evoke that response only by giving your audience the intelligence they deserve to come to their own conclusion. When interviewing the people who represent the opinion that the Armenian Genocide didn’t happen, I felt I had to treat them with respect and give them the dignity of expressing their beliefs.

So, I fully expect some people to watch Intent to Destroy and say, “Well, there’s still a debate, I’m not sure there was a genocide.” That’s the price you pay for treating an audience with respect. But hopefully most people will come away from it feeling like this is an injustice that needs to be made right.

"Intent to Destroy" movie poster
“Intent to Destroy” movie poster

J3: As an artist how do you protect your works?

JB: Luckily, I’ve never been in a position where my films are not shown.

J3: But you had problems with Chevron with your film Crude.

JB: Chevron wasn’t trying to stop me from showing Crude. Chevron wanted access to footage from it because it is about the lawsuit against them by the Ecuadorian Amazon Indigenous people–they were suing Chevron for oil pollution damage. I was making a film about that underlying lawsuit and they subpoenaed my footage to help their defense against the lawsuit that I was making a film about. I as an artist felt I had an obligation to my profession and to my subject to fight that subpoena. I ultimately lost and had to turn my footage over, but my film is still in release. I guess as an artist the answer to your question is: Crude cost 1.2 million dollars to make and the lawsuit cost me 1.3 million dollars to defend my footage–fortunately, I had support to help me pay for that. I’ve taken on corrupt prosecutors in Paradise Lost, I’ve taken on morally ambiguous decisions by the Department of Justice in Whitey: United States v James J. Bulger, and I’ve taken on this project. I don’t shrink from controversy. If you’re going to tackle controversial subjects you have to be prepared to put up a fight.

J2: You’ve covered a wide variety of subjects. You’ve also done both feature films and long form and digital and Netflix. For up and coming filmmakers, what advice do you have in term of how do you decide if a particular story should be a long film or short film?

JB: We could do a seminar on that. Whether something should be for long form or short form is all about good characters and good storytelling. It’s so basic but a lot of young filmmakers decide to make a film about a subject as opposed to finding a character with a story or situation that reflects on some universal theme. That’s what I always look for. I find everything is never what it appears to be. That’s the link between all of my films so I don’t think they’re so far afield. From the start, it’s been: the truth is never what it appears to be not, life is much more complex than black and white. And I’ve loved to blow up stereotypes. It might be the smelly old farm brothers in Brother’s Keeper who you think you don’t want to spend time with but by the end of the film you’ve come to love. In Paradise Lost, we see that if a guy dresses in black and listens to heavy metal music, he must be a killer. That’s a stereotype. My thing is to turn conventional wisdom on its head. I think if you figure out what you want to express and you find a good character and a story that allows you to get emotionally engaged with your subject but is importantly a window into a much larger world, the length of the film will figure itself out.

J2: Looking at the burying of history in Intent to Destroy and the events in the world today, including in America with its race issues and persecution of the LGBT community, what do you think is happening right now that in 20, 50, or 100 years folks will look back on and wonder why nobody did anything about it?

JB: These are very perilous times with rising nationalism, growing xenophobia, growing protectionist policies. That Donald trump is our president says a lot. There’s going to be a lot to look back on and say: “Why didn’t we take stronger action?” That’s why I think Intent to Destroy, even though it’s a historical subject, has relevance because it expresses a need for people to accept historical responsibility and own up to the truth. We’re living in times when people are so overwhelmed with a multiplicity of opinions that they are are paralyzed with inaction. I think we’re going to regret that in the future.

DP: Take note that on Saturday November 11 at 6:45 p.m. at the IFC Center, with Joe Berlinger present, Doc NYC will present the first two parts of the director’s Sundance Channel’s docuseries, Cold-Blooded: The Clutter Family Murders. Also worth seeking out at the country’s top documentary festival are Barbara Kopple’s A Murder in Mansfield; Asud Faruqi and Geeta Gandbhir’s Armed with Faith; Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady’s One of Us; Sonja Sohn’s Baltimore Rising; Laura Poitras’s Risk; Sam Pollard’s Maynard; Julia Bacha’s Naila and the Uprising; Mariam Shaar’s Sky & Ground; and Errol Morris’s Wormwood.

Danny Peary has published 25 books on film and sports, including Cult Movies and Jackie Robinson in Quotes.


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