Between church in Potrero Hill and Armenian Saturday school in Ocean View, Eric Esrailian frequently watched movies at the Kabuki Theater in Japantown while growing up in San Francisco. Religion, education and the arts have played major roles in the physician, Emmy-nominated film producer and activist’s life.
“I love storytelling,” the UC Berkeley alumnus told The Chronicle in a recent video interview from his home in Los Angeles.
The fourth pillar of his development is his family’s story. Like many first-generation Armenian Americans in the Bay Area, the trauma of a long-denied history bears a heavy influence on Esrailian, whose great-grandparents escaped the Armenian genocide.
Saturday, April 24, marks the 106th anniversary of its start. An estimated 1.5 million Armenians died from 1915 to 1923 under the Ottoman Empire, which became the modern republic of Turkey. The Turkish government continues to deny that a genocide took place.
The genocide was officially recognized by the Library of Congress in 2020. President Biden is expected to become the first sitting U.S. president to declare the events a genocide on Saturday, according to the New York Times.
Last year, Armenia’s neighbor Azerbaijan attacked Artsakh (a breakaway state also known as the Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh). Artsakh’s predominantly Armenian population has periodically defended itself against Turkic-Azerbaijani ethnic cleansing in the region since 1921.
Supporters of the Armenian people view this as an extension of the Armenian genocide.
“Turkey and Azerbaijan have said forever that they’re one people, two countries, and we’re just in the way,” Esrailian said.
Esrailian is on the front lines of combating denial to prevent future genocides. His weapons of choice are film and mass media, which have the power to reach non-Armenians. After all, there are only 50,000 diasporic Armenians in the Bay Area, 486,000 in the U.S., and 11 million remaining in the world.
“Armenians know our story, and we’ve been told our story many times with a sledgehammer to the point that it’s in our soul,” Esrailian said. “But what we don’t have is the random person in Peoria, Ill., or in Lyon, France, or in Kiev or in Jerusalem knowing our story.”
Armenians are familiar with the heroic resistance at Musa Dagh. For 53 days in 1915, Ottoman soldiers shelled Armenian civilians for refusing deportation until they were saved by French Allied forces.
It wasn’t until 2016, at the Toronto International Film Festival, that these events were depicted onscreen in a U.S. feature film.
Esrailian’s first movie, “The Promise,” stars Christian Bale, Oscar Isaac, Charlotte Le Bon and Angela Sarafyan and was directed by Terry George (“Hotel Rwanda”). The film follows a love triangle involving a medical student (Isaac), a dance instructor (Le Bon) and her boyfriend (Bale), an American photojournalist, interrupted by the onset of the Armenian genocide.
Esrailian’s late mentor, the philanthropist Kirk Kerkorian, ignited his interest in making “The Promise” in 2015.
“He really lit a fire for me,” Esrailian said. “I’ll be eternally grateful.”
Kerkorian, former owner of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, independently funded the film with a $100 million budget. His artistic vision came with a bold political strategy.
“We approached this as a project to get the genocide recognized by the United States government,” Esrailian said. “Everything else was secondary.”
The cast and crew were fully on board, including director George, who grew up in Belfast during the Troubles, a violent conflict between Catholics and Protestants.
“It’s inherited anguish and inherited trauma from over a period of a century, and if you don’t acknowledge (the genocide), then that festers,” George told The Chronicle by phone.
After the film’s release, Isaac, who was proud to play an Armenian, became an advocate for the genocide’s recognition.
“It’s one thing to have this as part of your history, but another to have it be completely denied by a large part of the world,” Isaac told the Independent in 2017.
A companion documentary, “Intent to Destroy” (2017), directed by Joe Berlinger, explores the ramifications of genocide denial. “Both films are really meant to be seen together,” Esrailian said.
The documentary argues that the genocide’s denial inspired the Holocaust. At the end of Hitler’s Obersalzberg Speech in 1939, he shouted, “Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?”
“A genocide denied is a genocide repeated,” said Gev Iskajyan, a board member of the Armenian National Committee of America, Western Region.
“Intent to Destroy” was scored by Serj Tankian, frontman of the metal band System of a Down. Tankian began using music as activism when he realized the U.S. had withheld acknowledgment of the genocide to preserve relations with Turkey.
“It made me realize that there are so many more truths buried for nefarious reasons,” Tankian told The Chronicle via email.
After 15 years without releasing new music, System of a Down dropped two songs last year to provide relief for Artsakh. “Protect the Land” and “Genocidal Humanoidz” confront the Azerbaijani attacks, Turkey’s policies, and misinformation and denial perpetuated by the governments’ public relations firms.
As “Intent to Destory” discusses, PR firms have blocked the portrayal of the genocide in U.S. entertainment and academia for decades.
For instance, Ahmet Ertegun, the founder of Atlantic Records, donated $3.5 million to Princeton University in 1994 to ensure that the genocide was denied in the curriculum of its Near Eastern Studies department, according to “The Last Sultan,” (2011) an Ertegun biography by Robert Greenfield. “Intent to Destroy” explains that Ahmet’s father, Mehmet, former Turkish ambassador to the U.S., stopped MGM from adapting Franz Werfel’s novel “The Forty Days of Musa Dagh” into a film in the 1930s. It was also blocked in 1968 as well as in 2006, when Sylvester Stallone tried.
When “The Promise” and “Intent to Destroy” were theatrically released in 2017, a Turkish-backed studio released “The Ottoman Lieutenant,” which starred Ben Kingsley and Josh Hartnett and denied the genocide.
“At the time that we were releasing, there was a huge campaign by Turkey to undermine the film,” George said.
But “The Promise” trumped “The Ottoman Lieutenant” in international box office performance, grossing $12.4 million versus the latter film’s $240,978.
An ANCA-organized screening in 2017 added pressure on Congress to formally acknowledge the genocide through the passing of House Resolution 296 in 2019.
“Everyone has a part to play,” Iskajyan said. “From the artists who tell our stories to the grassroots activists who have been tirelessly pursuing justice for the Armenian genocide for generations.”
Esrailian used all of the proceeds from “The Promise” to set up two nonprofits, both at UCLA: the Promise Institute for Human Rights and the Promise Armenian Institute, whose latest endeavor, Operation Armenia, provides relief to Artsakh.
Esrailian recently partnered with Discovery to release a new slate of documentaries on its streaming service Discovery+, beginning with last month’s “Francesco,” which includes Pope Francis’ efforts to spread genocide awareness.
Discovery Education has also created documentaries about dark periods in world history, using “The Promise” as their introduction to the Armenian genocide for U.S. high school curricula.
Bay Area Armenians are not immune to the conflict overseas. Last year, Esrailian’s childhood church, St. Gregory Armenian Apostolic, was burned down, and his Saturday school, KZV Armenian School, was vandalized with Azerbaijani threats in graffiti.
Last year, the House introduced Resolution 1203, demanding the U.S. recognize Artsakh and its right to self-determination, and Resolution 1165, a call to sanction Azerbaijan for war crimes.
In a February letter, 100 members of Congress from both parties, supported by the ANCA and Esrailian, called on the Biden administration to acknowledge the Armenian genocide, recognize and provide relief for Artsakh, sanction Azerbaijian, and stop providing military aid to the country.
Biden’s acknowledgment Saturday would make the other demands easier. Although only an estimated 29 countries have recognized the genocide, this is a monumental step toward global recognition.
“For my part, I’ll try to do whatever I can … to draw attention to (the genocide),” Esrailian said. “(You) can’t just complain. You have to do something. And that’s the code that I live by.”
“The Promise”: Available to stream on Netflix.
“Intent to Destroy”: Available to rent on various services, including Amazon Video.
“Protect the Land” and “Genocidal Humanoidz”: Check out System of a Down’s music videos on YouTube. Donation link to the Aid for Artsakh Campaign inside.
Alex ArabianAlex Arabian is a Bay Area writer.
More In Movies & TV
Anti-Armenian feelings erupted into mass violence several times in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. When, in 1894, the Armenians in the Sasun region refused to pay an oppressive tax, Ottoman troops and Kurdish tribesmen killed thousands of Armenians in the region.
The largest Armenian populations today exist in Russia, the United States, France, Georgia, Iran, Germany, Ukraine, Lebanon, Brazil, and Syria. With the exceptions of Iran and the former Soviet states, the present-day Armenian diaspora was formed mainly as a result of the Armenian genocide.
Since antiquity, Armenians have established communities in many regions throughout the world. However, the modern Armenian diaspora was largely formed as a result of World War I, when the Armenian genocide committed by the Ottoman Empire forced Armenians living in their homeland to flee or risk being killed.
Though French intervention allowed for a peaceful end to the incident, the Ottomans conducted a series of massacres. In all, at least 80,000 Armenians were killed between 1894 and 1896.
Which of the following best describes the cause of the Armenian genocide? Ottomans feared losing parts of the empire to neighbors.
The Ottomans accused the Armenians of conspiring with British and Russian generals. How did the Ottomans justify the Armenian genocide during WWI? Which country switched sides at the beginning of World War I accusing Germany of starting an unjust war? 1.