Our Obligation to See ‘The Promise’

Piles of dead bodies. Men, women and children stuffed into boxcars. Forced slave labor.

Does any of this sound familiar?

If, on Yom HaShoah, these records of villainy hit close to home, then we, as Jews, should also remember another genocide that included these horrors yet preceded our own: that of the Armenians by the Ottoman Turkish regime starting in 1915.

The great film The Promise, now in theaters, highlights all of these occurrences from that era.

I just saw it last night in Manhattan, at a big theater more often known for blockbusters and crowd-pleasing entertainment. But The Promise is no such film; it had a large budget, for sure, and is important in that it is the first mainstream Hollywood film to call attention to the Armenian genocide, yet there’s more to it than that. It’s extraordinarily moving. It has scenes that are unforgettable: atrocities beyond scope, humanity beyond reason. It is powerful. It is essential.

All of my fellow brothers and sisters in the Jewish faith should watch it.

We say: “Never again.” And “never again” is what we should adhere to. Still, that mantra didn’t exist in its present form when Armenians were being massacred by Ottoman Turks, when they were being removed from their homes, when their villages were decimated, when their children were murdered.

We say: “Never again.” We must mean it.

To do so, we must understand all genocides, all holocausts, anti-Semitic and otherwise. The Armenian one is particularly crucial, as it took place only a few decades before our own and extinguished 1.5 million Armenian lives. There is no place for such villainy in the world. We cannot just say that, however. We must exemplify it.

So we must educate ourselves further on the subject. We must watch films such as The Promise to make sure we never forget. It is not only a work of art, but it is also a teaching tool. Like Schindler’s List, another cinematic masterpiece. In many ways, The Promise is very similar. It has a terrific score, by Gabriel Yared. It has brilliant performances, especially by Oscar Isaac, who will touch your heart in the picture like few will. It has superb cinematography, editing, production design. It has fearless direction. It even must be subject to the minor quibbles I had with Schindler’s List … that it didn’t show the full, vile extent of the violence and heinous crimes perpetrated by those who orchestrated the genocide. Yet both showed enough. Both made their point well. Both made the terror clear.

That’s why both are critical movies in the history of the silver screen. That’s why both will live forever.

As with Schindler’s List, The Promise is hardly one-dimensional. It is not didactic. Characters are fully developed. Heroes exist on both sides … including Henry Morgenthau, Sr., the Jewish-American ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, whose portrayal during a scene with a government official might bring you to tears. On this day of remembrance, the people who fought for justice need to have their names recognized. We, as a people, should know why we do this. We, as a people, should be able to see the import.

I urge every Jewish man and woman who can to see The Promise. I do it with a warning: You may be upset. You may cry. Yet I do it also with the reminder that watching this film ensures a better world for us and all who surround us. It makes us better people. It makes us better rememberers.

Surely, not all memories are the same. The exceptional ones, however, must never be forgotten.

The Promise makes sure of that. We must do so as well.

About the Author
Simon Hardy Butler is a writer and editor living in New York City. He has written for publications ranging from Zagat to Adweek and has interviewed innumerable people—including two Auschwitz survivors whose story may be heard at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s website. His views and opinions are his own.
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