UCLA law school will use a unique $20-million gift to study Armenian genocide and other atrocities

In a unique blend of Hollywood and human rights, the UCLA law school will receive $20 million in pledged proceeds from a new film on the Armenian genocide to expand its research and teaching of persecution, the university announced Monday.

The donation by a film company founded by the late Kerkor “Kirk” Kerkorian, an Armenian American philanthropist and businessman, will help establish the Promise Institute for Human Rights at UCLA School of Law.

The institute, which also will receive other donations and support from UCLA, will help the Westwood campus expand its research and advocacy on genocide awareness and prevention as well as the intersections between human rights and health, refugees, immigration and civil rights, said law school Dean Jennifer L. Mnookin.

She said the gift will help UCLA hire more faculty, sponsor guest speakers, host human rights symposia and support students through fellowships. UCLA law students and faculty currently work with human rights organizations in countries including Bangladesh, Honduras, India and South Africa, and with the United Nations and the Office of the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court.

“What we’d like to become is the West Coast powerhouse for the study and practice of human rights,” Mnookin said.

Eric Esrailian, a UCLA doctor and great-grandson of genocide survivors, helped Kerkorian launch the film company Survival Pictures in 2012, to expand awareness of human rights atrocities. Kerkorian, who owned the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studio and is credited with helping develop Las Vegas with such hotels as the MGM Grand, donated more than $1 billion to charitable causes during his lifetime. He died in 2015 at age 98.

Survival Pictures’ debut production, “The Promise,” is set to open Friday as the first major film on the Armenian genocide. Historians estimate that 1.5 million Armenians and other ethnic and religious minorities perished at the hands of the Ottoman Turks beginning in 1915, although the Turkish government denies there was any official policy of ethnic cleansing.

The film is directed by Terry George — who directed and co-wrote “Hotel Rwanda” about genocide in that African nation — and stars Christian Bale, Charlotte Le Bon and Oscar Isaac. Co-producers are Esrailian, Phoenix Pictures chairman Mike Medavoy and veteran film producer William Horberg.

Esrailian said the team began work on the film in 2010 but kept the project on the down low to avoid any possible political attempts to quash it.

The company also has produced a documentary, “Intent to Destroy,” about the Armenian genocide that is set for release April 25 at the Tribeca Film Festival.

“As horrible as the Armenian genocide was, there are other ethnic and religious groups that have suffered persecution as well,” Esrailian said, adding that human rights crises exist right now in Syria, the Congo and South Sudan.

Both the feature film and the UCLA institute bear the word “promise” to reflect a commitment not to forget atrocities of the past and to fight against intolerance and persecution today, he said.

He said his team was inspired by the USC Shoah Foundation, which was launched by filmmaker Steven Spielberg to preserve the memory of the Holocaust and educate the public about it and has since expanded its work to other genocides. With genocide awareness and human rights work underway at the city’s two premier universities, Los Angeles is set to become a national hub of research and activism on the issue, Esrailian said.

The center is expected to open this fall.

teresa.watanabe@latimes.com

Twitter: @teresawatanabe

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