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Propelled by politics

Times Staff Writer

POLITICS and commerce rarely mix in today’s Hollywood -- you don’t see many studios rolling out prickly issue films like “The China Syndrome,” “All the President’s Men” and “Coming Home.” Sam Goldwyn’s old adage, “If I want to send a message, I’ll get Western Union,” rings truer than ever in today’s corporate moviemaking.

Defying that convention, some independent filmmakers this season are offering a trio of intensely political movies. As spokesmen for their films, all three directors have found themselves thrust into unfamiliar roles, at times resembling history professors more than filmmakers. The films, which probe painful episodes in the history of Armenians, the Irish and Aborigines, have become historical vindications, at least for the communities involved.

Atom Egoyan, director of “Ararat,” the first feature film released theatrically that deals with the 1915-17 massacre of Armenians in eastern Turkey, has addressed audiences at Canada’s Parliament and at the Library of Congress, where his movie was screened. The film is being used by Armenian American activists to educate people and to help push for official U.S. recognition of the genocide -- long denied by Turkey.

“Rabbit-Proof Fence,” based on the true story of Aboriginal children forcibly placed in state-run orphanages in Australia, triggered passionate exchanges about past treatment of the Aborigines in Australia’s Parliament, newspapers and schools. The film’s director, Phillip Noyce, was in the thick of the controversy, defending his film in newspaper editorials and questioning the marketing strategies of the film’s U.S. distributor, Miramax,

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He feared that highlighting the political elements would keep U.S. audiences from seeing it: “I didn’t want people to feel like they were going to be lectured.”

And “Bloody Sunday,” a documentary-style feature film about unarmed Irish civilians killed by British troops during a civil-rights march in 1972, has become a cathartic voice for the Northern Irish. The film’s British director, Paul Greengrass, wanted his movie to help heal the wounds caused by the conflict. In a move filled with symbolism, he secured financing from both the British and Irish governments.

Groups such as Amnesty International are supporting the pictures, sponsoring screenings and panel discussions. .

“These films are particularly poignant in the post-Sept. 11 era, in which human rights are currently facing tremendous challenges on an international level,” said Bonnie Abaunza, national director of Artists for Amnesty, a year-old Amnesty International program. “People here need to see these films. If the films die at the box office, their messages die with them.”

Indeed, Armenians want the world to see “Ararat,” which examines the effects of the genocide on a contemporary family. The film represents for Armenians what “Schindler’s List” did for Jews.

“We have long thought of this as a forgotten genocide -- you want the rest of the world to see what happened to your people,” said Raffi Hamparian, a member of the board of the Armenian National Committee of America Western Region, a lobbying organization.

The Turkish government has no official position on the film, said Ambassador Aykut Berk, the consul general of Turkey in Los Angeles. But the film has generated a lot of press in Turkey -- most of it questioning its historical accuracy, Berk acknowledged. The official Turkish explanation is that violence in the region was a result of World War I and many people died on both sides.

“Of course, we don’t agree with the content of the movie,” he added. “But it is the director’s way of looking at the incidents which took place 85 years ago. We look at it as a movie where historical facts are distorted to please their own community.” Berk said he is not aware of any planned protests when the film opens Friday. (It also screens Tuesday at the AFI Fest at the Cinerama Dome.)

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In generations past, attempts at making a film about the Armenian genocide have been quashed. In 1935, according to correspondence from the National Archives, the Turkish government lobbied the U.S. State Department, the Motion Pictures Producers and Distributors of America (which also functioned as a censorship board) and MGM not to film Franz Werfel’s novel “The Forty Days of Musa Dagh.” MGM eventually backed down.

Although exerting political pressure may be more difficult today, economic realities remain a challenge. Armenian organizations are trying to get their community to turn out on opening day by spearheading Take Your Friend to “Ararat” Day. The film received mixed reviews at the Cannes and Toronto film festivals -- and a similar reception here could deter art-house moviegoers.

The Armenian lobby is also using the film politically. Before the election, Hamparian’s group presented Gov. Gray Davis with a poster of the film at a fund-raising event.

In early October, the Armenian Assembly of America, the nation’s largest Armenian lobbying group, organized a screening at the Library of Congress for nearly 500 people, including members of Congress, State Department officials, diplomats and other Washington figures. Activists hope the film will help persuade members of Congress to vote for the genocide recognition bill, versions of which were pulled from the House floor at then-President Clinton’s request. The film was also screened for members of the Canadian Parliament in late October.

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“Ararat” director Egoyan recalled that journalists in Madrid asked more questions about dates, details and books to read about the genocide than about the film. At times, he has felt overwhelmed by the weight of chronicling this story.

He broke down and cried at the Capitol Hill screening after receiving a standing ovation. “When you have so many important people in one room, it is incredibly emotional,” he said.

Known for films such as 1997’s “The Sweet Hereafter,” Egoyan, who lives in Canada, said he wanted to make “Ararat” more accessible to mainstream audiences. “Every Armenian has this sacred responsibility not to forget the genocide, much like the Jews and the Holocaust.”

Even if Turkey never acknowledges the genocide, said author Peter Balakian, “the film makes a powerful statement about why the Turkish government’s denial of its past history is so harmful to Turkey, its people, the Armenian people and the civilized world.”

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Australia and Aborigines

In contrast with Turkey’s persistent denials, the Australian government has confronted the unflattering events of its past.

From 1905 to 1971, as part of an effort to assimilate the country’s Aboriginal population, the Australian government implemented a policy of removing half-Aboriginal children from their parents and placing them in orphanages. However, many of the children never returned home and, in many cases, the policy wiped away Aboriginal history, language and culture.

“Rabbit-Proof Fence” is based on a book by Doris Pilkington Garimara that chronicles the journey of three Aboriginal girls (including the author’s mother) from a state-run orphanage back to their home more than 1,500 miles away. The title refers to the actual fence that crosses the continent from north to south and was built to keep rodents from invading farmland. To find their way home, the girls simply followed the fence through the Australian Outback.

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The film is a marked departure for Noyce, who is better-known for such Hollywood blockbusters as “Clear and Present Danger” and “Patriot Games.” But as an Australian, Noyce said he felt an urgency to tell this story even though he knew that in his homeland, it would land with a “certain amount of spontaneous combustion.”

“Rabbit-Proof Fence” helped reignite a movement to establish a national Sorry Day that would include an official apology from the federal government for the treatment of Aboriginal peoples. But it also caused an uproar among conservative members of the Australian Parliament who denounced the film, arguing that it was based on myth. Major newspapers weighed in, publishing commentaries for and against the film with one from Noyce.

Noyce feared that U.S. audiences would be turned off by Miramax’s poster for the U.S. campaign. It reads, “What if the government kidnapped your daughter? -- The true story of a family that defied a nation.”

Despite Noyce’s objections to the poster, the controversy helped boost its Australian box office, making it the most successful movie there this year. The film will be released in the United States on Nov. 29.

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“Film is so powerful because it invites us to identify with the characters on the screen, no matter how remote their lives seem from us,” said Noyce, who seems weary of the controversy. “That is something that no amount of leaflets or government reports can ever drive home to us.”

For many Australians, the movie has prompted a reevaluation of their country’s official history.

“There are many, many Australian people who feel that the way we have treated the Aboriginal people has been shameful,” said John Bond, secretary of the National Sorry Day committee. “There has always been this conflict between facing the truth of the past and trying to pretend it didn’t happen. ... People recognize this is something that needs to be healed.”

‘The Troubles’

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Healing has not been easy between the Northern Irish and Great Britain. Jan. 30, 1972, was seen as a seminal moment for what became known as the Troubles. British troops’ killing of 13 unarmed civilians during a peaceful civil-rights march in Londonderry unleashed years of sectarian violence that has only recently come to a fragile peace.

Greengrass, a British television director who also made the 1998 film “The Theory of Flight” with Kenneth Branagh and Helena Bonham Carter, “said the events of that day deeply affected young Britons like himself. He said he wanted his film, which opened Oct. 18 in Los Angeles, to play a small part in building peace by telling the truth about what happened.

“As a very young man, I went to Northern Ireland and it had a profound effect on me,” he said. “It was unacceptable to me and people of my generation that 400 miles from [England] this would be occurring.”

The film chronicles how the day’s events spiraled out of control on both sides and eventually led to the killings.

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In January of this year -- the 30th anniversary of the massacre -- “Bloody Sunday” premiered in Londonderry at the Millennium Theater, a movie house built literally on the ruins of the city’s downtown. At the premiere were John Hume, a Northern Irish political leader and a Nobel Prize winner; members of the IRA; Catholic clergy; and relatives of those who died on Bloody Sunday. Greengrass said he was overwhelmed by the audience’s response.

“It was a strange and humbling experience as a British person to take that film about that subject to the Irish,” he said. When the film ended, “there was no sense of anger, bitterness or calls for vengeance. There was just a dignified sense that at last, the story that long needed to be told had been told.”

Historians, newspaper editorials and prominent politicians such as Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams and Mo Mowlam, who negotiated the Good Friday peace accords in 1998 on behalf of British Prime Minister Tony Blair, weighed in on the film. Mowlam and Adams both complimented it.

“Bloody Sunday” is currently traveling throughout the Republic of Ireland with a mobile screening room so it can be seen even in small villages that lack movie theaters. The film was released in theaters and on TV in the U.K.

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“Britain is a wonderful place to live, but I am not blind to the fact that we make mistakes and that this was a shameful day in our history,” Greengrass said. “You have a responsibility to tell the truth as you see it. There is something about this little story from a long time ago that speaks to us. It shows us how we in Britain got it wrong. It’s like a warning from history.”


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