To understand the new documentary "Screamers," you have to understand, first, about the 97-year-old man who lives in an Armenian old folk's home in Mission Hills. His name is Stepan Haytayan; he is the grandfather of Serj Tankian, the lead singer of System of a Down, one of the world's most critically acclaimed rock bands.
Haytayan is a survivor of the first genocide of the 20th century -- the extermination by Turks of an estimated 1.5 million Armenians -- which was the granddaddy, if you will, of all modern genocides, cited sometimes by historians as direct inspiration for Adolf Hitler and indirectly for Pol Pot, Slobodan Milosevic, and the murderers of Rwanda and Darfur. This is the inescapable reality that informs the music and activism of System of a Down, a Los Angeles band whose four Armenian American members are all grandchildren of genocide survivors. Haytayan's moving accounts of the destruction visited on his family and Tankian's tender interactions with his frail grandfather lend a hopeful poignancy to the film, helping balance both the images of human annihilation and the band's hard-edged vibe.
The film's title has a double meaning: "Screamers" refers both to the band's propulsive musical style and, as used by Harvard professor Samantha Power, who is interviewed in the film, to people who force the world to acknowledge atrocities that it would often rather ignore.
System of a Down is well known for its activism -- using its performances to educate fans, appearing at annual demonstrations in front of the Turkish consulate in Los Angeles and supporting a congressional resolution to officially designate as genocide the atrocities visited upon Armenians around 1915 in the waning days of the Ottoman Empire. In their concerts, Tankian also demands onstage that the Turkish government acknowledge that what happened was genocide (which it has so far refused to do).
The movie comes at a time when these events, nearly a century old, are back in focus on the global stage, as Turkey attempts to gain admission to the European Union. In October, the French National Assembly passed a measure making it a crime to deny that Armenians had suffered a "genocide." Also in October, Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk, who had been charged with "public denigrating of Turkish identity" for publicly discussing the massacre of Armenians, won the Nobel Prize for literature.
It was the band's outspoken stance that inspired a pair of veteran filmmakers -- producer Peter McAlevey and director Carla Garapedian -- to approach the group about making "Screamers," which opens Friday in Glendale, Woodland Hills, Santa Monica and Irvine. To get to the band, however, the filmmakers had to penetrate the powerful force field that screens rock stars from unwanted intrusions -- the layers of managers, publicists and other representatives that make it hard to be heard by them. It was not until McAlevey got the pitch into the hands of Lindsay Chase, assistant to Rick Rubin, the legendary music producer who heads the group's label, American Recordings, that he and Garapedian got the band's attention -- mostly, they said, because Chase understood that Tankian would probably want to be involved.
"If this movie ends up doing anything -- changes a couple of peoples' minds, helps inspire a new generation of activists," McAlevey said, "it's all owed to an assistant."
The documentary makes the case -- using concert footage, interviews, historical photographs and a rocking soundtrack with seven of the band's best-known songs, including their No. 1 hit "B.Y.O.B." -- that all genocides of the last 100 years were known about by governments and individuals who could have stopped the carnage but chose not to, usually for reasons of political expedience. One subplot of the movie involves attempts by Tankian and his bandmate, drummer John Dolmayan, to confront House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), who is responsible for keeping the Armenian genocide resolution bottled up in committee. When they do meet him, quite by accident in the Capitol rotunda, his brushoff is a classic.
McAlevey and Garapedian had a different direction in mind when they conceived the project. McAlevey ("Radio Flyer," "Naked Movie") initially suggested to Garapedian ("Children of the Secret State," "Iran Undercover") that they might want to consider a documentary about the Armenian genocide using System of a Down. She thought it might be a powerful way to tell the story of how Armenian plaintiffs successfully fought to recover benefits for policies written before 1915 by New York Life Insurance Co. (Garapedian's uncle was a plaintiff; attorney Mark Geragos was a lead attorney in the lawsuit, which was settled on behalf of the beneficiaries for $20 million in January 2004.)
But when Garapedian, a former BBC news anchor who grew up in Los Angeles, met with Tankian in April 2005, the singer had other ideas.
"My concern was that I wanted to be a part of a modern story of denial, of hypocrisy in today's world," said the 39-year-old Tankian, who is surprisingly soft-spoken, "and she agreed that would be more the focus and the theme of the film." Tankian, who called from his car last week on his way to see his grandfather, was getting ready to leave L.A. for New Zealand, where he is hoping to establish residency in order to buy coastal property and build a recording studio. "I think Carla is very ballsy, quite a direct filmmaker. She gets down to the core of it. She is a truth teller. She is a screamer herself."
Garapedian first encountered System of a Down in 2004 at the Greek Theatre, when she was working a table set up by the Armenian Film Foundation. "I saw Serj Tankian walk by," she said. "He has this way of walking -- he sort of floats along.... He has this amazing profile and this shock of hair. He waved a little like the queen, and I thought, 'Who is this person?' "
She read up on him, listened to the music and started to worry. "I said, 'Oh, my God, what am I going to do? I don't understand this music.' I would turn it down when they were screaming, then I would hear these crazy lyrics and Serj's voice, which has a certain Armenian quality to it, like a church liturgy, and I was very taken in."
They met to discuss the film in London in April 2005. "He said, 'We will let you film us on tour if you can get the money together for the film,' " said Garapedian, 45, who won an Emmy for "Behind the Veil," her film on Afghan women. "They had never allowed anyone to film their performances. They want their songs to speak for themselves. They don't really want to be seen only as a political band."
Tankian's bandmates had to be persuaded, particularly guitarist Daron Malakian. "I tried to get the band involved," Tankian said. "Everyone has their own concern about how things are rendered, but everyone supported it." As for the disruptions of a film crew, he added, "It was pretty basic. We were doing what we had to do whether there was a camera rolling or not."
The film's budget, less than $1 million, was provided by BBC Television and a private benefactor, Raffy Manoukian, a London-based philanthropist. The BBC will air the film in March. The marketing budget, naturally, is minimal. Although McAlevey and Garapedian are fairly certain the Armenian community will come out in support, they are worried about getting the word out to a wider audience. Which is why they plan to rendezvous on Friday at a Kinko's on the Westside. They will copy a bunch of fliers for the movie, then hit Santa Monica's Third Street Promenade, targeting younger people with a simple pitch: "Come see a System of a Down movie!"