A fervent vow to be heard in 'Screamers'

Special to The Times

When individuals learn of brutality on an almost unfathomable scale, what is the appropriate response? The title of director Carla Garapedian's documentary, "Screamers," refers to a resolute determination to bring genocide to light. The film follows Armenian American alt-metal band System of a Down and others as they educate people about the 1915-18 Armenian diaspora in Turkey, in which an estimated 1.2 million people died.

Those events are widely recognized as "genocide," and the film focuses on efforts to persuade Turkey, the United Kingdom and the United States to proffer official acknowledgment.

"Screamers" springs off the multi-platinum, Grammy-winning band's most recent tour, during which it distributes political pamphlets and in at least one concert commemorating the 90th anniversary of the Armenian genocide, shows its fans news reports on the subject. The band puts the issue before thousands who wouldn't have otherwise thought of it, but Garapedian errs in assuming that the film's viewers are necessarily fans. There's plenty of concert footage -- probably too much for non-devotees. But there's also testimony by authors, politicians and a former FBI interpreter. Lead singer Serj Tankian appears at a rally to convince House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) to schedule a vote on the issue; later, the soft-spoken rocker tries politely to engage Hastert in person.

What will probably stay with any viewer are the film's tales of epic cruelty, told on a personal scale (one eyewitness is Tankian's grandfather). Garapedian shows disturbing visual evidence of genocides from 1915 to the current slaughters in Darfur. The piece is intelligently made, although the director often doesn't establish place or time, leaving the viewer unmoored.

But what is the ultimate aim of people who call themselves "screamers"? Is one congressman right when he testily argues that "to bring this up year after year serves no purpose"?

The film postulates that acknowledging genocides could have a preventive effect, but does not prove that failure to recognize the horrors of 1915-18 paved the way for actions such as Hitler's two decades later. After all, while only fringe groups still question whether the Jewish Holocaust occurred, there have been many genocides since.

The ultimate benefit of shining a bright light on this darkness may be to achieve a sense of closure for descendants of the victims, but that may be justification enough.

MPAA rating: R for disturbing images of genocide and language. Running time: 1 hour, 31 minutes. Exclusively at Mann Chinese 6, 8106 Hollywood Blvd. (at Highland), (323) 777-FILM #002; Criterion 6, 1313 Third Street Promenade, Santa Monica, (310) 248-MANN #019; Exchange 10, 128 N. Maryland Ave., Glendale, (818) 549-0045 #391; AMC's The Block 30, The City Drive, north of 22 Freeway, (714) 789-4AMC.

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