Much was made of Kim Kardashian’s sleek bob and curve-hugging vintage Versace dress at last week’s Hollywood premiere for “The Promise.” But beyond the glitz was the reason the reality star walked the red carpet, despite a case of the flu. “The Promise,” a historical epic that hit theaters Friday, is the first big-budget feature film to document the atrocities of the Armenian genocide. It’s a topic that hits close to home for Kardashian.
As a girl, she often heard the story about how her great-great-grandparents escaped death thanks to a message delivered by a boy who turned up at the family’s church with a letter in hand: “Everyone here is going to be killed. Go to Los Angeles, California.”
The Kardashians, believing the boy was a prophet, heeded his warning and left their native Armenia, traveling more than 7,000 miles to California in 1914.
“Everyone thought they were crazy,” the reality star says of her family’s migration, “and then months later everything happened.”
On April 24, 1915, the Turkish government began systematically purging the Ottoman Empire of Armenians, leaving 1.5 million dead.
During those years, some Armenians were able to make their way to California like the Kardashians. According to the most recent U.S. census data, Los Angeles County has more than 200,000 residents of Armenian descent — which is why so many in Los Angeles marched on Monday to commemorate the 102nd anniversary of the start of the Armenian genocide. But their stories and those of the huge number that were killed are still not widely known.
In part that’s because Turkey has denied that the killings amounted to genocide, saying the deaths occurred during the chaos of World War I, and pointing out that many Turks were also killed between 1915 and 1917.
On Monday, President Trump called the killings “one of the worst mass atrocities of the 20th century.” But like every president except Ronald Reagan before him, Trump declined to use the term “genocide.” (Barack Obama used the term during his presidential campaign, but used the less direct Armenian phrase “Meds Yeghern” once he was in office, the same term Trump used on Monday.)
The movie industry has also been hesitant to tackle the politically fraught issue. Even Kirk Kerkorian, the Armenian American mogul who owned Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer for 17 years, tried for years and failed to bring the story of his people to the big screen while he was alive. But before his 2015 death, Kerkorian put up a whopping $90 million to make “The Promise” with stars Christian Bale and Oscar Isaac. He died just as the film, written by Robin Swicord (“The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”) and directed by Terry George (“Hotel Rwanda”) was entering production.
Decades before Kerkorian took over the studio, MGM had plans for a Clark Gable movie that would tell the story of the massacre in an adaptation of Franz Werfel’s novel “The Forty Days of Musa Dagh.” But production was scrapped after the Turkish government threatened retaliation.
“The Promise” faced its own struggle making it to the big screen. Just last September, when “The Promise” debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival — where a distributor was sought — the movie found itself ambushed by Internet trolls, traced to Turkish websites, who assigned the movie tens of thousands of one-star ratings on the Internet Movie Database.
“That was just validation that we needed to make the movie,” says Eric Esrailian, a UCLA physician who took over Kerkorian’s company, Survival Pictures, after the mogul’s death. “At some point, you have to stand up and speak the truth. Spinning an alternate reality has been done now for 102 years.”
Despite the Internet down-voting campaign, “The Promise” found a distributor in Open Road Films, which launched the movie in roughly 2,000 theaters to coincide with the Monday anniversary of the genocide. The movie follows a young medical student (Isaac) who travels to Constantinople. But just as he begins to delve into his studies — and fall for a local babysitter (Charlotte Le Bon) — he is identified as an Armenian and sent to a labor camp where he tries to escape death while caught in a love triangle with the babysitter and an Associated Press journalist covering the genocide (Bale).
Kerkorian was insistent that the movie feature a romance so it didn’t end up feeling like a history lesson, Esrailian says.
“The love story was to make it accessible, because unlike the Holocaust and other more recent atrocities, there isn’t a baseline knowledge to build on,” he says. “Some people say you trivialize a genocide movie with a love story, but it’s the first time people are being introduced — they want to detach themselves for a period of time and not be preached to.”
The romantic plotline is being heavily emphasized in the film’s trailer, which has been airing during episodes of “Keeping Up With the Kardashians.” The filmmakers are also trying to reach a broader audience through the support of A-list stars and celebrities. In addition to Kardashian and her sister, Kourtney, fellow Armenian Cher also attended the premiere, as did Leonardo DiCaprio and Sylvester Stallone. George and Amal Clooney hosted a tastemaker screening of the film in London earlier this month, and the actor is among dozens of stars who have filmed personal messages urging their fans to partake in the #KeepThePromise social impact campaign. It’s unclear how much of a difference the star power made, since the movie debuted with just $4.1 million over the weekend.
Still, with her 51.1 million Twitter followers, Kim Kardashian no doubt remains the film’s biggest marketing asset. (She’s already tweeted about the movie four times.) She has been vocal about the Armenian struggle for years, writing an essay for Time magazine in 2015 urging President Obama to use the word “genocide.” And when the Wall Street Journal ran a 2016 full-page ad paid for by Fact Check Armenia that denied the genocide, she posted a fiery response on her app calling the move “reckless, upsetting and dangerous.” Five months later, the Armenian Educational Foundation took out its own full-page ad in the New York Times featuring Kardashian’s impassioned essay.
“Growing up in Beverly Hills,” Kardashian says, “we never knew any other Armenians. So every time people would ask me, ‘What nationality are you? Where do you come from?’ I would be so proud. My dad taught us ‘Family is everything. Always know your heritage.’”
This is one reason her ethnicity has always been a big part of “Keeping Up With the Kardashians.” She and her family often eat Middle Eastern food from Glendale’s Carousel Restaurant, and the show followed her during her first trip to Armenia in 2015.
Though she has no living ancestors in the country today, Kardashian met dozens of people on that trip who knew her family. “The neighbors were like, ‘Oh, the Kardashians! We remember them!’” says the 36-year-old. “They were told the Kardashians worked in these string-cheese farms and had two horse and carriages, which they said is equivalent to two private jets today. And that the family was the only one in town who had a swimming pool. It was just so interesting to hear our history.”
“The Armenian community just really wants to be heard,” says Kardashian, who adds she’s taking her family to see the film in theaters. “I think it’s so important that people just acknowledge that something happened. Of course we can all get through it. We have no choice. But when you’re not recognized for something, that is when you’re fearful it could happen again, and that’s what so scary.”
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