In 1965, J. Michael Hagopian produced the first film on the Armenian Genocide.
The 28-minute documentary explored the history of the Armenian culture under the investigative title Where Are My People?
In the history lesson the film provides, we learn how the Armenian Genocide was initiated. The Ottoman government had feared that the Western powers would in time force them to grant independence to the Armenians, and while the world had been diverted by World War I, Turkish authorities were able to step in and carry out the extermination of the Armenians.
In a quote, we learn the true intentions of Talaat Pasha and Enver Pasha, the Ministers of Interior and War, respectively. In a written letter, the team had stated that the “government has decided to destroy completely all the Armenians living in Turkey… all Armenains from 5 years of age upward are to be taken out of the towns and slaughtered.”
The film provides us with a historical account of the time period with its examination of the events before and after the genocide. In the epilogue of the film, the filmmaker shows his appreciation for those who preserved our culture through “word and image.”
This film does just that and carefully crafts itself around the notion of word and image. The narrator states that the way to exterminate the memory of a race is to destroy its books – the word of a group of people – and describes the prohibition that was placed on books that discussed Armenian history. The film mentions Arnold J. Toynbee, a British historian, who authored The Armenian Atrocities: The Murder of a Nation, originally published in 1915.
In addition, the film also uses photographs as a tool for exploring Armenian history. The filmmaker holds onto close-ups of photographs, showing rather than telling us, about the tragic events of the time period. These black and white images are also placed alongside color video that were filmed by the filmmaker himself, allowing for subtle contrasts between the past and present.
The relationship between word and image is later merged, as the filmmaker photographs key word and phrases and accompanies them with narration. In these words and images, certain phrases that stand out include “planned extermination,” “total genocide,” “carefully premeditated,” and “systematically carried out.”
J. Michael Hagopian, himself a survivor of the genocide, was rescued because his mother hid him in a well as an infant. In 1943, at the age of 30, he became the first Armenian to graduate from Harvard University with a doctorate degree. In his life, he switched his focus onto cinema and produced hundreds of documentaries, most of them documenting survival testimonies.
In 1979, he was responsible for establishing the Armenian Film Foundation, a non-profit, educational and cultural organization dedicated to the documentation and preservation of Armenian heritage in multimedia formats. In 2009, he released his last film, The River Ran Red, at the age of 95.
I had the pleasure of meeting Dr. J Michael Hagopian in 2009, during a screening of his film in UCLA. In the theatre, several rows ahead, he sat alone during the screening of the film. I had the opportunity to speak with him afterward; at the time, I had just applied to film school. I will never forget his words of advice and will always cherish our short time together.
I was both saddened and shocked when I discovered he had passed away on December 10, 2010, but his contributions to Armenian cinema, as well as the Armenian community, will always live on.