Between the Church of Potrero Hill and the Armenian Saturday School in Ocean View, Eric Esrailian frequently watched films at the Kabuki Theater in Japantown while growing up in San Francisco. Religion, education, and the arts have played a major role in the life of the doctor, Emmy-nominated film producer, and activist.
“I love telling stories,” the former UC Berkeley student told The Chronicle in a recent video interview from his home in Los Angeles.
The fourth pillar of his development is the history of his family. Like many first-generation Armenian Americans in the Bay Area, the trauma of a long-denied history has a strong influence on Esrailian, whose great-grandparents escaped the Armenian genocide.
Saturday April 24 marks the 106th anniversary of its launch. About 1.5 million Armenians died from 1915 to 1918 under the Ottoman Empire, which became the modern republic of Turkey. The Turkish government continues to deny that genocide took place.
The genocide was officially recognized by the Library of Congress in 2020. President Biden is expected to become the first sitting US president to declare the events a genocide on Saturday, according to the New York Times.
Last year, Armenia’s neighbor Azerbaijan attacked Artsakh (a breakaway state also known as the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic). The predominantly Armenian population of Artsakh has periodically defended itself against Turkish-Azerbaijani ethnic cleansing in the region since 1921.
Supporters of the Armenian people see this as an extension of the Armenian genocide.
“Turkey and Azerbaijan have always said that they are one people, two countries and that we are just on the way,” Esrailian said.
Esrailian is at the forefront of the fight against denial to prevent future genocides. His weapons of choice are cinema and the mass media, which have the power to reach non-Armenians. After all, there are only 50,000 diaspora Armenians in the Bay Area, 486,000 in the United States and 11 million in the world.
“The Armenians know our history, and we have been told our history many times with a hammer to the point that it is in our soul,” Esrailian said. “But what we don’t have is the random person in Peoria, Ill., Or Lyon, France, or Kiev or Jerusalem knowing our history.”
The Armenians know the heroic resistance of Musa Dagh. For 53 days in 1915, Ottoman soldiers shelled Armenian civilians for refusing deportation until they were rescued by French allied forces.
It wasn’t until 2016, at the Toronto International Film Festival, that these events were portrayed onscreen in an American feature film.
Esrailian’s first film, “The Promise” stars Christian Bale, Oscar Isaac, Charlotte Le Bon and Angela Sarafyan and was directed by Terry George (“Hotel Rwanda”). The film follows a love triangle involving a medical student (Isaac), a dance teacher (Le Bon) and her boyfriend (Bale), an American photojournalist, interrupted by the start of the Armenian genocide.
Esrailian’s late mentor, philanthropist Kirk Kerkorian, sparked his interest in doing “The Promise” in 2015.
“He really lit a fire for me,” Esrailian said. “I will be eternally grateful.”
Kerkorian, former owner of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, independently funded the film with a budget of $ 100 million. His artistic vision was accompanied by a daring political strategy.
“We approached this as a project to have the United States government recognize the genocide,” Esrailian said. “Everything else was secondary.”
The cast and crew were fully on board, including director George, who grew up in Belfast during the Troubles, a violent conflict between Catholics and Protestants.
“It’s an inherited angst and a trauma that spans over a century, and if you don’t recognize (the genocide) then it fades,” George told The Chronicle over the phone.
After the film’s release, Isaac, who was proud to play an Armenian, became an advocate for genocide recognition.
“It’s one thing to have this as part of your story, but quite another to see it completely denied by much of the world,” Isaac told The Independent in 2017.
An accompanying documentary, “Intent to Destroy” (2017), directed by Joe Berlinger, explores the ramifications of genocide denial. “The two films are really meant to be seen together,” Esrailian said.
The documentary argues that genocide denial inspired the Holocaust. At the end of Hitler’s Obersalzberg speech in 1939, he shouted: “Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?”
“A denied genocide is a repeated genocide,” said Gev Iskajyan, board member of the Armenian National Committee of America, Western Region.
“Intent to Destroy” was scored by Serj Tankian, frontman of the metal band System of a Down. Tankian began to use music as activism when he realized that the United States had refused to recognize the genocide in order to preserve relations with Turkey.
“It made me realize that there are so many more truths buried for nefarious reasons,” Tankian told The Chronicle via email.
After 15 years without releasing new music, System of a Down dropped two songs last year to relieve Artsakh. “Protect the Land” and “Genocidal Humanoidz” face Azerbaijani attacks, Turkish policies and disinformation and denial perpetrated by government PR agencies.
As “Intent to Destory” states, public relations firms blocked portrayal of the genocide in American entertainment and academia for decades.
For example, Ahmet Ertegun, the founder of Atlantic Records, donated $ 3.5 million to Princeton University in 1994 to ensure that the genocide was denied in the curriculum of his department of studies on the Near East, according to “The Last Sultan” (2011) an Ertegun biography by Robert Greenfield. “Intent to Destroy” explains that Ahmet’s father, Mehmet, former Turkish Ambassador to the United States, prevented MGM from adapting Franz Werfel’s novel “The Forty Days of Musa Dagh” into a movie in the 1930s . It was also stuck in 1968 as well as in 2006 when Sylvester Stallone tried.
When “The Promise” and “Intent to Destroy” hit theaters in 2017, a Turkish-backed studio released “The Ottoman Lieutenant,” which starred Ben Kingsley and Josh Hartnett and denied the genocide.
“By the time we were coming out there was a huge campaign from Turkey to undermine the film,” said George.
But “The Promise” overtook “The Ottoman Lieutenant” in the international box office performance, grossing $ 12.4 million compared to $ 240,978 for the latter film.
A screening organized by the ANCA in 2017 increased pressure on Congress to formally recognize the genocide with the passage of House Resolution 296 in 2019.
“Everyone has a role to play,” Iskajyan said. “From artists who tell our stories to grassroots activists who have tirelessly sought justice for the Armenian Genocide for generations.”
Esrailian used all the profits from “The Promise” to create two nonprofits, both at UCLA: the Promise Institute for Human Rights and the Promise Armenian Institute, whose latest effort, Operation Armenia, brings aid to Artsakh.
Esrailian recently partnered with Discovery to release a new list of documentaries on its Discovery + streaming service, starting with last month’s “Francesco”, which includes Pope Francis’ efforts to raise awareness of the genocide.
Discovery Education has also created documentaries on dark times in world history, using “The Promise” as an introduction to the Armenian Genocide in US high school curricula.
Armenians in the Bay Area are not immune to conflict overseas. Last year, Esrailian’s childhood church, St. Gregory Armenian Apostolic, was set on fire and its Saturday school, the Armenian KZV school, was vandalized with Azerbaijani threats in graffiti.
Last year, the House introduced Resolution 1203, demanding that the United States recognize Artsakh and its right to self-determination, and Resolution 1165, a call to sanction Azerbaijan for war crimes.
In a February letter, 100 members of Congress from both parties, backed by ANCA and Esrailian, called on the Biden administration to recognize the Armenian genocide, recognize and relieve Artsakh, sanction Azerbaijan and stop providing military aid to the country.
Biden’s recognition on Saturday would facilitate other requests. Although only around 29 countries have recognized the genocide, it is a monumental step towards global recognition.
“For my part, I will try to do whatever I can… to bring attention to (the genocide),” Esrailian said. “(You) can’t just complain. You have to do something. And this is the code that I am living. “
“The promise”: Available to stream on Netflix.
“Intent to destroy”: Available for rent on various services including Amazon Video.
“Protect the Earth” and “Genocidal Humanoidz”: Discover System of a Down’s music clips on Youtube. Donation link to the Aid for Artsakh campaign inside.