From Ararat to The Cut: One Hundred Years of Not Facing the Past
In a strange twist of faith or perhaps a coincidence into which one should not read or write much, my article on Atom Egoyan’s Ararat (2002) comes out right before the 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide in 2015 and around the same time as the release of Fatih Akın’s The Cut (2014), an historical drama/western that deals with, like Ararat, the Armenian Genocide of 1915. The Cut is also the first film on the subject made by a Turk, a German-Turkish director, that does not disseminate the official Turkish discourse. I could not have possibly better arranged the timing of the appearance of the article if I tried.
In the article, I examined Ararat and its reception in Turkey and argued that the film’s reception in the country was highly problematic. What is more, this problematic reception was not necessarily generated by how the film dealt with its subject since the debate was already heated before anyone had a chance to see the film. Hence what was referred as reception in the article included receiving the idea of the film prior to its release as well as receiving the film itself. Such reception was largely shaped by the existing nationalism in the country. But, because the reaction was not about how the film dealt with the subject, it was not specific to Ararat either. The types of discussions taking place on The Cut remind us of the process.
In Turkey, the catastrophic event that ruptured and displaced Ottoman Armenians in 1915 is still not recognised as an event that Armenians suffered but an accusation with which Armenians came up to make Turks suffer. It is emotionally difficult and ethically problematic to be put in a position to prove your pain, unwrap the dressing to show the deep cut underneath, so that you are allowed to mourn, that your lament is heard and that your pain is acknowledged. Yet, often this is what is expected from Armenians with respect to what they and their ancestors endured from 1915 onwards, which was visible in the newspaper articles and other responses written on Ararat, a portion of which I analysed in my CJ article.
As a film scholar, my understanding of Ararat and The Cut is that they are aesthetically and narratively two very different films. Hence, in my opinion, it is unproductive to compare the two films, a comparison often made with the aim of finding the language to represent such catastrophic events: a competition to best represent the unrepresentable. Hamid Dabashi, for instance, makes such comparison in writing that the film is not cinematically accomplished compared to Ararat and that “instead of tabulating the old masters of the cinematic archive, Akın should have watched Atom Egoyan far more attentively in order to learn how not to tell that story.” Dabashi talks about how scholars and writers pushed the boundaries of the narrative regarding this specific historical injustice and that Akın should have not repeated earlier examples. However, the author himself ends up repeating the art historians’ “life-cycle” approach to art and creativity, assuming The Cut belongs to an earlier era of narration that is replaced by a new narrative approach.
If such comparison is necessary, then perhaps the film to compare The Cut would be Taviani Brothers’ 2007 film La Masseria Delle Allodole since both films are historical dramas, operating more or less within the generic conventions. Nevertheless, although I believe comparison of Ararat and The Cut is not a productive endeavour, there is ground for comparison when it comes to their reception, particularly the reaction to these films in Turkey.
The Cut is the third film in Akın’s love (Head-On, 2004), death (The Edge of Heaven, 2007), and the devil trilogy and follows the journey of Nazareth (Tahar Rahim), an Armenian blacksmith. Nazareth, after being forcefully taken by soldiers from his home to work on the road construction with other Armenian men, loses contact with his family. During this time, he witnesses crimes committed by thugs and soldiers accommodating the criminals, as well as forced marches of Armenians from neighbouring villages. When finished with the construction work, the soldiers leave them to the criminals to be slaughtered, but Nazaret lives because Mehmet, the one who was supposed to kill him, is unable do it. However, he receives a deep cut to his throat as a result of which he loses his voice, his ability to speak. From what others tell him, Nazareth understands that nothing is left back in his village and that everyone in his family died. However, when he finds out that his daughters are alive, he once again has a mission in life; from then on the film follows his dedicated journey to find his daughters.
Contrary to those who claim that the film does not show an act of genocide, a centrally organised crime, the film repeatedly makes it clear that the authorities were aware of what was going on, but they either facilitated or turned a blind eye to the massacres of the Armenians, in addition to leaving women and children in the middle of a desert with nothing to survive. The film also hints at German complicity in the events. However, The Cut is not a “genocide film”. Akın, aware of the impossibility of turning an event like genocide into a narrative, prefers to follow Nazaret, telling the story of not what happened but what it did to Nazaret.
The film so far is not a big hit among the critics, particularly considering Akın’s previous films and their reception. The director is criticised on a number of aesthetic and narrative levels, among those being the decision to have his Armenian characters speak English with an accent, a very common Hollywood practice that we see often in films such as The Reader (Stephen Daldry, 2008). Decisions such as this make The Cut a clichéd film. For instance, Nazareth’s complete innocence and honesty make him a perfect human being, a great father and a loving husband. This, in my view, is not only a tiresome cliché but an ethically problematic approach as well: a historical wrongdoing is not less of a crime when it is suffered by a less likeable character, less good-willed human being. However, Akın is a glad director of genre cinema, and genre cinema works on generic conventions. What is more, some of his decisions are not completely incomprehensible: the subject of the film is still highly contested in Turkey, and it is a hard balance to strike between achieving clarity while being creative and perhaps less didactic, where the director does not know everything is a luxury.
In Turkey, although the responses are not as intense as those against Ararat, the assumptions about what the film will be were already in circulation in the Turkish media prior to The Cut’s release, creating the expected unease about the film. Akın himself said in a number of interviews that he spent the past few years thinking about the potential reactions, including the death threats he may or may not receive and is now ready. He did receive death threats. Similar to Egoyan’s Ararat, the talk of Akın’s “genocide” movie started as soon as the news of it came out. Perhaps slightly more experienced on the possible reactions, having learned from the previous cases, Akın was very careful about what was available about the film in the media, hence even the official trailer was released only shortly before the film’s première in the Venice Film Festival at the end of August.
Akın gave his first interview in Turkey about the film to the Armenian newspaper Agos. Following the interview, the ultra nationalist publication Ötüken threatened both the newspaper and the director, similar to the ordeal Ararat had to face. On the 4th of August, almost three weeks before The Cut premièred in Venice, the publication declared that they will permit absolutely no theatre wishing to screen the film and that they are following the situation closely with their “white berets”, which immediately links the situation to the assassination of the Armenian-Turkish journalist Hrant Dink. His murderer was a young man and at the time was wearing a white beret. The beret later became a symbol among the ultra-nationalists. Clearly, the threats Akın received do not represent the majority in Turkey, but this is not the main question here, since the majority becomes complicit by its silence, the period that led to Dink’s murder as a case in point. My question, however, is a different one, one that still persists since I wrote the article on Ararat, since Dink’s Murder, since Ararat was made, since 1915: how to hear the other and make it matter?
 Coincidently this issue of the Cinema Journal includes an article on Akın’s Edge of Heaven. [Editor's note: Claudia Breger's Afterthoughts essay also discusses The Cut, which neither author knew before submitting their posts, so the coincidence was doubled here.]
 Hamid Dabashi, “Turkish Genocide Film: An Epic too Late” http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2014/09/turkish-genocide-film-an-epic-to-20149188328656238.html
 White beret is a highly controversial symbol in Turkey since the assassination of Hrant Dink and even more controversial when used to threaten Agos as Dink was the chief editor of the newspaper until his murder. He was shot dead right outside of Agos’ building in Istanbul in broad daylight.