The equation of German documentary filmmaker Eric Friedler’s Aghét: Nation Murder (2010) is of two parts: aghét and genocide. The film’s voice-over proclaims that aghét (whose literal meaning is catastrophe) is the word Armenians use for what was visited on their ancestors during and immediately after World War I. In interviews and in post-screening Q & A sessions, Friedler has repeated the same assertion. But I doubt that I am alone in asking: Is it really so? Are these two terms—catastrophe and genocide—co-equals in the interior conversation around the genocide? Its noble intentions unscathed, Aghét leaves at least its Armenian viewers not only with the horrors of the Ottoman genocidal process, but also with a question that is neither petty nor superfluous.
Asking such a question in no way diminishes the power and necessity of Friedler’s film. For what Friedler has done is seal the “Genocide debate” once and for all by showing that, in his words, “the Genocide is not open to negotiations.” Aghét closes the “debate” and the negotiation by making the proof total and complete. In fact, in two of his previous films—The Silence of the Quandts and The Slaves of the Gas Chambers—Friedler also relied heavily on archival material to shed new light on a lesser known subject.
With ferocious passion and technical sophistication unsurpassed perhaps in any other documentary on this subject, Aghét is the film to end all films which try to “prove” that the Ottoman extermination of the Armenians did indeed happen. From J. Michael Hagopian’s work over four decades, to the films aired on European television channels, to the more recent Screamers (2006) and The Armenian Genocide (2006), the intent has been almost exclusively one of disproving the official Turkish claim.
In fact, the past twenty years have spawned a subcategory of “genocide affirmation” documentaries, almost all of which have been accompanied by enthusiastic responses from the Armenian community. Amidst the counter-claims and controversy, some of these films, such as Aghét, have made it to the halls of the US Congress.
The filmmaker uses the full spectrum of possibilities afforded him by his material. The archival content includes the eyewitness accounts of 23 officials whose written testimonies are housed in the German archives; the images of pillage, murder, and starvation; the reading of these accounts by well-known German actors; historical footage which spans across the twentieth century; and public declarations by current Armenian, Turkish and US officials. But the core of this film is the archival evidence, to which Friedler gives a jolt, turns it around and makes it face us, the viewers.
Aghét answers the challenge of Turkish officials to “prove it” by showing beyond counter-argument and negotiation of meaning that it was, by Raphael Lemkin’s term, genocide. Paradoxically and perhaps unintentionally, in harnessing the possibilities at the film-maker’s disposal, in basing his entire enterprise on that equation between Aghét and genocide, the film has not so much equated the two terms as opened a crack, pointed toward a chasm between the legal definition of what befell the Armenians at the turn of the century and how Armenians—amongst themselves, or alone-- talk about their collective suffering.
Bracketed as it is by the murder of the Turkish-Armenian journalist and human rights activist Hrant Dink in Istanbul in 2007, the film lays the burden of admission and restitution at the door of the Turkish government. It does so not so much through the pronouncements of the politicians who are most closely associated with genocide recognition but more through the readings of the documentary evidence culled from the German archives. This is the horrific heart of Friedler’s devastating film, and it is this core which is the most affecting and memorable part. The yellow pages of the archival documents are give voice, brought to life by a cast of actors under whose often halting words and restrained facial expressions roils the terror of witnessing the destruction of an entire nation. In reading after reading r language cracks at the edge of meaning, recoils from the horrors it tries to describe. The words are delivered in highly restrained fashion, often in close-ups where the slight twitch of the eye, the almost imperceptible movement of the lip seems to shatter the calm of the human face. The accumulated effect of these re-enactments is akin to a ritual, a wake if you will.
I suspect Friedler intended this archival core to perform the function of “proving” the genocide by making it something other than documentary, something strange and haunting, something starkly opposed to the more conventional documentary footage which seems, over the years and with repeated usage, to have lost its potency and resonance not only for Armenians but for Turks who want to know what happened during “the events” at the turn of the twentieth century. Thus, the film’s attempt to give voice and form to the archival material has a specific implication for “proving” the genocide: The pop psychology talk about healing and reconciliation between Armenians and Turks is no substitute for the asymmetry between what befell the Armenians and the suffering of their Turkish-Ottoman compatriots.
Yes, in Friedler’s hands, genocide is closed to debate, but what about the Aghét? And whose question is this–the world’s or the Armenians’? (It is telling that save for the title of the film there isn’t scarcely a word of Western Armenian in the film itself). I am not certain how many people in the US-Armenian community use the term aghét when they talk about the genocide, but they are perhaps two handfuls at the most. When we speak about it on these shores, we speak of genocide, not aghét--and most of the time, in English. Aghét lurks somewhere in our collective memory, overshadowed by the Genocide.
As Friedler’s film shows, the term genocide is an invented one, noble as its aims were when Lemkin coined it in response to the necessity of a term after the extermination of Ottoman Armenians and of the Assyrians of Iraq in 1933. It has legal underpinnings and consequences. So, it is not surprising that the screening of this film is often at political and legislative sites imbued with efforts at genocide recognition. That Aghét has been shown in such circles is evidence of the framing to which this film, like others before it, has been subjected.
Genocide is the legal, universal term; it connects Armenians to the world, to activism, to community efforts at justice and reparations, all of them laudable, most of them necessary. It can connect Armenians also to other peoples and groups that have been threatened by annihilation. Aghét is the Armenian term in the broken family of such words—shoah, nakba included. The biography of the word aghét itself locates its origins in literary usage, as Marc Nichanian has so thoroughly demonstrated in his Writers of Disaster (Gomidas Institute, Princton and London: 2002). It was the Western Armenian novelist and literary critic Hagop Oshagan who first used it in 1931 specifically and consciously as the term for the extermination of the Ottoman Armenians; it was the literary answer, if you will, to the tchart (massacre, in Armenian).
Aghét has remained by and large a literary term which does not hold any currency in the usage of American (US)-Armenians almost all of whom use the Armenian equivalent of the word genocide (tseghasbanootune) when they speak about 1915. (I cannot say much about the usage in educated though not necessarily literary circles in France or other European communities of Armenians.) Despite its literary ambitions or, as Nichanian has argued, its near-incapacity to describe the horrors, aghét is the term of inwardness, interiority, the term which, unlike genocide, lives with the silence of the unspeakable, the word’s very cadence, its brevity the only testament to its power–but also its near-impotence. Folded as the horrific scenes and re-enactments of the archival evidence are between the political rhetoric, they seem to jump out of the film’s flow, assaulting our senses, hammering in the horrors one word, one image at a time but even in doing so somehow falling short of taking full stock, of explaining. Genocide seeks an accounting in justice, in the rule of law, in the possibility of such a result. Aghét is all-encompassing in its near-mutedness, in the crushing of any consequence.
All this is not a plea for banishing the word genocide and giving sole currency to the word aghét although, in the world of genocides, Aghét lives on the margins. Intentionally or by accident, Friedler’s Aghét is therefore about a dissociation rather than an equation of the two terms: We have the context of the event, and then we have the event itself –in the eyewitness accounts and the archival footage. What would change, what would be different, if Aghét lived equally and freely with the word genocide not so much as the Armenian equivalent of the word, but as the authentic word and voice of the victim even as the victim and the witness search for the proper words to express, try to understand the catastrophe?