“Intent to Destroy” Offers a Meditative History of the Armenian Genocide

It’s a movie about a historical crime, but it’s also a movie about another movie


In Intent to Destroy, documentarian Joe Berlinger attempts to assemble a sort of meditative history of the Armenian genocide and its century-long cover-up by the Turkish government out of a curious source: behind-the-scenes footage of the production of Terry George’s film The Promise, a sweeping historical saga with movie stars and first-rate production values, financed independently and released in the spring of 2017.

As a film, The Promise is interesting for its subject and the struggle to get it made, rather than its own drama or technique; Intent to Destroy uses The Promise as something of a guide, as our entree into the history, as if the filmmakers assume that we need to see Oscar Isaac to care about the extermination of millions. “There’s a scene in the movie where Christian Bale goes and attempts to take pictures of what’s happening to the Armenians,” one of the many interviewees tells us, his words illustrated with a clip from The Promise. He continues, “In the real world, it was forbidden to take pictures of anything.” That leads to an enlightening discussion of the practicalities of the Ottoman Empire’s mass murder of Armenians.

Intent to Destroy sometimes plays like a DVD extra that might have accompanied The Promise, but it does have value of its own in its interviews with historians, philosophers, and filmmakers and its vintage photos and footage. Even that footage of the shooting of The Promise bears fruit when Armenian actors in the cast speak to Berlinger’s cameras and to one another about their families’ experience during the long-ago massacres, the hundred-year diaspora that followed, and the terrible success of Turkey’s efforts to pretend it all never happened. In these moments, we’re watching artists not just tell their own vital stories but consider, with some awe, the significance of their finally having the opportunity to do so.

Intent to Destroy
Directed by Joe Berlinger
Opens November 10, Village East Cinema