Film Explores Armenian Genocide, Peace With Turkey

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Sona Tatoyan, an Armenian-American film producer, speaks to Ezgi Basaran about her upcoming film about the Armenian genocide, as well as her evolving views on Turkey.

Sona Tatoyan is an American-born Armenian actress-producer. She is preparing to make a movie based on Micheline Ahromyan Marcom’s book Three Apples Fell From Heaven. The script was written by her husband, Jose Rivera, who wrote the script for "Che Guevera" and the film adaptation of Jack Kerouac's "On the Road." The film will be directed by Indian director Shekhar Kapur, whose film Elizabeth was nominated for an Oscar. The shoot will start at the end of this year. 

We wanted to share Sona's story and the reasons why she wanted to make such a movie during the sixth anniversary of the assassination of Hrant Dink, an Anatolian journalist.

Radikal:  Your family is originally from Aleppo, but you were born and raised in the US, right?

Tatoyan:  Yes, that's why my life was always in between. I used to spend my summer holidays in a village of Aleppo, with my mother's family. My mother's aunt was very sensitive on the Armenian history. She was keen on keeping the memories of the genocide and an awareness on this issue. I have listened to many stories from her. 

Radikal:  Was she a genocide survivor?

Tatoyan:  Her mother and father, who are my grandmother and grandfather, lived in Antep during that time. They survived by escaping to Aleppo.

I was a very curious child, and I always got the most direct answers from my aunt. My biggest question has always been this: We are Armenians, so why do we live in Aleppo and why are we surrounded by Arabs? She tried to give some answers. Yet, eventually, the summers would end and I had to go back to Indiana. The first day at school, I used to check out the history books to look for some information on the stories that were told to me by aunt. It turns out I couldn't find a single word on this issue. Therefore, I started to grow suspicious.

Radikal:  So you became suspicious whether your aunt was telling the truth?

Tatoyan:  No, I became suspicious of the validity of the way Americans interpret history. I could see physical evidence of what my family had gone through. Half of my family was living in Syria — this alone was enough for me to believe in the authenticity of their stories. One day they had to leave their homes in Antep and sought refuge in Aleppo. My grandfather and mother did not speak the Armenian language, this was further proof for me. My father’s family was from Urfa. They escaped and survived. They left Turkey after they were informed by their Turkish friends that some horrible things might happen.

RadikalWhile you were hearing these stories, how did you change?

Tatoyan:  For a long time, I had issues with my Armenian identity. Because I was actually an American. I used to spend almost the entire year in the US, but spent summers in Aleppo.

We were not allowed to wear short-shorts there. We didn't feel comfortable, so I used to hate spending my summers in Aleppo. But my mom's biggest desire during the winters in the US was to spend her summer holidays in Aleppo. Therefore we had to go to Aleppo, but I was an American there. I was rebellious in Aleppo. When I got back to the States, to school, I was an Armenian, with my thick eyebrows, hairy arms and weird name. That's why I hated being an Armenian; every child wants to feel like they belong somewhere. I belonged nowhere.

Radikal:  Did your mother and father talk about the 1915 incidents?

Tatoyan:  It was not taboo, but they wouldn't broach the subject unless I ask them to talk about it. After a certain point I became obsessed with the issue. They always told me what they knew to be the truth.

However, they were also fond of Turkey and Turkish culture. I had to listen to classical Turkish music when my mom was driving me to school. I hated that music because it gave me headaches! My mom still watches Turkish TV shows. There were some weird moments in my life. While hearing the Turkish pop music played at home, I read books on the Armenian genocide.

Radikal How did your mom, as someone who was fond of Turkey, talk about the genocide?

Tatoyan:  Very openly. Sometimes she said “yes, they did horrible things to us” and joined me in my frustration. Then she started to praise the Anatolian people, food and land. I guess what I learned from my mom is not to blame people for the crimes committed by the state in which they live.

Regarding my feeling that I didn’t belong, I came across similar sentiments among African-Americans in the US. Through Maya Angelou, a professor of mine when I was at college, I learned what African-Americans had experienced in the US. Once I went to a bookstore to buy a book suggested by her and came across a book of Peter Balakyan, an Armenian-American. After I read his book I was incensed  with nationalist sentiment.

Radikal: What was it like?

Tatoyan:  I was obsessed with questions like, how could they do this to us? How can they deny what they did to us; why won’t they even apologize for what they did? I was not only furious with Turkey, but also with the US, which due to many strategic reasons overlooked Turkey’s policy of denial. Later, I went to Armenia for the first time in my life to shoot a movie. I can't explain how foreign I felt there. The music, the architecture, the cuisine — everything was so different. It had nothing to do with Anatolia.

Again I was a stranger. This time, I was a stranger as an Armenian in a country called Armenia. However, while I was there I found Micheline Ahromyan Marcom’s book Three Apples Fell From Heaven. It is a book that narrates the Armenian genocide with an impressive plot and fascinating style. The book is about a child who is about to die, dreaming about the kind of a life he could had if he had been rescued by a Turkish or Kurdish family. I immediately met with the author.

RadikalYou are producing a movie based on this book, right?

Tatoyan:  Yes. After I read the book, I asked my husband Jose Rivera to read it. Jose was also very much impressed. He wrote the script, which we then sent to India to our director friend Shekar Kapur. Meanwhile, we embarked on a spiritual and physical journey with Michelin, the author of the book.

Radikal:  What kind of a journey was this?

Tatoyan:  We went to Dayr al-Zawr and Ras al-Ein together. There I saw the bones of my ancestors. I say this literally, there were still bones protruding from the soil.  At that point I decided to go to Turkey and visit Harput, where the book starts. 

Radikal And you were still filled with rage?

Tatoyan:  Yes, I was unspeakably furious. Urfa, Antep and Elazig reminded me of scenes from a horror movie. Anyways, we rented a car with Michelin and my husband and traveled to Van, Dogubeyazit and Elazig. Over the course of our visit, that rage turned into something else, into a mixed feeling.

Radikal What kind of a feeling?

Tatoyan:  One evening we were having tea with our Kurdish friends that we met in Dogubeyazit. One of them asked me, “Why did you leave us? I wish you hadn't left.” I didn't know what to say. At that moment I realized I belonged to that land, how familiar the Turkish language and cuisine were to me.

When we were in Harput, I experienced another incident that I cannot possibly forget. We went into an antiques shop and the owner pointed to me and asked my translator friend if I was from Anatolia. When I asked why he said this, he told me “because you have Anatolia in your eyes.” I told him that I am Armenian. He responded, “Anatolia is the name of a family. What we went through was the tearing apart of a family, yet this doesn't change the fact that we are still a family.” My rage against Turkey started to fade away. At the same time, I started to develop anger toward my own community.

Radikal Why?

Tatoyan: Because the Armenian diaspora refrains from going through this spiritual journal. They insist on not opening their hearts. They choose the easy way and find consolation in a constant victimhood. To be honest I can't blame them for this attitude, because this is a very rough journey. What they really have to understand is that reconciling with Anatolia, Turks does not mean forgetting the genocide and approving the Turkish state’s policy of denial. For the Armenian Diaspora to do this is above all  respecting their own culture and history. But for them it is all about giving-receiving concessions. This is what I am angry about.

Radikal How would you feel if the Turkish state were to recognize the genocide and offer an apology?

Tatoyan:  Relief — however, if the Turkish state continues to refuse, I don't know. As an Armenian I don't need Turkey to recognize the genocide. That is what I am trying to explain to the Armenian diaspora. They insist on pushing the Turkish state to say those words. With this attitude, they actually empower the Turkish state. Because what they actually imply is this: “Unless you recognize what happened was a genocide, we as Armenians can't recover.” The psychology of the Armenian nationalists is based on victimhood and pain, that is true. However, the state of mind of the Turkish nationalists is upsetting, too.

Radikal:  How?

Tatoyan:  For decades they have maintained delusions to avoid facing reality. Don't you think this is pathological and tiresome? For how long you can keep this attitude? I think I am caught between a rock and a hard place. I am denounced by the Armenian diaspora for making such a movie. They say my attempts to reconcile with Turks are embarrassing. I am sure I will be denounced by Turks as well, since I am making a movie explaining the reality of genocide. But this is exactly why I think this movie is extremely important. It will be the "Schindler's List" of the Armenian genocide. It will show the bad and good. There will be monstrous people, as well as good-hearted ones who risked their lives to save their neighbors. This is a story of Turks, Armenians and Kurds during the World War I. This is the story of Anatolia.

Radikal What kind of a movie will it be?

Tatoyan:  Micheline Ahromyan Marcom, the author of Three Apples Fell From Heaven, wrote her novel after being inspired by the real-life story of her grandmother. Her great-grandmother was saved by a Turkish friend of her father. During these incidents, there were also Armenians who stabbed the backs of other Armenians. They will also be depicted in the movie. As a matter of fact, this movie is more than what happened to Armenians; it is about the limits of human nature. Hopefully that gives you a little bit of an idea about the movie.

 

Due to a translation error, a prior version of this story inaccurately quoted Ms. Tatoyan, including  her saying that Armenians should “forget the genocide.”  Ms. Tatoyan rather said that “making peace with Anatolia, Turks, does not mean forgetting the genocide.” Al-Monitor apologizes to Ms. Tatoyan and our readers for this error.

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