The Venice Film Festival has earned a reputation over the decades for tackling controversial political and social issues head on, and this year has been no exception.
German-born Turkish director Fatih Akin’s The Cut, shown on Sunday, is a harrowing fictionalised look at the destruction of the Armenian community in Ottoman Turkey during the First World War which historians and Armenians say was genocide.
Turkey denies this and says the widely cited death toll of 1.5 million people is inflated.
Akin acknowledged at a news conference that he’d received hate mail about the film and even a death threat on Twitter, but said “please don’t make too much out of that”.
The film that Fatih made is the film that the Armenians have been waiting for. Everybody always says, ‘When are we making a film, a film about the Armenian genocide?’,” Simon Abkarian, one of the actors in the film, said at a press conference.
“It took time. The first generation had to survive, the second generation had to live and the third generation had to react and claim what we had to claim, which is the recognition of the genocide, most of it. And I think that one film is never enough to tell such a story, we have to make more.” Other festival films include a documentary , The Look of Silence, about massacres in Indonesia in the mid-1960s where death squads killed as many as 1.5 million people in purges following a failed communist coup.
Loin des Hommes (Far from Men) is set at the beginning of the Algerian war against French colonial rule in the 1950s and stars Viggo Mortensen as a former major in the French army who is teaching in a school in a remote part of the Atlas Mountains.
He is forced into a life-or-death desert trek with an Arab villager, played by Reda Kateb, that makes them overcome cultural distrust and learn to rely on one another.
Mortensen said he thought it was the most powerful, and even subversive, film about the Algerian conflict since Gillo Pontecorvo’s famous The Battle of Algiersof 1966.
“There’s nothing nowadays more subversive than loving and showing compassion and meeting in the middle,” Mortensen said.
“It seems so difficult for people to do, more and more, so I think it’s very subversive in that sense.” The Iranian film Ghesseha (Tales) looks at hardships of life in Tehran that its director, Rakhshan Bani-Etemad, said in part are the result of harsh international sanctions.
Last in trilogy
The Cut is the last in what the director calls his Love, Death and the Devil trilogy and focuses on the plight of Armenians who are uprooted from their villages and sent on death marches into the desert, conscripted into forced labour gangs or killed outright.
The main figure is Nazaret Manoogian, played by Tahar Rahim, an Armenian blacksmith who is separated from his wife and young twin daughters in the middle of the night by Turkish soldiers, who take him to a work camp, after which his town is cleared of Armenians.
He survives the forced labour in the desert and avoids having his throat slit when his would-be executioner takes pity and only pretends to kill him.
After Turkey’s defeat in the war, he begins a quest that takes him to Cuba and America in search of his missing daughters who have fled there, after their mother and the rest of their family were killed.
Nazaret ends up in North Dakota working on a railroad construction crew and is brutally beaten with a shovel when he intervenes to stop one of the workers raping a native American woman. Her plight recalls the rape of an Armenian woman by Turks that Nazaret saw in Turkey but could do nothing to stop.
“I had to create an empathy, an empathy for the hero, an empathy for the story,” Akin said.
“One trick I used was I took the genocide on the native Americans and used it just as a snap of an idea, you know, so that even people who deny the fact of the genocide to the Armenians can identify themselves with the hero in that moment, to reflect about it later.”