Tuesday, April 14, 2015

1915: Haunted by the Past

Through his studies of the Ottoman Turks’ systematic massacre of Armenians, Raphael Lemkin coined the term genocide. Yet, Turkey refuses to acknowledge the genocide as such, insisting instead it was merely a bit of clumsy rough-housing. This might sound like a purely academic question at this point, but it surely has very real world significance to Turkey’s Kurdish population, especially as the government becomes increasingly Islamist and more closely aligned with Iran. Clearly, the lack of historical closure deeply troubles the Armenian protagonist of Garin Hovannisian & Alec Mouhibian’s 1915 (trailer here), which opens this Friday in greater Los Angeles and next Wednesday in New York.

Simon Mamoulian once directed a series of popular ethnic European comedies at the iconic Los Angeles Theatre, but this will be his first production in seven years. It has a limited run of one night only, yet it has inflamed the community. Turks are outraged by the play for forthrightly depicting the genocide perpetrated by the Ottoman Empire, whereas many Armenians are troubled by its Sophie’s Choice-like climax. It seems like just about everyone is protesting outside, but the stakes are even higher inside the theater.

Mamoulain’s wife Angela is playing the character unambiguously inspired by his grandmother and it is taking a lot out of her. The director seems to be able to transport her back in time to 1915 through a form of Svengali-like mesmerism. The rash of suspicious accidents do not help much either. However, we slowly start to realize Mamoulain’s play has two levels. Obviously, he wishes to speak for the estimated 1.5 million victims of the Genocide, but the play also has hidden personal meanings for him and Angela.

It is hard to imagine an independent film that is more ambitious structurally and thematically than 1915. As a result, it is impossible to judge Hovannisian & Mouhibian harshly when they lose control of their narrative. This is arguably a case where a little less would have been a little more. In particular, there is potential nemesis character introduced midway through, but his role is never cogently explained and he is so quickly dispensed, he really only serves as a baffling distraction from the serious issues at hand.

On the other hand, the filmmakers made truly inspired castings choices, starting first and foremost with French Armenian actor Simon Abkarian (Gett, Army of Crime, Wedding Song, etc.) as Mamoulain. He has a commanding presence, yet he vividly conveys how tormented his character is by personal and historical tragedies from the past. Likewise, Twilight franchise alumnus Angela Sarafyan truly looks like she was transported from 1915 into the Los Angeles Theatre. Sam Page also shows some range when the audience least expects it as James, the celebrity outsider.

It is kind of impressive how much Hovannisian & Mouhibian try to say in 1915. It does completely work, but they swing for the fences—and arguably do not come up so embarrassingly short. In fact, it is rather fascinating to watch where the film goes. They also convincingly make their central motivating point. When incidents of great historical enormity are covered-up they fester and metastasize in the national psyche. Sort of worth seeing as a noble failure with no obvious prior analog, 1915 opens this Friday (4/17) at the Laemmle Music Hall 3, Town Center 5, and Playhouse 7, as well as next Wednesday (4/22) at the Quad Cinema in New York.