featuring music by System of a Down
This film invites us all to be "screamers".
A "screamer" is someone with a full understanding of what genocide is and so has no alternative but to scream to people all about it and tell them how it can be stopped. The genocide pointed to is that of Armenia in 1915, but the message is broader.
Unlike other historical documentaries, Screamers combines the usual interviews with academics, historians and activists, and archival footage with music from a live concert – performed by Californian alternative-metal band System of a Down, taken from their 2005 tour.
For the uninitiated, System of a Down are notable for their political commitment. In 2003, they released a song called "Boom!" with a video featuring footage of that year's worldwide anti-Iraq war demonstrations.
They are also of Armenian heritage, are personally aware of the genocide and are all active around the issue. They are not just the soundtrack to the documentary but are a large part of it, having grandparents who survived the genocide.
The Armenian genocide began on April 24, 1915, when the Turkish Ottoman Empire began rounding up and murdering prominent Armenian intellectuals and community leaders. They followed that up with the forced displacement of the rest of the population, committing horrendous acts in the process.
In the end, up to 1.5 million Armenians were massacred, their land stolen and their culture ruined. The perpetrators were never held responsible.
This genocide is believed to have inspired others. When ordering his troops to slaughter Polish people in WWII, Adolf Hitler quipped: "Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?"
The Armenian genocide is historically irrefutable; however the documentary shows that the Turkish government not only refuses to admit it but has made mention of it punishable as treason. Turkey is not the only nation refusing to acknowledge these events as genocide — in fact only 20 nations do, including Canada, France, Switzerland and as of 2005, Venezuela.
The documentary shows protest rallies and lobbying attempts by the band and others to get the US and Britain to recognise that genocide took place. The reasons for the US and Britain's refusal to recognise the genocide are thoroughly explored.
One reason is alliance with Turkey. The Allied powers in World War I issued a statement saying they would punish the perpetrators. After the war, however, they did not follow through, because they wanted the new republican Turkish state as an ally against the Bolshevik revolution in Russia.
After World War II, Turkey became a NATO member and a key part of the Cold War encirclement of the Soviet Union. Today, the reason for the US and Britain not wanting to embarrass Turkey is that they rely on Turkish military bases and airspace for continued occupation of Iraq.
Turkey is a large purchaser of US arms. The film exposes the intense lobbying efforts by the US military-industrial complex to prevent the passing of a bill in the US Congress that would have recognised the Armenian genocide.
System of a Down lead singer Serj Tankian says: "It's never profitable to save the victims of a genocide. We have to switch priorities from profit to people and until we do that, genocides will continue, holocausts will continue, and we will be living that holocaust as a planet, together."
Unlike some other documentaries that rattle off facts, dates, statistics and death tolls, what sets Screamers apart is its focus on the human side of genocide. The real horror is seen in the intense but vacant eyes of the surviving children captured in photographs as well as the first-hand accounts of the band's relatives and other survivors.
In genocide, it is not only the dead who are victims, but the survivors as well.
By also including similar images of and interviews with people who survived genocide in Bosnia, Rwanda, Cambodia and Darfur, we see how similar these events are in the scale of their absolute horror.
However, other genocides are conspicuously absent. It is perhaps understandable that the lesser-known genocides (to a US audience) of East Timor, West Papua and Aceh were omitted; nless so those of the Tamils or the Palestinians.
On the musical front, System of a Down plays songs across the range of their albums, with all manner of styles — heavy, slow with Armenian melodies and politically-charged. The weaving in of their live performance with the rest of the documentary is not only fluid, but the songs' images and emotions add to those of the film.
For example, the heaviness and intensity of "BYOB" — with the rousing line "Why don't presidents fight the war? Why do they always send the poor"— is played at an intense point in the documentary. The haunting and atmospheric "Holy Mountains" provides the soundtrack to images of ruined Armenian cultural buildings and of the horror experienced by those killed.
As the band has been on hiatus since 2006, this documentary is also something new for fans to enjoy — even if the grim content of much of this compelling documentary makes "enjoy" not the best word.
Screamers is powerful, innovative and emotional. The first-hand accounts of genocide are harrowing but necessary viewing. The interactions between Tankian and his grandfather emphasise the humanity of the survivors, even when the perpetrators have lost theirs.
And melding post-punk heavy metal with historical documentary — who would have thought it could be done?