Wednesday, January 6, 2016

January 2016: Chidem Inch - The Water Diviner

Ottoman 5th Army Positions April 1915
      I just finished watching the Russell Crowe film, The Water Diviner.  It debuted earlier this year and, typical of many movie promotions, I had no clue what the film was about.  I made a mental note to watch the film at some point simply because I like most Russell Crowe films.  Then I saw some articles in the Armenian press and posts on Facebook slamming the film.  Russell Crowe was called out for starring and directing a film about Gallipoli and ignoring any mention of the Armenians or the Armenian Genocide.   I made a point of not reading the articles until I saw the film. The film was released in December 2014 in Australia.  The European and US releases were in March and April coinciding, not by mere chance I presume, with the 100th Anniversary of the Armenian Genocide commemorations.
      If I wasn't Armenian or Greek, I would have probably enjoyed the film more.  The lay reviews on are quite favorable.  One would definitely want to see this film reading those reviews.  Yet, as Sylvia Angelique Alajaji says in her book, Music and the Armenian Diaspora:  "The 1915 Genocide has become the hinge on which all stories pivot."  For Armenians, that is how we approach this movie.  The Armenians weren't mentioned at all.  The Allies made their first landing on April 25, 1915.  Basically, this historic battle lasted the rest of 1915 simultaneously with the first seven months of the Armenian Genocide.  There were Greeks in the film,  But they were portrayed as invaders and their army as evil.  The Greeks were seen shelling an ancient castle in a battle much like the Turks destroyed the Parthenon (for real) by using it for target practice. The film conveniently ended before they had to deal with not talking about what happened in
Native Greek children standing by the bones, in 1919, of
soldiers who died during in Gallipoli in 1915 
    There were many things about the movie that resonated with me.  First off, the story was compelling.  I liked the general plot.  I enjoyed two Turkish melodies that were part of the soundtrack.  I loved hearing an Aussie, or perhaps British officer, saying, "We lost the battle, but won the war."  It was interesting to see how the Australians, Brits, and Turks collaborated after the war to collect the vast number of skeletons and bones on the battle field.  Another Australian or British officer noted that this was the first war they tried to identify those slain and bury them in marked graves.  Previously, they dug large trenches and in which soldiers, horses, and mules were all thrown, covered in lime, and buried en masse.  Hopefully, these were not Hollywood fabrications.  It is hard to tell which parts of such movies are factual and which are from the imagination of screen writers.
     There was a scene at the end that takes place in what they call the "old church" in a village near or around Afyon (as best as I could tell from my watching of the movie).  This would have been a perfect time to provide the origins of the church and the lead Turkish character,  Major Hasan who was a most human and sympathetic character in the film from my perspective, might have given an explanation of what kind of church it was and what happened to the people that once worshipped there.  But, alas, it was just the "old church."
     The casualties at Gallipoli, Çanakkale in Turkish, were staggering.  Almost 57,000 Turkish troops died there.  The allied deaths were about the same number.  Approximately 107,000 Turks and 123,500 Allies were wounded.  It was a significant battle and both sides have rightfully commemorated it over the years, the way Americans, the English, French, and Germans commemorate D-Day.  War is indeed hell whether it was ethnic cleansing as in the Armenian Genocide or an epic brutal battle as in Çanakkale.  This film attempted to address the hellish nature of war through characters on both sides that were human
Captain Sarkis Terossian:  The first
person to sink a British battleship
and humane.  The major problem was with the exclusion.  
      They might have had an Armenian character in the film that served in Gallipoli.  The character might have been based on an Armenian artillery officer, Captain Sarkis Terossian, in the Turkish Army that was decorated and wrote a memoir of the Battle of Gallipoli.
In fact, Captain Sarkis Torossian was personally awarded medals for his courage by Enver Pasha, Turkey’s war minister and the most powerful man in the Ottoman hierarchy.
~ Robert Fisk, in a 5/12/13 Independent article.
     Çanakkale Savaşı (The Battle of Gallipoli) is an important part Turkish history.  Mustafa Kemal was a hero of the battle.  He led the post World War I national movement that resulted in the formation of the Republic of Turkey and the deification of Mustafa Kemal as Kemal Ataturk for founder of the Nation.  Because of this, Çanakkale is not viewed as the last great victory of the Ottoman Empire but rather the first victory that led to the founding of the Republic.  To me, as an Armenian, I see nothing more than a continuum that was first subjugation, second class overtaxed citizenship, Genocide, and, lastly, denial.  Mustafa Kemal was part of that continuum from Ottoman to Republic.  This includes, per the Fisk article, a concerted effort in Turkey claiming that  Sarkis Torosian's memoirs and participation in Çanakkale are pure fabrication... as were the thousands of Arabs and other minorities that fought in the Ottoman Army in that famous battle.
     Crowe is not the first Australian to only focus on Gallipoli and ignore the Armenian Genocide. I suppose the question is whether Australians are remiss by only focusing on this very important battle in the history of their nation? The article quoted from below is by Robert Manne who is "Emeritus Professor and Vice-Chancellor’s Fellow at La Trobe University and has twice been voted Australia’s leading public intellectual." He claims his country and countrymen are remiss.
And yet, despite the fact that the Armenian Genocide was one of the great crimes of history; despite the fact that it took place on Ottoman soil during the precise months of the Dardanelles campaign; despite the fact that that campaign is regarded as the moment when the Australian nation was born, so far as I can tell, in the vast Gallipoli canon, not one Australian historian has devoted more than a passing page or paragraph to the relationship, or even the mere coincidence, of the two events. Concerning the Armenian Genocide, in the space of two large volumes on Gallipoli, Charles Bean is silent; Les Carlyon gives the issue three or four lines; John Robertson allows half a page. Alan Moorehead, in his mid-'50s classic, is unusual by devoting a full three pages to the Armenian Question.
~ Robert Manne, The Monthly Essays
     Note that these excerpts are from articles, well worth reading, written by non-Armenians.  The Water Diviner got hammered by film critics in much the same way... again by non-Armenians.  Here
are some references and excerpts.

Let me put it this way: If I made a film set in Germany or France or Poland in the 1940s that made no reference to the fate of Europe’s Jewish population in those years – if I appeared unaware that there ever were Jews in Europe, let alone what had become of them – how would that look? What sort of person would you judge me to be, and what sort of point would I seem to be making? Such is the question raised by “The Water Diviner,” a film largely made in Turkey that is being released in the United States on the 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide – not the approximate anniversary but the precise anniversary, to the day. In a systematic campaign of deportation, starvation and mass murder that began in the spring of 1915, officials of the Ottoman Empire killed between 1 million and 1.5 million Armenians, an event that would later be called the first modern genocide and that shifted the course of 20th-century history, not least because it provided a template for the more ambitious schemes of Adolf Hitler. That event is never mentioned in “The Water Diviner,” not obliquely or indirectly or in any other way; you could easily watch the movie and never know that it happened.
~ Andrew O'Heir, Salon
Australian historian Professor Peter Stanley suggests that rather than a deliberate distortion, the problem with the film is most likely that Crowe, like his writers, has "entered a highly contested historical arena … without any idea of what he was getting into. His response was to simply roll over and accept the Turkish version."
Of course, the cynical might suggest that there may well have been commercial reasons for doing so.
The Anzac story presumably has little relevance to Greek or Armenian audience, but a retelling that is more sympathetic to the Turkish view was always likely to fare well in that market.
~ The Sydney Morning Herald
The moral issue at stake is neatly captured in the subtitle of Robertson’s recently published book on the genocide: ‘Who now remembers the annihilation of the Armenians?’ It was Hitler’s comment to his generals on the eve of the invasion of Poland urging them to show no mercy as there would be no retribution. It’s all part of ‘the other side of the Gallipoli story’ that Russell Crowe somehow didn’t get around to even hinting at.
~Anthony McAdam, The Spectator 
Nonetheless, if you strip the movie back to what works, and to what matters, it will, as I suggest, serve its purpose on Anzac Day. It should certainly not have been released yesterday, for that itself marked a harrowing centenary; to Armenians everywhere, April 24th refers to Genocide Remembrance Day, in memory of the many hundreds of thousands—as many as a million and a half, by some estimates—of their compatriots who died under Ottoman rule. Turkey continues vehemently to refute the charge of genocide, but the word is widely adopted, and was even used recently by Pope Francis. Whatever term you choose, why did the distributors of “The Water Diviner” risk insulting an entire community for the sake of one night’s takings at the box office? After all, here is a film that goes to some lengths to retreat from prejudice, to stand back, and to view distant events as an inextricable tangle of grievance and grief.
~Anthony Lane, The New Yorker
     It is worth reading any of these articles.  They all acknowledge the raw nerve that the memories of both Gallipoli and the Armenian Genocide touch to this day.  The Turks looked to have an international commemoration of Gallipoli/Çanakkale on the same day the Armenians were commemorating the start of the Genocide:  April 24.  They figured they would overshadow a part of their history they want the world to forget by making a big fanfare over an event in their history that they embrace.  World leaders were to attend the Gallipoli commemoration.  The event never happened.  World leaders bowed out when, apparently, they realized the ulterior motive of Ankara.  Sadly, Russell Crowe's movie was already produced.  I do not believe they did not have to release the film on April 24th in the US.  Either Crowe was complicit with or duped by his Turkish influencers.  I am going to believe the latter.  
     I had recently read Midnight at the Pera Palace: The Birth of Modern Istanbul by Charles King. This book covers the history of Istanbul from the end of World War I until the mid 1950s. Professor King's book addresses the Armenian, Greek, Jewish, Russian, and other minority groups very well. While he could not possibly please all people who might read the book, I believe his coverage to be well balanced. The same cannot be said about The Water Diviner.

All photos from Wikipedia.


  1. Very neutral approach towards the film. But, I really don't see the point why the movie should report on the grief incidents during the Eastern Armenian's displacement to Syria.-holocaust. Gallipoli ist the west part of the Empire. Film never assumes any mission to give political messages,but as very well put by you ; how the war could be hellish and people are in nature belonging to the ONE and they are actually one. The irony was remarkable. PS: One of the sweteening charecter -the hotelier- was a white russian /(Belarus)/White Army escaping to Ottoman Empire from communists.

    1. Thanks for your perspective Halim. It is too easy to get wound up about this film. I do try to stay as close to center as I can when discussing such matters... my bias creeps in.

      The White Russians escaping from the Bolsheviks to Istanbul is covered very well in the Charles King book. I am glad I read that book first and then saw this film.

      All the best to you.