SONGS OF SOLOMON – movie review

Cloudburst Entertainment
Reviewed for & linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Arman Nshanian
Writer: Audrey Gevorkian, Sylvia Kavoikjian
Cast: Samvel Tadevosian, Arman Nshanian, Sos Janibekyan, Arevik Gevorgyan, Tatev Hovakimyan
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 1/31/21


Every year that I taught high school history, someone in the class would ask why Jews have been oppressed by so many different cultures in so many different centuries. There are many reasons, all of them irrational, but the principal reason today is that during periods of extreme nationalism, the folks who are in the minority of a country’s ethnic or racial minority are in danger of being considered “the other.” They are different from the majority, and may be in a minority so small that they can easily be persecuted. They are scapegoated for society’s problems, though they had nothing to do with those dilemmas. In fact it was not until the founding of the state of Israel that Jews could live in a country where they are the majority and therefore free from being marginalized.

Similarly, the Armenians in the Ottoman (Turkish-dominated) Empire, were also in a minority. They are Christians; the Turks are Muslims. When the Ottomans found themselves in World War One, they used Armenians as scapegoats, “blaming” them for their contributions to architecture, music, cultural life in general, and acumen for business. In fact they were called by some the Jews of Turkey. In 1915, the Turks exterminated 1.5 million Armenians, though less is known about the pogrom against these Christian in 1894 when 300,000 were murdered. When Nazi government officials in the 1930s and 1940s were concerned that the world might condemn them for their genocidal pogroms against Jews, Hitler said: “Who remembers the massacre of Armenians?”

Well, then, movies like this one will certainly help to remind non-Armenians as well about the oppression, but don’t count your breath. A poll indicated that 40% of Americans never heard even of the Nazi Holocaust. In any case, “Songs of Solomon” is a worthy addition to the celluloid literature of the subject of genocide, joining others like “Nahapet,” ‘Mayrig,” “Ararat,” “The Cut,” “The Lark Farm,” “Dzori Miro,” “Map of Salvation,” “1915,” “Aram,” and “Do Not Tell Me the Boy was Mad.” The actors use exaggerated facial expressions as though in a silent movie, but I suspect the reason director Arman Nshanian evoked such exaggerated emotions is that he wants the film to appeal to a youthful audience.

Nshanian, in his freshman full-length film narrative (he is primarily an actor who takes a principal role here) leads us from the murders in 1894 to the more horrific ones in 1915, going back and forth in a film that in my opinion would have been better if told chronologically. This is a biographical look at Komitas Vardabet aka Solomon, credited with saving Armenian music, singing songs with an exquisite voice. The story opens before the dreaded year of 1894 when Solomon, an Armenian Christian who is a frail, gentle orphan with a blind grandmother, becomes best friends with two girls his own age. One is Sevil who is Turkish. She is friends with Sono, an Armenian. When Solomon sings to them, an Armenian archbishop believes that Solomon’s voice is a gift from God, and puts him into a seminary, which may have been responsible for saving his life.

When Sevil is married thirteen years later, her Turkish husband (played by the director) wants her not to associate with Armenians because “something bad is going to happen to them.” What follows appears to imitate the trajectory of Nazi anti-Semitism in Germany, as Nazi thugs break windows of Jewish stores, bully Jews on the street, and make them wear patches to signal their Jewishness. A Turkish colonel, played with glee, becomes the chief villain, always speaking softly, smiling with contempt, playing with his Armenian victors before letting his goons beat them to death. The most riveting scene, in fact, occurs when this colonel taunts the family harboring the Armenian woman Sono, reminding cinephiles of similar doings when in “Inglourious Basterds,” Col. Hans Lada played by Christoph Waltz, toys with a French farmer who is hiding a family of Jews.

Though “Songs of Solomon” has an excellent group of Armenian extras, it has a budget smaller than that of movies like “1915,” and that’s just fine. We in the audience have the privilege of knowing more than today’s Turks seem to know about the genocides (Turks who made their truer opinions known about the genocide are subject to arrest). It’s pitiful that though Germans today freely acknowledge the role of Nazis in their history, the Turks continue to hide facts about these tragic events. This film thereby joins the others in bringing the truth to light.

“Songs of Solomon” is the Armenian entry competing in our 93rd Academy Awards, though it has tough competition from “Minari,” which I think will be chosen. Anthony J. Rickert-Epstein filmed in Armenia. The film is in Armenian with English subtitles.

103 minutes. © 2021 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – B
Acting – B-
Technical – B+
Overall – B

ON HER SHOULDERS – movie review


Oscilloscope Pictures
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director:  Alexandria Bombach
Screenwriter:  Alexandria Bombach
Cast:  Nadia Murad, Murad Ismael
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 10/9/18
Opens: October 19, 2018

When President Trump viewed pictures on TV of the children killed by Bashar al-Assad’s chemical or biological weapons, he exclaimed “Let’s kill that f—er.”  Earlier than that, during the campaign, he assured the American people that he would wipe ISIS off the map.”  Admittedly the terrorist group has suffered losses, having to move out almost completely from its bunker in Syria, but that has not stopped the group from killing, maiming, enslaving and raping the Yazidi minority in Northern Iraq.  As Nadia Murad, the focus of Alexandria Bombach’s doc “On Her Shoulders,” points out, in her village of Sinjar, the older men and children were destroyed, the women held captives as sex slaves.  One of these women, Ms. Murad, escaped from her captors through a door accidentally left open, was taken in by some of her countrymen, and eventually became the principal spokesperson for the crimes committed by ISIS; a genocide, in effect.  Missing in “On Her Shoulders” is the way its principal subject managed to be swept away from her country to become the leading advocate for information on the genocide committed by ISIS.

For Alexandria Bombach, directing, manipulating the lenses and editing  “On Her Shoulders,” this is her sophomore full-length feature after her 2015 picture “Frame by Frame,” a personal look at four photographers in Afghanistan.  Her present subject, Nadia Murad, received the 2015 Nobel Peace Prize and wrote a book about her dreadful experiences, “The Last Girl: My Story of Captivity, and My Fight against the Islamic State.”  Since embarking on a whirlwind tour of seventeen countries, lobbying for funding to help the people left behind and petitioning the U.N. General Assembly to conduct a full investigation of the war crimes, this woman has given up the chance to live the life of a normal, pretty woman in her early twenties but relishes her role in the public eye.  This is not to say that despite her generally stoic composure she never lets loose with tears whenever describing her own rape and her witnessing of the mass murder and enslavement of her people.  Bombach captures the subject’s emotions in close-up and in shots that find Nadia addressing a full session of the General Assembly, wearing a headphone to receive translations into Kurdish and Arabic wherever necessary.

She teamed up with Murad Ismael, a founder of Yazda, which is a group advocating for the Yazidis.  The two cry out for no more talk and a lot more action, and perhaps their championing of the fight to destroy ISIS has met with some success, given the aforementioned displacement of ISIS from most of Syria.

Bombach’s broad sweep takes us to refugee camps in Athens and Thessaloniki where Murad chats with Luis Moreno Campo, first prosecutor for the International Criminal Court.  We find that the refugees will likely be split up among countries willing to accept them just as some of the Lost Boys of Sudan were relocated to the U.S. The bad news is that the spreading out of the Yazidis among several countries could spell the end of the community whose half million followers will no longer be able continue the cultural traditions allowed in a single state.

Bombach edits carefully, merging several meetings and speeches of her brave and dignified subject, asking us in the movie audience to hear the same morbid story over and over—undoubtedly more wearying for Ms. Murad than for the target audience of progressives who will catch the documentary when it opens Oct. 19.  Traditional entertainment value embodying animation and special effects are absent, likely affecting word-of-mouth of the initial film audiences and discouraging those whose political literacy nonetheless requires flashes of melodrama.  We hope that more docs of this nature are in the works, particularly now when the Rohingya people are regularly persecuted by Myanmar’s military.

It’s the old story: during times of extreme nationalism, majorities in countries often consider smaller groups to be “the other.”  Yazidis in Iraq; Jews, Romani and Jehovah’s Witnesses in Nazi Germany, Armenians in Turkey in 1915, Muslims in 15th Century Spain.

94 minutes.  © 2018 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – A-
Acting – B
Technical – B+
Overall – B+



USC Shoah Foundation
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director: Vanessa Roth
Cast: Xia Shuqin, Chris Magee, Xia Yuan, Li Yuhan
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 4/8/18
Opens: April 27, 2018

The Girl and The Picture Poster

As right-wing, authoritarian parties are gaining influence in the West—think Hungary, Greece, France, Germany, Russia, and (gulp) the U.S.– we would do well to remember the consequences of extreme nationalism wherever it exists. Among the best examples is that of Japan during the 1930s and 1940s. Known as a highly civilized country where talking in a loud voice was considered virtually a crime, Japan fell prey to Fascist politics, which led the country—even before its attack on Pearl Harbor—to invade China, provoking atrocities especially in Nanjing where up to 300,000 civilians were tortured, raped and murdered. Faced with unusual resistance beginning in Shanghai, Japanese soldiers turned barbaric, ignoring the rules of war by focusing on ordinary people, though some Japanese went over the line under the influence of Crystal Meth, resulting in the exclusion of civilized norms of morality.

We in the U.S. have been apprised of the Holocaust in Germany by an onslaught of films. Even high-school classes sometimes devote an entire term to the murder of six million Jews. But the Holocaust by Japan is given twenty minutes of so in a world history class (I can testify to this as a retired history teacher). But China has a constructed an elaborate memorial to the victims in Nanjing, all civilians, with some memorial constructs similar to those found in today in Berlin and especially by a block-long museum in the city where the devastation took place.

To remind us once again of the dangers of fascism, Xia Shuqin, an eighty-eight year old survivor who was able to hide until the soldiers went away, is questioned by her granddaughter with the great-grandson in attendance. Among her dramatic testimony is her recollection as one of the only two survivors of the massacre. The Japanese killed her father immediately when he opened the door, then her one-year-old sister, her mother, grandparents and two sisters. Xia shows three scars on her back as she was bayoneted by the soldiers.

Xia reveals with still pictures the horrors of bodies everywhere, but most important we in the audience see archival films, now faded, of the weeks beginning with Japan’s invasion of Shanghai in September 1937, then on to Nanjing, where the Japanese acted with barbarity that might have shocked some Nazis. Chris Magee demonstrates the camera used by his missionary grandfather to create a moving image of the slaughter. Had he been caught filming by the Japanese, he would not have died in bed.

Nanjing today is a completely modern city, as renovated after the war as was Rotterdam after the German bombings. It appears so clean and friendly that it should a tourist destination for visitors who cannot tolerate the pollution in Beijing and Shanghai.

This film is as much about Xia Shuquin as a record of the slaughter. She is intent just as Holocaust survivors today in the U.S. to ensure knowledge of fascism in the hope that similar tragedies will never occur again. Tell that to Bashar al-Assad in Syria. Tell that to the Russians who are propping up the worst dictator in our time.

The film is a project of the USC Shoah Foundation founded by Steven Spielberg to record eyewitness accounts of genocides, whether they be in Nanjing or Europe or wherever. Festival dates TBD.

Unrated. 40 minutes. © 2018 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – B
Acting – B+
Technical – B+
Overall – B+

THE PROMISE – movie review


Open Road Films
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten, CompuServe Film d-based on Rotten Tomatoes
Grade: B
Director:  Terry George
Written by: Terry George, Robin Swicord
Cast: Oscar Isaac, Charlotte Le Bon, Christian Bale, Daniel Giménez-Cacho, Shohreh Aghdashloo
Screened at: Review 1, NYC, 4/13/17
Opens: April 21, 2017
The Promise Movie Poster
If you go to Berlin, you will note some sights that would seem unbelievable.  Near the city center, an entire large square block is taken up with a Holocaust memorial, 2711 slabs of concrete arranged in a grid pattern as a memorial to the Jews who were killed on Nazi orders during World War II.  Germany has gone overboard with contrition, delving into the country’s budget to make financial reparations for the murder of six million Jews.  Students from elementary school through secondary institutions are required to make trips to the Holocaust museum in Berlin, and I noted during my visit that the young people visiting the site seem as apologetic as though they were in the war themselves.

By stark contrast, the government of Turkey to this day refuses to admit its own guilt in the genocide of Armenians living within the borders of the Ottoman Empire.  As though it were not sufficient for the Turks to send armies to battle in World War I beginning in 1914, they used the opportunity to murder their own people, just as Syria is doing now in the sixth year of Syria’s civil war.  But the Armenians were not rebelling.  They lived side by side with ethnic Turks, marrying across religious and ethnic lines.  However, as a general rule, when things get bad, when an alarming crisis is on hand such as Turkey’s entry into the war, minorities sometimes get swept up by a suppressed rage now let open.  The excuse Turkey gave for its campaign against Armenians is that a contingent had joined with the Russian enemy; they could no longer trust their loyalty to the Ottomans.

As a result, the genocide was implemented in two phases: the wholesale killing of the able-bodied Armenian male population through massacre and subjection of draftees to forced labor; the deportation of women, children and the elderly and sick on death marches leading to the Syrian desert.

Director Terry George, whose powerful “Hotel Rwanda” covers the massacre of Tutsis by Hutus, is well equipped to hone in on the Armenian genocide. We do not learn why the Turks turned on this minority group, perhaps because “The Promise” is a Hollywood movie as concerned with a triangular romance as it is with the brutality of the Turks, therefore spending a considerable part of its overlong 132 minutes on the romantic attachments of Ana (Charltote Le Bon), an Armenian raised in Paris, with two gents.  They are Christopher Myers (Christian Bale), an American journalist with Associated Press, and Mikael Boghosian (Oscar Isaac), an Armenian medical student.

Oscar Isaac’s role is key as Mikael, an apothecary who leaves his small Ottoman village for Constantinople to study medicine, after promising to wed Maral (Angela Srafyan).  Like some med students in America who depend on their wives or girlfriends for tuition, he uses Maral’s dowry of four hundred gold coins for tuition.  Maral would be naïve to think that nobody in the Turkish capital would turn her boyfriend’s head: Ana, a dance instructor, has her own eye on the journalist, a man of noble character reporting on the genocide and noting that without reporters like him, the Armenian people would completely disappear.

After Turkish divisions break windows of Armenian-owned shops in Constantinople (think of Germany’s Kristallnacht a quarter-century later), Mikael and Ana wind up in bed together.  Yet back home in the village, Mikael’s mother (Shohreh Aghdashloo) demands that her son make good on his promise to marry the small-town gal.

When photographer Gabriel Yared uses wide-screen lensing to show the pained expressions on Chris’s face when he sees his sweetheart together with Mikael, he gives ample time to the actual fighting; to the half naked Armenian men who are on a detail of heavy work leading some to die, and to the happy moment that the Armenians resist strongly, based on a true event in the mountainous Mosa Dagh where the Turks were held back for 53 days.

Oscar Isaac carries the film on his shoulders, an admirable job as a charismatic fighter and lover and also brilliant medical student who near the beginning of the story deftly extracts an organ from a corpse.  Yet another bold move features the American ambassador to Constantinople telling the pasha that the journalist, in jail for releasing genocide material to AP, must not be executed but instead must be freed.

During the same year that “The Promise” is released, “The Ottoman Lieutenant” has followed a similar trajectory: the love story between an idealistic American nurse and a Turkish officer in World War I.  Presumably a new interest in The Great War is on the march, though the first world war will probably always take a back seat in Hollywood to the second.  “The Promise,” for its saccharine romance and pounding music on the soundtrack is a respectable treatment of an action by the Turks that killed between one million and one and on-half million Armenians.  Again: the temptation in some countries to use a critical time such as war or depression to eliminate a minority may unfortunately be with off for a long time.

Rated PG-13.  134 minutes.  © Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online
Comments, readers?  Agree? Disagree? Why?