Interview with Carla Garapedian (Director and Producer of “Screamers”) By Bianca Bagatourian
Carla Garapedian is the Director and Producer of “Screamers” featuring System of a Down, which was on theatrical release in the U.S. and Canada in 2007 and just released on DVD by SONY BMG. Before making “Screamers” Carla directed a number of documentaries for British television on wide-ranging human rights subjects – from women in Afghanistan (Lifting the Veil), to children in North Korea (Children of the Secret State), to war crimes in Chechnya (Dying for the President). Just before Screamers she produced two films – the student movement in Iran (Iran Undercover) and an inside expose about a coup in Equatorial Guinea, involving Mark Thatcher (My Friend the Mercenary). In the last year, she has been touring the world with “Screamers” and sat down with Bianca Bagatourian to catch up.
BIANCA:– You presented Screamers in Armenia last year. What kind of reception did it receive?
CARLA: –The film was commercially released in Yerevan at the Moskva Kino theater. We got a lot of press for it, partly because the band is very well known there – Serj Tankian had visited the year before and was received like the rock star he is – with people tracking him everywhere he went! So when we opened the movie there was a certain level of excitement which you don’t usually find with a genocide documentary. The idea of showing different genocides in the same film was new to many of the people who saw the film. Also, putting our issue – the Armenian Genocide -- as a human rights issue – that was a new thing as well. So I think the film was eye-opening for people there … it also showed Turkish denial in all its many forms – and I think that was a surprise to Armenians in Yerevan, too. They know about it, of course, but seeing it, in action, is another thing altogether. This made it real to them.
BIANCA:– You showed the film on Capitol Hill, what was that like?
CARLA: –We’ve had three screenings in Congress … the biggest one was not long after the film’s premiere, in January 2007. The Congressmen who appeared in the film came to the screening, along with staffers, think-tank experts, members of the Armenian community, members of the Azeri community, and different lobby groups and representatives from the MPAA, the Motion Picture Association. It was a very charged atmosphere – with people standing in the aisles.
One woman representing a Turkish American group asked afterwards why we only emphasized the ‘dark side’ of Ottoman history; and didn’t I know that thousands of Armenians live and work in Turkey now – peacefully, she implied. Two days later, Hrant Dink was murdered. There was an Armenian living and working in Turkey who was murdered outside his work-place.
And while I know this lady had no idea that would happen, it was a real irony. As for the Congressmen – to be sitting through all that heavy metal music … you have to applaud System of a Down for keeping them glued to their seats! The bottom line is, our politicians know the power of popular culture – and for genocide denial and genocide recognition to be a subject in the movie theaters … well, I think they knew it was essential for them to be a part of that experience.
BIANCA:–Where did you first come up with the idea for this?
CARLA: – I was invited to sit outside one of System’s concerts in 2004 at the Greek theater, handing out pamphlets for the Armenian Film Foundation, headed by the filmmaker J.Michael Hagopian. The band was showing excerpts of one of Michael’s films before their commemorative Souls Concert that year. I met fans from all over the L.A. area, of all different nationalities, ethnicities and economic groups – the band has a very far-reaching influence. And guess what? Those fans already knew about the Armenian genocide from the band – from the band’s lyrics, and their advocacy. I was already thinking about making a film about the New York Life Insurance case – which my uncle Martin Marootian was the chief plaintiff for. A colleague suggested I try to reach System of a Down about making a documentary. When I finally met Serj Tankian, he wanted the film to be broader, about all genocides. And the BBC, who got involved, thought that was an interesting idea – especially to include Samantha Power and her new book, A Problem from Hell, which had just won a Pulitzer Prize. So a lot of things came together to spur the project on.
BIANCA:–It must have been a lot fun working with System of a Down, do you want to elaborate on that a bit?
CARLA: –They are an extremely talented group of musicians – so just being around them is inspiring. They are also humble, friendly guys – which helped me a lot, because, to be frank, I was a little intimidated by them at first. That heavy metal environment is scary enough – until you get close to it and see it is really about people who are into the music! Although there are great challenges in filming live concert performances – especially with the crowds that come to System’s concerts – there is a basic element of excitement that surrounds every performance. Just being around that is inspiring. Every concert is electric, something I had never really experienced. So while it was really hard work, that exposure to the sheer charisma and electricity of System of a Down was the most positive experience I had making the film. That – and meeting their fans!
BIANCA:–Was it difficult making the film and being immersed in the subject of Genocide day after day?
CARLA: – Absolutely. The film researchers working with me were also affected by the footage they were seeing. There was much worse material that we chose not to include in the film – but of course, we had to see it first! It is important, I believe, to measure one’s response to these traumatic pictures and use that reaction as a kind of barometer. So I knew if I was upset by seeing something, probably the audience would be as well – hardened as I am to seeing these things. The challenge is not to overwhelm the viewer with too much. Last night we showed the film at UCLA, and one older lady told me, “You know, I didn’t think I was going to like that music, but I started to look forward to it just to escape from those awful pictures!” How’s that for enlisting a new heavy metal fan? Seriously, though, sometimes the horror of what I was seeing got me down so much, that I felt defeated. Especially, the footage from Rwanda – that is really awful, because it is in color and the people have just been murdered – so you feel you are really there, fully exposed to the horror of the act. When I got down, all I needed to do was to remember that showing this footage is a sign of respect for the dead. To not recognize what happened to them is to deny them the basic dignity they deserve. Genocide is about the murder of individuals. Sometimes this point is forgotten – it is as if genocide is some kind of disease or natural disaster which people have no control over. We know that is not true – and seeing the bodies is the proof. Sometimes when I am sitting in the movie theater, seeing the film, I say a silent prayer when I see those bodies, as if, again, it is the right thing to do to mark their deaths.
BIANCA:–Do you feel you achieved everything you had set out to achieve from the beginning with this film?
CARLA: –If we had achieved the passage of the Genocide Resolution in Congress, I could say “yes!” Until that happens, though, I will feel it is the one missing step. We have, though, pointed out the hypocrisy of western foreign policy to large numbers of people around the U.S., Canada, Europe and Latin America. Many more people know about the Armenian Genocide, and Turkey’s continued denial of it, than before because of “Screamers” – and with the DVD release, that number will only grow. So it is like a stone thrown into a pond … with the ripples continuing to fan out. Only recently we heard that the Israeli Knesset was considering recognition of the Armenian genocide. I have worked very hard in the last year to reach out to different groups who have been the victims of genocide. A number of Jewish organizations have supported Screamers and recognized the Armenian Genocide. That is a very positive development. Also, we have shown the film in the British Parliament and the European Parliament – who have the power to influence Turkey at a crucial moment, with Turkey’s proposed membership into the EU. So appeasing genocide denial – that is something that “Screamers” exposed, making it more difficult for politicians to pander to us, as they have done before.
Also the DVD has an educational track on it, so that the film can be shown in schools for genocide education – that is a very important aspect of the DVD release. We just had screenings for the Homenetmen scouts – northern and southern region. Screamers was shown to discuss the whole issue of genocide recognition – it was really encouraging to hear the questions at the end of the film – our young people are smart. They just need the information to spur them on. Around the country, universitiy students are showing Screamers before April 24th – again to take the message out onto the college campuses. That’s important, too. That’s where the real Screamers are.
BIANCA: –I noticed Samantha Powers, who has recently been in the news, is featured heavily in your film. What was working with her like?
CARLA: –She is a very articulate proponent of her thesis – that genocides repeat because we allow them to. In many ways, she has been an inspiration to a new generation of policy-makers. I would recommend her book, “A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide” to anyone who is interested not only in what’s going on now, but what has led up to it. We did our master interview on the Harvard commons sitting on a park bench – with the boats on the river in the background, and bicycles going by – it was a very pleasant afternoon. An unpleasant subject, but beautiful surroundings! I will always remember that day.
BIANCA:–What are the recent projects you have been working on? What are your plans for the future?
Where do you spend a lot of your time these days? Which other film projects have you done in the past few years? Do you direct?
CARLA: – I have a couple of projects I am developing now – however, with Screamers now just out on DVD, I am still on the road – with screenings in Amsterdam and Berlin coming up soon. So I am one step forward with the new projects, and one step back with Screamers – but in a good way!
Before Screamers, I had just finished a documentary about mercenaries in South Africa and Zimbabwe. And before that, I was working in a number of foreign countries on human rights subjects. Most of this work was undercover. It would be difficult for me now to go back to doing that same kind of work. So it is a new time for me, to spread my wings and carve a new path.
BIANCA: – Do you still work with the BBC?
CARLA: –I have always been an independent contractor – I’d like to say that’s because I relish the freedom to choose my own projects. That’s certainly true -- I do. But to be honest, I think it is also because I have never really fit in anywhere – I am too British to be an American journalist, and too American to be a truly British journalist. The British hear my American accent and the Americans sniff out my British reserve. As one member of the band told me, “So you are an outsider wherever you are, right?” Right! I think being a rebel – an uneasy fit – isn’t such a bad recommendation for a film director. We have to be a little strange to see our visions through. It also means, though, that I need a very supportive group of family and friends – which, thankfully, I have.
BIANCA: –Do you plan to move back to Europe?
CARLA: –Well, as you know, Bianca, my flat in London is beckoning me to return! It’s in such a lovely peaceful oasis. I am always floating between the U.S. and Europe, as needed. There is something about being a Londoner that is very grounding … you really do feel connected to the world there. Then again, being here in L.A. I feel more connected to the Armenian community, because this is where I grew up. So I guess this means I will probably be a permanent nomad.
BIANCA: – Where do you get your inspiration?
CARLA:– My great, great uncle was the writer Raffi Melik Hagopian … he was a visionary … an intellectual and even a feminist of sorts, arguing for the equal rights of women. That’s one inspiration. My grandparents – on both sides – were also very strong inspirations in my life. On my dad’s side, my grandmother was a genocide survivor; on my mom’s side, her parents were survivors of the massacres in the 1890s. Later, when my grandmother remarried, I had a Swedish step-grandfather who also influenced me – he was one of the first people to work in the Ford Factory … he was very much a part of American history. And of course, my mother and father each instilled in me a strong sense of cultural pride and determination. My mother never lets me sit back and feel sorry for myself when the going gets tough. That has helped, particularly when the going got tough with “Screamers” – which, of course, it did. That’s the nature of the work. My dad, Leo Garapedian, was a Professor of Journalism and encouraged me to pursue my career in journalism, working abroad. I’m sorry he can’t be around to see the success of “Screamers” … but at least his friends and colleagues, including filmmaker J. Michael Hagopian have been around to see it … Michael has been a mentor and support, for which I am very grateful. His next genocide film, “Caravans Along the Euphrates” is a very moving account of what Armenians endured on the deportation routes. He has definitely been an inspiration to me.
Bianca Bagatourian is a playwright www.biancabagatourian.com and president and co-founder of the Armenian Dramatic Arts Alliance. www.armeniandrama.org