Friday, June 22, 2007

An Interview with Carla Garapedian

Documenting Truth: An Interview with Carla Garapedian
By Khatchig Mouradian
The Armenian Weekly
December 2, 2006

The LA Times has described film director Carla Garapedian's work as
"documenting truth in dangerous places." After documenting truth in
different parts of the world, Garapedian has returned to her roots, and
explores the continued denial of the Armenian Genocide by Turkey and its
allies in "Screamers," a documentary that will premiere in Los Angeles on
Dec. 8.

"Screamers" tells of how the world's major powers continually turned away
when genocide was being committed, whether in the Ottoman Empire, Rwanda or
Darfur. Multiple platinum selling rock band System of a Down partners with
Garapedian and producer Peter McAlevey to send a powerful message through
the band's music and activism. Also featured in the documentary are Pulitzer
Prize winning scholar Samantha Power, FBI whistleblower Sibel Edmonds, and
Genocide survivors.

Garapedian earned her Ph.D. in international relations from the London
School of Economics. After working as a correspondent for NBC, she served as
a director and anchor at the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC). Her
documentaries include "Lifting the Veil," "Children of the Secret State,"
"Iran Undercover," and "My Friend the Mercenary."

I talked to her by phone from Watertown, Mass., on Wednesday, Nov. 29.

A.W.-You have filmed various documentaries on crimes against humanity and
human rights abuses in Chechnya, North Korea, Iran and Afghanistan. Your
most recent documentary "Screamers" tackles the issue of the Armenian
Genocide. For the first time, it seems, you travel to the past, and explore
how the destruction of the Armenians in 1915 remains a pressing issue today.
Tell us about this journey.

C.G.-Yes it's certainly the first time that I tackled a historical subject.
In fact, I really did not want to do it to begin with because there had been
some very good documentaries made about the Armenian Genocide and I didn't
know how I was going to add any value. In fact, I worked on a couple of such
documentaries by the acclaimed filmmaker Michael Hagopian ["Voices from the
lake" and "Germany and the Secret Genocide"].

When I talked to [System of a Down lead vocalist] Serj Tankian initially, he
said that what interests him is the politics of denial and doing a
documentary that would intersect with the band's work. Eventually, we made a
political film, and that was something I was more familiar with. In turn,
the BBC was interested in how something that happened in history had become
current politics. There was interest in Turkey's bid to join the EU, and in
that context, the issue of the Armenian Genocide was being raised in
Turkey-by the likes of novelist Orhan Pamuk-and in Europe. Also, System of a
Down (SOAD) was an interesting phenomenon for the BBC because the band had a
worldwide following and young people were becoming aware about the Armenian
Genocide through the band. There was also the fact that the issue of the
Genocide was still being debated in the U.S. and there was this scandal
surrounding [former Speaker of the House] Dennis Hastert [over his refusal
to bring the Genocide Resolution to the floor]. For all these reasons, the
BBC gave me the initial green light to make the film and I was lucky to have

A.W.-Most of your previous work also deals with crimes against humanity and
human rights violations. Was your Armenian background a catalyst for that?

C.G.-My family was always involved in community events as I was growing up
here in LA. They had a very strong sense of being Armenians in America. So I
grew up with the feeling that our genocide was not being recognized and it
motivated me to look at other peoples' suffering-war crimes in Chechnya that
were not recognized as war crimes, for instance. I also did a film about
North Korea ["Children of the Secret State"] in a time when America was
trying to contain North Korea's nuclear issue and not talk about the human
rights violations there. As an Armenian, these issues resonated with me;
these people were victims and their voices were not being heard. Looking
back, I have been motivated by a sense of injustice and it made me want to
help other people get their story out.

A.W.-Talk about how you chose the title of your new documentary.

C.G.-Samantha Power uses the term "screamers" in her Pulitzer Prize winning
book [A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide] when referring
to people who speak up when genocide is taking place. In turn, Serj told me
that when the band first started, major label people approached him and
said, "You guys are really talented, but if you keep screaming and growling
the way you do, you probably won't get signed by a major label." Serj
thanked them for their advice and kept doing what they were doing. Later on,
when I was interviewing him, Serj told me that in politics, too, we should
all be screamers. That's how the title of the film came about.

A.W.-When I talk to genocide scholars, I often ask them whether we really
ever mean it when we say "Never Again." What do you think?

C.G.-We don't mean "Never Again." What I try to do is identify that
hypocrisy because by identifying it we can then move on to say, "OK, so we
don't mean it, and how does that reflect on us and what we want to achieve
in our foreign policy?" Maybe our policy is always non-intervention, maybe
it is always about how we perceive our national security interests. And in
genocide, what happens is that leaders think intervention is not worth it. I
think that part of the answer is how you define what your national interests
are. I think our national interest should be stopping genocide in the world.
Let's just say that you do not define intervention by morality or the right
thing to do, but by national security. I think it is in our national
security to stop genocide wherever it's happening, because it creates
pockets of hate, violence and vengeance, and that backfires. How can we live
peacefully in this world while we allow the most awful thing civilization
has ever known to occur?

I truly believe that genocide is an idea, a belief. And we can change
beliefs. It is like slavery. In the past, we believed that slavery was
perfectly all right and now we know better. We used to believe that it was
OK to make children work in mines and we don't believe that anymore. If
there are enough people who are indignant and morally outraged about
genocide, they will do something about it, too.

People do get involved when awareness is created. When the tsunami happened
in Indonesia, people here in America donated millions of dollars to help the
victims, sometimes without even knowing where that place was. They thought,
"That could happen to me. I could be sitting in my home and suddenly this
tidal wave comes and takes my whole family away."

A.W.-Television and the media had a role in that, in the sense that people
thought "These are real people just like us" and the same is true in the
case of genocide.

C.G.-Of course, in the case of the Armenian Genocide, there were many
missionaries and diplomats from different countries of the world, which is
why it was very well documented. What makes it hard to tell the story is
that we have the still pictures, but not the moving pictures. I do think
people would feel differently if we had the kind of pictures that we have
for the Holocaust. Yes, television is critical. A friend of mine, a
photographer who was in Sudan, was telling me how difficult it is to get to
places where the atrocities are taking place, and that when you get to the
burnt villages, the atrocities have already happened, so you see the
aftermath but you don't see it when it's happening. But still the images are
powerful enough to move people.

A.W.-Let's talk about the experience of working with SOAD.

C.G.-When I first saw them perform-jumping around and screaming-I was a
little intimidated. When I first heard their music I thought, "Oh my God,
how am I going to work with them?" I was turning the volume down when they
screamed. And when I heard Serj sing the beautiful melodic parts of the
songs, I would then turn the volume up again-there's an Armenian sound in
their music here. The more I listened to it the more I thought, "I can do
something with this." Now I listen to their music and I don't know what was
I thinking at first. I didn't understand it back then. The more I listened,
the more I got used to it.

So at first I was intimidated. Then I was worried about what happens when
one is around a rock group. Am I going to be able to take all these fans,
all these groupies? But they [SOAD] are nice Armenian boys, and I'm a nice
Armenian girl [laughs], so they knew that they had to treat me like a
relative. They tried to be very helpful to me and they knew that I was a
little bit intimidated by the experience of being around them so they tried
to "protect" me.

They are very nice people, and humble, and they haven't been spoiled by
success at all. The thing that surprised me about them most was that they
are pure musicians. They are not into the publicity or selling the music.
They are very much into the music, and try to be the best musicians they
can, and that surprised me. I used to think that rock musicians were these
kind of crazy, drugged out guys who don't care and go on stage and pluck a
few notes on the guitar and wonder off. These guys are not like that at all.
They are serious musicians. They put everything into their concert and they
totally exhaust themselves. So I was impressed by that. Working with them
was a very positive experience and I feel changed by it. I will never again
be judgmental about rock bands and musicians. I'm not saying they're all
like that but I realized I was being judgmental.

I was also being judgmental about the young generation. I thought they only
cared about material things-their clothes, getting the most expensive tennis
shoes, and whether they are going to get the best jobs. The fans I met were
just the opposite. They do care about what is happening in the world, and
they do want to make a difference.

Now, I even understand some of the head banging. It's kind of a tribal
thing. They get together and they have a sense of community and they also
feel like they are rebelling.

A.W.-What are your plans for the documentary?

C.G.-The first showing of the documentary will be on Dec. 8 in LA-home of
the band. Starting in January, the film will be shown in New York, Boston,
Chicago and Washington. We hope every Armenian shows up and brings a friend,
so that we have the core audience we need to send the message out. In recent
years, more people are going to the movie theatres to see documentaries, and
we are riding on that wave. Watching "Screamers" is also a sort of
entertainment. The people who watch it in the theatres will come out feeling
that they have been to a movie and not just a documentary that they may have
seen on TV. The reason we are having these theatrical screenings is to raise
political awareness. We wanted to do these screenings because the media will
cover it when it's in the theatres.

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