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Film on Armenian genocide stirs up controversy and a clash in online ratings

Repercussions from the Armenian genocide have been felt for more than 100 years, but with the release of a new historical drama, the conflict has taken an unexpected direction — into the world of online film ratings.

The Promise, starring Christian Bale and Oscar Isaac, retells the story of the 1915 genocide, which has been rejected and fiercely disputed by the government of Turkey.

Shortly after the film’s world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) last September, the film got a flood of scathing one-star ratings on the Internet Movie Database (IMDb), even though it didn’t have its official release until last Friday.

More than 139,000 reviews have been made since, most either giving it a single star or 10.

Terry George, the film’s director, told reporters at a press conference last week that he thought the poor ratings had been orchestrated by those who don’t agree with the use of the term genocide or deny it happened at all. An estimated 1.5 million Armenians were killed during the First World War, rounded up and executed by Ottoman authorities.

“It can’t have been 50,000 individuals decided after we had two screenings in Toronto to give us one out of 10. It seems like a miraculously spontaneous thing to happen, so I definitely think that was a bot or series of bots to give us that vote,” he said.

All this sparked an equal and opposite reaction — by the Armenian camp — urging people to see the film.

That’s not to say this wasn’t expected.

When the film played at TIFF, George told CBC News he predicted the Turkish community’s reaction “won’t be good.” Entertainment One, which is handling distribution of the film, said it wouldn’t comment and didn’t “have much information” about the negative campaign.

‘You can’t downplay it’

It’s all familiar territory for Canadian-Armenian filmmaker Atom Egoyan, who in 2002 put out Ararat, a different film about the genocide.

He said the “campaign to vilify” The Promise has had a spillover effect on Ararat‘s IMDb page, with a wave of new one-star and 10-star ratings. That can be troublesome, as Egoyan believes a film’s ratings do count.

Atom Egoyan on the ‘campaign to vilify’ The Promise0:54

“Especially for people who are not familiar with the subject matter … you’re going to look for the rating,” he said. “You can’t downplay it. It probably does have an effect.”

Egoyan has faced his share of haters. He said there’s not much that can be done in terms of the poor reviews they leave.

“You just have to have a really thick skin. You just have to realize that the good thing about films is that they have a long life,” he said. “You hope that at a certain point the dust settles down and then people actually see the movie.”

‘The history … speaks for itself’: The Promise1:31

The Promise hasn’t fared very well so far, only pulling in about $ 4.1 million in North America this past opening weekend. It cost an estimated $ 90 million to make, funded by the late Armenian billionaire Kirk Kerkorian. Any proceeds the film makes will be given to non-profit organizations.

The film’s release follows that of The Ottoman Lieutenant, a largely Turkish-funded production starring Ben Kingsley, which glosses over the genocide.

But that too didn’t fare very well at the box office, pulling in less than $ 150,000 in its limited-run opening weekend.

CBC | Arts News