By Ross Bembenek
I feel like I’ve been in this situation before: I randomly picked a documentary out of the Heartland guidebook to see, and then felt MISERABLE walking out of the theater (see my 2015 review of the documentary Crocodile Gennadiy, later renamed Almost Holy). Now, let me clarify what I mean by miserable: the subject matter is so heavy, so severe and serious, that I just felt awful by the end of the film. However, I felt enlightened at the same time. I left that theater with a deeper knowledge and understanding of a topic that, due to reasons explained within the film, that I had had almost no knowledge of before the film. Sadly, I had never learned about the atrocities the Armenian people faced from the Turkish government in 1915, but Intent to Destroy has left me with one unchangeable fact: the genocide sanctioned and committed by the Turkish state must to be recognized by the world in order to begin the long stalled healing process of Armenia. Now I’m going to try to set politics aside and talk about the film itself.
Documentaries have two main goals: to entertain and to inform. Intent to Destroy accomplishes both of these goals with absolute perfection. With every reveal of new information and with each survivors’ story, I kept creeping closer and closer to the edge of my seat. The documentary is placed side-by-side with behind-the-scenes footage from the 2016 film The Promise (dir. Terry George), which is about a fictional romance set against the backdrop of the genocide. The documentary takes us through the 3 D’s of the situation: Death, Denial, and Depiction. We’re shown why and how the genocide was committed. We’re given unflinching accounts of the genocide in the form of archive footage of interviews with survivors. One story stood out to me: a young boy was thrown into a pile of other children as Turkish soldiers stabbed at the pile with their swords and bayonets. The child only survived because he was near the bottom of the pile.
It takes a lot to make me emotional during a film, but I felt myself welling up in the theater seeing these survivors relive some of the most horrific and traumatic things that could happen to them. The film transitions to its second act by detailing the extreme efforts the Turkish government has taken over the past century to silence anybody who tries to bring up the subject, turning it into a taboo. Entire film productions were shut down, and even U.S. presidents are hesitant to talk about it. I can’t help but admire how this documentary discusses its difficult and taboo subject in such an unflinching manner.
Even when you set aside the subject matter, this documentary is perfectly put together from a technical standpoint. The b-roll, the photographs, and the cinematography all help to portray the singular message of the film. And the filmmakers are not shy in their portrayal of the genocide. The footage and the photographs are graphic and extremely difficult to stomach. The interviews with survivors are absolutely heartbreaking. Director Joe Berlinger has a story to tell and surely tells it, pleasantness and easiness be damned.
I’m sitting here writing this review at about 12:30 a.m. I saw the film roughly 14 hours ago, at 10:00 this morning, and I still can’t get the images or the subject matter out of my head. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a documentary that had me still thinking about it constantly almost 24 hours later. This film made me uncomfortable, mad, and miserable., but that’s what makes it great. It’s easy to sit through a puff piece biographical documentary that makes us feel good, but those often don’t bring up important issues. They don’t highlight what’s wrong with the world, and they don’t show us how we can fix it. On the contrary, Intent to Destroy does do these things. It sheds new light on a subject that I had little to no knowledge about beforehand, and most importantly it caused an emotional reaction within me that has been impossible to shake. That is the mark of a truly great film.
The goal of documentaries about subjects such as these is to take the viewer out of their comfort zone, to make them feel so uncomfortable that they have a true desire to help, which is what Intent to Destroy did for me. This is a truly beautiful, horrifying, masterful work of cinema that I am grateful that I had the opportunity to see.