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PART I.: Art as a tool for Armenian Propaganda: The movie 'Ararat' as an example

Asst. Prof. Dr. Sedat LAÇİNER*
Art and Armenian Propaganda: Ararat as a Case Study

 !ä¿ÀP°="justify">“During my childhood I was desperate to assimilate. In Victoria, I wanted to be like the other kids.[1] They used to call me little Arab boy because I was a little darker, had a strange name and came from Egypt. It wasn’t until adolescence that I realized something had been lost in my life,”[2]

“This film (Ararat) is very destructive and harmful for Turkish – Armenian relations. This film should not be shown in Turkey. This style used in the film Ararat cannot be our style in writing or in film sector.”[3]
Hrant DINK
Editor of Armenian daily Agos, Istanbul.

‘It is in our blood to hate Turks. However, we hate Bulgarians and Greeks also. The Jews like Turks, but they hate Arabs. The Arabs, in their turn, are not in favor with the Turks. And the level of hatred is rising.’


The celebrated Armenian director Atom Egoyan, who is based in Canada, in his latest movie ‘Ararat’, has attracted great deal of attention even before he started filming. Before the movie was shown in theatres, it was used all through 2001 as a tool to bring up Armenian accusations and of course to criticize Turkey. Against this background, some groups in Turkey remarked that the movie had been ‘exaggerated’ too much. But, as maintained in this study, the movie apart from being a typical propaganda movie does also contain some racist connotations. The movie’s budget, of more than 50 million dollars, clearly demonstrates the extent of the campaign. Armenian radicals official contacts in France, Armenia and Canada made movie more important than previously thought. In this context, this study investigates Ararat as a case-study and its possible effects. It should be helpful to inform the reader that most of the comments made, were done using the final draft script of the movie though some parts of the study were revised after the showing the movie.

Art as a Tool of Propaganda in Foreign Policy

As the effects globalization increased, almost any issue has become a part of international relations. As relations become more intricate, it has become impossible to prevail with the classic tools (tanks, artillery and etc.). Today, states have to prove themselves, not only in economic and political spheres, but also in sports, literature and other artistic fields. Actually, the current situation is not new. This inclination is based in the 19th century dynamics. Hitler’s wish use the Olympics to demonstrate the superiority of the German race, the fact that the fiercest battles of the Cold War were fought on the sports fields show how important these are in international relations and as propaganda tools. With the coming of the second half of the 20th century, states have begun to reach their goals not only through the power of their armies but through their power to influence the global public opinion and their successes in portraying themselves as one of the main contributors to civilization. A perfect example is Cuba, which is tiny compared to the United States (U.S.) in economic terms but has been successfully defying the US with her achievements in sports and arts. Another proof is the amount of money that changes hands in Hollywood based the US movie industry and the US propaganda area, which is more than the GDP of Turkey.

The most popular tools used in generating propaganda can be listed as posters, movies, newspaper advertisements, newspaper articles, radio and TV programs and news bulletins, brochures, sports teams, tourism, cultural exhibitions and etc. Some states might even establish their own TV or radio stations in order to use them as a tool of propaganda.[5] The first objective of propaganda performed is to advertise the country’s achievements and to show how ‘modern’ and ‘civilized’ the subject country is. Successes in technology, science, and art can easily convey these messages. The most important cause for promoting a country’s modernity and culture is to legitimize the policies of the government. An unknown country or nation’s action might not be understood or even draw hostility. During the Cold War, this was the chief difficulty the Soviet Union faced: the US and its allies portrayed the Soviet block of nations behind an iron curtain, where decent human values were ignored. According to this propaganda, behind the iron curtain, everything is ‘dark’. On the other hand the US and its allies were the land of freedom. As it can be understood by this example, the first objective of propaganda is to communicate and then to promote the positive aspects of the group or country. Negative propaganda, which aims to denigrate a rival group or country, is less common. Because attack and accusation requires the need to demonstrate proof, the use of negative propaganda necessitates more credible tools to be utilized. The reason is not because literature or paintings convey a clearer message. Quite the contrary. Because these works are full of emotion, they usually convey a one sided messages. But it can be said that art, science and sports touch a wider audience and are more realistic. Their effects are more long-lasting. Most important of all, these works, even if they are a part of a large propaganda agenda, are not usually perceived that way. That’s why almost all countries try to increase their number of internationally renowned artists, scientists and sportsmen and use them for their national policies.

Even though propaganda activities are initiated using many tools and methods, they are fundamentally a product of a larger strategy. No matter how many messages it usually seems to convey, the number of messages is very few. These messages are expressed with prioritized symbols. Symbols should be easily understood, should be associated with the message but should not be ‘repulsive’ with respect to those who are actually directing the propaganda. If we give an example from the Cold War strategies, USA never voiced complex or detailed criticisms. ‘Iron Curtain’, ‘Land of Darkness’, ‘Evil Empire’ are the most popular expressions. The message that is being sent is both simple and can be understood by a wide portion of the society. ‘USSR is a country that destroys freedom, makes people poorer and is run by bad people.’ The messages sent from the Soviet side are also quite simple and substantive. For example, ‘USA is an capitalist and imperialist state.’ If we summarize, propaganda is based on simple messages and associated symbols and Armenian propaganda, as will be seen, is no different.[6]

Turkey as a Target for Propaganda

Similar examples can be observed in the propaganda activities against Turkey. Ever since the Seljuks, Turks have had a serious image problem in the Western World. Turks carry two important characteristics that the West perceives as danger:

‘Islam’ and ‘having originated from Central Asia’. Turks, for centuries, were considered an important rival in the West. Prejudices and inadequate communication have created a suitable environment in the Western countries for the negative propaganda against the Turks to be successful. This environment was professionally and systematically utilized and manipulated in the times of war and rivalry. The period of the break up of the Ottoman Empire is an obvious example. The propaganda machines of the great powers targeted Turkey and then the ethnic groups of the empire, in order to create their own states fought against Turkey or became tools of the other countries’ foreign policy. Armenian problem is an outcome these developments. It is a well-known fact that, in the last years of the Ottoman Empire, Russia, France and Great Britain courted the Armenian separatists. During the First World War, Great Britain, through the Propaganda Office, created against Germany and Ottoman Empire, concentrated on the Armenian problem. Britain used every tool available to her in order to manipulate the U.S. public, declaring that the Turks were murdering the Armenians. It will be remembered that a similar method was used by Hitler against the Jews and Allied Countries.[7]

The emigration of Armenians and Greeks to Europe and the U.S. and their emerge as an important pressure group has made it very difficult for Turkey to put her own message across. All through the 20th century, Turks have been the target of abuse, in the guise of art and literature, like ‘barbarian’, ‘wild’, ‘dirty’, ‘anti-civilization’ and etc. Some writers and artists were just following their historical prejudices, while others, coming from the increasing Armenian or Greek minority in these countries, were translating their personal and national hatreds. As a result, there is broad variety of so-called art, where anti-Turkish messages are conveyed. This fed the prejudices against the Turks in the west.

Turkey, especially after the Second World War, cooperated fully with the Western block yet, even her new friendships could not break her away from the negative bias directed at her. The movie ‘Midnight Express’ is a clear case in point. Every society should face up to the negative sides of it. Movies should be made about them. Turkey should not be an exception to this point and her past mistakes should be brought to surface. But when the Midnight Express is watched, it can be clearly seen that the movie does riot portray a reality but just aims to vilify a people. In the movie, there is not a single ‘good Turk’ and all the characters in the movie use disparaging expressions against Turks. In the court scene of the movie, the lead in the movie accuses the Turks of being corrupt as a race arid says, ‘I don’t understand why a race who is like a swine does not eat pigs’ sentence proves that the movie does not have good intentions. Even though it is accepted that its value as art is low, in some Western Countries it is broadcast two or three times a year (e.g. by ITV in the U.K.). If the effects of Midnight Express on U.K. are examined, important clues can be gathered. It has strengthened the prejudices that the British media hold against Turkey. The personal experiences of the writer of these sentences a day after the broadcasting of the movie demonstrates this fact:

“A British university student who watched the movie, asked me whether the things that were shown in the movie were true or not. I told him that the movie was full of prejudices. But the person was so affected by the movie that he was talking about Turkey like it was somewhere in space. One of the questions he asked was whether homosexuality was as wide spread as it was portrayed in the movie. I told him that homosexuality existed in every country and in Turkey it was less common then in the Western countries and added that such a scene shown in the movie would be abnormal in Turkey. He said, ‘but it’s not that common in Britain’. If we consider that UK is one of the most important centers of homosexuality, we can easily see how effective the movie has been.”

Furthermore it is considered normal, even by the Turkish media, that extreme leftist or separatist groups entering the field or opening banners when the Turkish sport teams go to Europe, anti-Turkish photograph and painting exhibitions opening in important capitals or Turkey being criticized at certain concerts.

If we summarize, some anti-Turkish political groups utilize artistic and sports activities in an active and coordinated way. It is hard to say that Turkey is responding effectively to these activities. It was said that Turkey is unable to prevent such activities, but if we look closer, a more grave state of affairs can be seen. Turkey reacts on a case-by-case basis, panics every time and delivers short-term, exaggerated and ineffective responses. This causes the problem to be more insolvable and Turkey’s reactionary responses feed this propaganda machine, without a significant retort from Turkey.

Purpose, References and Plan

After this brief introduction, we can say that the latest example of the anti-Turkish propaganda is the movie of ‘Ararat’ by Armenian director Atom Egoyan, which became known in 2001 and developed into a serious issue in 2002. Due to the discussions it generated even before the start of shooting, it became obvious that Ararat would cause even more problems than Midnight Express film for Turkey. In this context, this purpose of the paper is to evaluate Ararat and its possible affects on Turkey. It is not the purpose of this study to condemn this movie on the basis of political criteria. The author seems to distance himself from any political disagreements and adds that Ararat was done especially with this type of disagreements in mind. The main purpose of this study is to find out whether Ararat is a product of a large and long-term propaganda campaign or not. At the same time the director’s earlier work, personality and political opinions will be assessed and the background of the movie will be constructed.

The main sources for this study were publications of Armenians from the USA and Europe (Asbarez, Armenian Reporter, Armenian forum, Groong, etc.). Some Armenia originated publications were also used. In a study like this, the most important resource is the script of Ararat. Comments about the movie are based on the final draft of the script, dated 2001 and the film itself. For the reactions that the movie generated in both Turkey and the World, we used newspapers from the Turkish (Hürriyet, Sabah, Star, Yeni ?afak, Ak?am, Zaman and etc.), Canadian (The Toronto Times, Toronto Sun, National Post, Daily News and etc.), the U.S. (New York Times and etc.) and British (The Independent, The Guardian and etc.) media. In the analysis of the movie and Egoyan’s earlier work, the most useful were the cinema critics’ magazines (Holywood Reporter, Filmforce, Filmmaker, Beyaz Perde and etc.).

The structure of the study is as follows. The first section is about the general Armenian movie sector and its role in the Armenian propaganda network. In this section it is argued that in the core of the Armenian problem lie, not the emigration or their experiences during the Ottoman period, but the Armenian nation’s self examination in the diaspora and their attempts at overcoming this by using their experiences during their emigration. According to the author, this structure, which was supported by some groups and organizations (church, political parties and etc.), overtime, transformed itself into this propaganda system. Especially since the second half of the 20th century art has been utilized as a political tool. This section concentrates on cinema’ role in this mechanism. Due to the effects and the importance of Armenian propaganda - cinema relationship, this section gives details about various organizations arid movies.

Second chapter introduces Ararat’s director Atom Egoyan’s works and his artistic and personal evolution until Ararat. His environment, connections and the reasons behind the making of the movie are analyzed in this section.

Third chapter concentrates on the film Ararat. The planning process, financial supporters, Armenian lobbies, connections with Armenia and other countries, its technical specifications, story and probable successes are analyzed. Also in this section, the interest the movie generated from the Western media and art critics are included. The main theme of this section is a detailed examination of the movie’s script.

The forth chapter includes Turkey reaction towards Ararat. Media, non-Governmental organizations, and the government’s reaction towards the movie is examined and contradictory ideas are discussed.

Finally in the fifth chapter, the topics discussed in the previous sections are summarized.

[1] Stressed by the author (s.l.).
[2] Hrag Vartanian, ‘The Armenian Stars of the Canadian Cultural Universe’, Feature Articles on Canada,
[3] “Ararat Ortal??? Kar??t?rd?”, Hürriyet,21 May?s 2002.
[4] Golos Armenii, 5 August 1997.
[5] Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty managed by CIA for some time are typical examples. In addition The Voice of America radio is broadcasting 1000 hours a week in 42 languages: within “The Media of Foreign Information and propaganda Programs” K. J. Holsti, International Politics, A framework for Analysis, (New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inb., 1992), p.168-175.
[6] For propaganda and Foreign Policy, see: Marian Leighton, Soviet Propaganda As A Foreign Policy Tool, (University Press of America, 1991); Leo Bogart, Premises for Propaganda, (New York: Free Press, 1976); N. Biryukov, ‘Broad¬casting and Diplomacy’, International Affairs (Moscow), Vol. 10, 1964, p.63-68; Tapio Varis, ‘The International Flow of Television Programs’, Journal Communication, Vol. 34, No. 1, 1984, pp. 143-152; Danielle S. Sremac, War of Words: Washington Tackles Yugoslav Conflict, (Westport, CT.: Praeger Publishers, 1999); Clive Ross, The Soviet Propaganda Network, (London: Pinter, 1998); Anthony Smiths, The Geopolitics Of Information: flow Wes¬tern Culture Dominates The World, (London: Faber & Faber, 1980).
[7] For British propaganda efforts, see: Justin McCarthy, ‘Birinci Dünya Sava??’nda ?ngiliz Propagandas? ve Bryce Raporu’ (British Propaganda In The First World War And The Bryce Report), Türkiye Günlü?ü, Ermeni Sorunu Özel Say?s? (Turkish Diary, Armenian Problem Special Edition), Vol. 1, January-February 2001, No:37, pp. 474-483; George C. Bruntz, Allied Propaganda and the Collapse of the German Empire, (Stanford, 1938), Hasan Köni, ‘The Research of Arnold Toynbee on Turks and the Birth of the Armenian Propaganda’, Ermeni Ara?t?rmalar? / Armenian Studies (Ankara), Vol. 1, No. 2, June-July-August 2001, pp. 159-169.

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ERAREN - Institute for Armenian Research

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