System of a Down screams genocide in controversial doc

0 Posted by - March 30, 2007 - Blog, Screen
Screamers Poster

Screamers Poster

The Cinema du Parc theatre in Montreal was completely empty, save myself, Art Threat editor Rob Maguire, and a francophone film reviewer. It was after all, the fifth press screening of SCREAMERS that the theatre had held this week, so we were the last to have the chance to sit and absorb this feature length documentary. I try not to judge films by their intros, but this doc had a great intro, so I braced myself for the treat that I indeed was about to enjoy.

SCREAMERS documents the metal/hard rock band System of a Down (SOAD) as they tour Europe and the US spreading their metal music and progressive politics. Despite what many American reviewers have reported, it is not just a tour of the United States – much of the “action” takes place in the UK and Germany, where fans of the explosive quartet show similar linguistic awkwardness to their American counterparts when it comes to discussing the band’s politics.

But hey, let’s not forget it’s rock and roll, and a teenager screaming “Fuck Ya” into a camera while holding a large can of beer should not be discounted as a possible politico. This is in fact what the band is banking on — that politics can be articulated through loud thumping base, machine gun drumming and of course screaming into microphones. But SOAD is merely a narrative device, this excellent film is really about genocide, and the screaming is a wake-up call for politicians, activists, artists and kids with beer cans.

All the members of SOAD are of Armenian heritage, and so have found a unified issue to inject into their internationally popular music: the genocide of between 1 and 1.5 million Armenians by the Turks in 1915. The world has recognized this human rights tragedy, but the US and the UK continue to refuse the facts, opting instead on the political maneuvering around the subject that both states have engaged in since WWII for geo-political reasons including the maintenance of important military bases located in Turkey.

Turkey itself is the biggest nay-sayer in recognizing a part of its own history that saw the brutal and inhuman rape, torture and elimination of millions of Armenians living within the Ottoman Empire. The film documents this state-led arrogance and nationalistic fervor that continues to be a divisive force inside the country. In one scene, genocide-deniers gather at an art exhibit, rush inside and violently tear down images depicting the fate of those who were murdered nearly a century earlier.

SCREAMERS is not a film for those who do not want to see such images. There are numerous photographs and video clips that confront the audience, challenging us to not only stomach some of the most horrific imagery of the last hundred years, but to turn rage, fear and sadness into positive action. There are times in the film when this is lost, however, and it is a reminder to all filmmakers that putting images of people being hacked to death in Rwanda, or rows of decapitated heads in Turkey, needs to be treated delicately and in my opinion with a sense of minimalism. Seeing some photos more than once was unnecessary, and seeing some images intercut with the band performing was bordering on hokey.

That said, director Carla Garapedian has constructed a film that brings together popular American metal music and genocide, and it can’t be understated – this is no easy feat. That Garapedian uses SOAD as the vehicle for the story of not only the Armenian genocide, but of all genocides past and present, and that she does it with both subtlety and excitement, is enough to make me want to see the film again. SCREAMERS connects the audience to the very likable and articulate band members of SOAD, who connect their audiences to the politics of genocide. In what can only be described as beautiful and bizarre, screaming fans at a SOAD concert watch the band finish a song, disappear into the fake fog, and avert their gaze at a giant digital screen that then plays a short documentary on the Armenian genocide. When Turkey and their genocide-denying ways are mentioned we hear thousands of fans boo. Yes it was the 90th anniversary of the genocide, but really, has this kind of thing EVER been tried at another rock concert, let alone metal?

SCREAMERS, through the activities of the band, archival footage and interviews, confronts us as privileged Western audiences with the consequences of remaining quiet and inactive as large-scale human tragedies unfold before our mediated eyes. The film suggests that because Hitler modeled the Jewish genocide in the Second World War after the Armenian genocide, and is even quoted as saying “Who remembers the Armenians?” that if the world had stood up against the Turks and stopped the slaughter, then perhaps other genocides may have been avoided. It is a call to action. As Samantha Powers, interviewed in the film says, “I call [those who get involved] upstanders, as opposed to bystanders.” Band lead singer Serj Tankian calls it spiritual unrest, and SOAD shows no sign of resting until action is taken.

While at times the antagonisms toward Turkey feel a little too bellicose, such as when Tankian screams out to his audience at a concert in America: “It’s time to make Turkey pay for their fucking crime!” the band exudes an offstage quietness that is explained in heritage pride and a commitment to human rights everywhere.

This documentary needs to be seen by everyone. And while the music is not for all (the francophone reviewer left during a very raucous and very political ditty with lyrics “my dick’s bigger than yours” fifteen minutes into the film) the politics should be. As the West continues to focus our interest on communication gadgets that privatize our world while promising to connect it, it’s high time to leave the iPod at home and go out and see a film that is asking, nay screaming, what are we doing while people continue to be slaughtered? While the numbers of dead in Darfur grow to half a million and while politicians governed by the profitability of a debate and not its truthfulness continue to waste tax dollars on the vernacular, it is time to do something. Going to see SCREAMERS is a chance to get inspired, get educated, and to get prepared to SCREAM!

Want to know more? Got to the Screamers official site.

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