Rattling the Cage: An Interview with Screamers Director Carla Garapedian

2006-12-08 (Very limited release)

Through her work as a journalist, former BBC World News anchor, and especially her films, the Emmy award-winning director Carla Garapedian knows how to shine a white hot light on issues that might otherwise go unnoticed by the world. Utilizing the music of Grammy award-winning rock quartet System of a Down and exploring the main thesis from Harvard professor Samantha Power’s Pulitzer prize winning book “A Problem from Hell”: America and the Age of Genocide, Garapedian’s latest documentary Screamers is a film that explores the reasons why genocide continues to happen and why the US government continues to remain neutral.

It’s nearly impossible to remain the same after watching Screamers. The movie is challenging on several levels but most of all it compels — making the controversial topic accessible via the excellent use of SOAD’s music — and appropriately puts the focus on the individual to act, giving you the same feeling and aftereffect of watching the film Hotel Rwanda.

Garapedian was the movie’s first convert. During our talk via phone from Los Angeles where the film debuted, Carla explained that her perception of the younger generation — the film’s main audience — was changed from cynical to hopeful, with even tough government critics responding well to her film. Most of all, as an Armenian herself, she wants to join the legacy of past “screamers” (people who are so compelled about issues like genocide that they can only “scream” for action to be taken) and give the world an opportunity to become aware of genocide and take action against it.

You’ve made several films about controversial issues. What have you learned the most about your previous films that helped you make this one?

Most of my films have been about one event but this one was about several events. But my films are always centered around exposing a lie by using pictures and with Screamers I wanted to do the same thing but this time I was combining more music with the pictures to get people to take action against genocide.

What got you into doing the type of work you do?

It is about being Armenian I guess. Not that all Armenians do the kind of work that I do but I’ve experience great injustice through my family history that hasn’t been rectified. And, in an indirect way, through my work, I’ve been able to rectify the terrible injustices that were done to my family. I also wanted to give the sufferers of the Armenian genocide a voice because they didn’t have one.

In Samantha Power’s book she tells the story of other screamers who fought to end genocide and it seams as though you are carrying on the legacy.

I carry that book around like it’s my bible for telling my story. There’s so much in there that I find something new each time I read it. She points out each person who has become a screamer has failed because no genocide has been stopped that we know in our modern history. So you ask yourself, “What’s the point?” But on another level they do succeed because they kept the fight going.

I think what George Clooney and people like him are doing are great, but it’s frustrating on a certain level. Because I wonder why does it take a George Clooney to do something about genocide. It’s because we pay attention to celebrity in the US and unfortunately that’s the way it is. He might be called a failure because it hasn’t stopped but at least he’s bearing witness and doing something with his celebrity status.

How has the film been received?

Even though it’s about a tough subject, it’s still been well received. It’s been very gratifying that people who have seen the film have connected with those pictures and get what it is we’re trying to say. I believe the only way to stop this is to touch people at some very basic level. We can’t wait for politicians to do something because they’re not going to do something unless there is some sort of movement at ground level and that’s where System of a Down comes in. They’re not just a political band, but they just want to raise awareness and they let people do what they want, but they definitely want to educate their fans and then let their fans make their own decisions.

System of a Down

How did you meet System of a Down?

I met them in 2004 at the annual concert for the Armenian genocide that occurred in 1915. A bunch of other bands and other human rights organizations were there set up outside the concert area and handing out leaflets to their fans about Darfur, the Holocaust. So I was there representing The Armenian Film Foundation. I wasn’t really that familiar with their music beyond knowing that they were a very popular band. Fans were coming up to the table and the most interesting thing for me was that the fans knew about the Armenian genocide and they were very educated about Darfur. I was amazed that SOAD was doing more to raise awareness about the Armenian genocide than the Armenian community in the US for the last 50 years.

So the fans you met were learning about the Armenian genocide primarily from SOAD’s music?

Yes, but at first I wasn’t sure if they were attracting kids who were just generally more politically aware or if the kids were becoming aware via the band’s music. I think it was more the latter case.

Meeting SOAD didn’t all come together at the concert and they were approached by many artists and there are a lot of people who wanted to work with them. Michael Moore did a music video with them. SOAD had to first look at my films and my background. So we met in 2004. Serj Tankian wanted to do a film about all genocides and not only focus on the Armenians. He wanted to raise awareness about that. If I was going to do that then he was willing to cooperate.

Was it difficult to approach the scope and purpose of the film being a journalist and having such a close personal connection to genocide?

I’ve made other films and covered stories in other countries about human rights and I had originally shied away from doing a film about the Armenian Genocide because there were already a few made that were well done. I didn’t see what value I could add, and the subject is very personal to me because I’m a grandchild of the genocide survivor. And like the band, the issue is part of my DNA. I’ve grown up with it and it’s been a very familiar presence in my life. And when I saw SOAD and learned how they were bringing the issue into the current political debate I saw how the film could be different than previous film on the topic.

This story was unique in that I chose to tell it partly through Serj’s grandfather who is still living. His grandfather actually came from a village where my family was from, so it was pretty eerie and haunting to go back there and film. That’s the place where they were forced out and sent on the death marches. There were a lot of parallels to my family. And everybody has these very unique stories. And with Serj’s grandfather I had access to six hours of previous interviews. His telling reminded of the similar method, how the stories of people in domestic violence situations where the person tells of the events in a very monotone way until they get to a family member dying — then they will cry or show emotion. The only way to recall those moments is to detach yourself. In those interviews Serj’s grandfather was able to recall the worst things but when he got to the death of his two brothers and grandmother it really got to him.

With the message of your film being woven in and through the music of SOAD there seems to be a possibility that fans, namely the young ones shown screaming in the front rows at the concerts, might miss the point. What concerns you about the message getting lost in the music?

Most of the fans are not there for political reasons — that much I understand — but my take on it is that SOAD has told me that their music is not just about politics. And I know that’s true. Their lyrics are about many things and sometimes they hard to understand.

The way I see it is that I’m hoping to tie in the message with the rage and anger side of the band and start from there because I know that many of their fans first become interested in the emotion of the music and then take interest in the lyrics. That’s how I became interested in their music. Rage and anger and passion are needed to tell this story because if we don’t feel outrage about genocide then who are we as people? I didn’t understand the music at first because I’m in my 40s and I wasn’t in to that type of music. I was more into Beatles and Elton John. So I had real trouble at first but I heard the music and then went back to the lyrics and it made me want to learn more about what they were talking about.

There’s a sequence where you use the song “Chop Suey” in a very interesting way?

My editor and I really struggled with portraying that moment in the film since the film’s subject was so dark and we were showing the kids rocking out and having fun. But we decided that the band is not just about being serious. Their music is about celebrating life just as much as being political. I wanted to show a complete and balance portrayal of who SOAD is.

There are scenes where you show Serj taking care of his grandfather and Serj confronting Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert. You really see a different side of him that you normally don’t get if you only listen to the music.

Absolutely. Serj is such a soft-spoken person and that grandfather and Hastert scene is a great representation of how the band preaches tolerance and understanding and they don’t want to incite violence in any way, even though on stage you see them jumping around. The film’s contrast is something I wanted to show. As I spent time with them I found it interesting to see them more than just what you see on stage.

How hard was it to trust that your message wouldn’t be dismissed as just an angry rant, seeing as a band like SOAD can get misunderstood at first listen or seeing them on stage for the first time.

It was hard but I did have a lot of trust. But I also looked at the flip side. I’m lucky their music was heavy metal. Because if it had been something like Coldplay or Barry Manilow [laughs] the message wouldn’t have the same impact. And I’m grateful that I had that going for me. It’s really important to have the force of a SOAD song behind what genocide really means, because genocide has been going on for so long and somewhere along the way we lost the connection to what genocide really means. For some reason at some point it became optional for us to intervene and I don’t think it’s the fault of the ordinary person — it’s the fault of our foreign policy. Our foreign policy has been very consistent that we remain neutral in the face of genocide. We explore one of Samantha Power’s points that it’s not a valid excuse for the US government to say we didn’t know what was going on in 1915 or during the Holocaust. But she explains that there were several people reporting what was going on. But the US and British governments opted not to pursue the evidence. They didn’t say, “Oh, let the Jews die” — they were just indifferent to the evidence. So that means that we probably could have saved a couple hundred thousand by bombing a railway line. But because of other reasons and some anti-Semitism going on in the US and Europe they just didn’t want to look deep into what was going on.

How crucial is it that the US government deals with the guilt of being indifferent to the Armenian genocide and other genocides? The US government could admit and then resolve what happened to the Armenians. If that were to happen it seems it would being closure to the emotions suffered by people like you who come from those that suffered, but also create other problem with our country’s past?

Interesting question. SOAD drummer John Dolmayan poses the question well by saying, “The US response to what happened to the 25 million Native Americans and is, ‘Oh, that’s too bad.'” I had to look that static up because I thought it was large but when I looked it up that number was in the median average. So congressman are worried that if we admit to genocide here in the 21st century than it might open up our past — that it might bring Native Americans living today to also to begin demanding reparation.

For me, the big issue is that US foreign policy has been based on its alliance with Turkey and the genocide was very well documented in newspapers and public records. So it’s not that they didn’t know it was happening. It was that US government didn’t want to anger Turkey because Turkey was a crucial ally. So the issue of guilt is dictated by public opinion and this is where young people get involved.

Things change based on the perception of what the public wants. Look at the Tsunami in Indonesia. People saw how terrible it was and dug deep into their pocketbooks. So I believe if Americans see what really happened, and really felt and saw the pictures of genocide, things would change.

Another example is Hotel Rwanda. That film brought a massive amount of awareness, but it was too late and if people saw what is going on in Darfur everyday — the slaughter of women and children — they would pressure the US government.

But the problem with genocide is that it’s hard to document when it’s happening because the perpetrators do their best to keep foreigners out. And our news media is left in the dark in covering these issues long term, financing it over a period of time so you’re not going to get coverage of it. Even with the BBC, who I worked for, it’s hard for them to get in there and get coverage of Darfur. So how do you get the awareness without the pictures, because politicians want to stay out of it. The Bush administration has called it genocide but they don’t want to go the distance and do something about it.

What do you think will put the issue over the top and move the ordinary person to act?

When I saw An Inconvenient Truth, where people were buying an energy-saving light bulb that was much more expensive than a traditional one, I saw people changing their behavior because they’re scared … With the genocide, it starts at the university level and people asking, “Where is our money going?” and it is a very grass roots campaign.

Do you think the older generation and our government take the audience (the younger generation) of the film seriously when it comes to taking action on social causes like genocide?

There’s been some surprising twists. I’ve met some older people who said they didn’t like the music at first but then they realized the energy is amazing. Then they feel not a direct connection to the music but more importantly a connection with the younger generation who is connecting with the music of SOAD. Even for me, I struggled with being cynical towards this younger generation and thought they were only focused on getting jobs and being much more materialistic than my generation. But I discovered that’s not true. I realized that they do care about many issues. Serj said to me one time that we start off thinking the right way — it’s just that we get more cynical as we get older and that’s why he’s working with young people. For him, it’s the way forward.

We had congressmen come to a screening at the Library of Congress with their staffers and think tankers. I cranked the volume because I really wanted them to hear it. And afterwards one of their spokes person came up and said, “Do you know how unusual it is for them to actually sit through it?” They may feel uneasy about the music and the physical aspect of the music and message, and it may scare them to see the kids like that because they don’t fully understand or control it.

Do you think they feel threatened by the youth?

I don’t know. But I do know that after going to several concerts I now get SOAD. I now totally understand what their music is all about. It’s about being part of the experience. It’s very tribal with everyone getting into the music. And that communal concert experience brings our conversation full circle. That same universal feeling you have at a concert or about a band is what I want to create to get people involved to stop genocide. [It is] part of the universal connection I’m trying to get people to feel to that country, those people far away who people we think we don’t care anything about. And at a concert it doesn’t matter who you are; you feel connected to that person you’re headbanging with. I felt and I was only supposed to feel filming it. Just think what we can do if we can tap into that connection and apply it to the issue of genocide.

How does taking action fit with the film’s audience’s current behaviors, interests and trends?

Let’s face it. The Internet is where it’s happening and it’s there that people feel free to talk and discuss. I may not be able to stop what’s going but if I can get people talking then I’ve done my job. But beyond just asking questions there also has to be a demand for answers and that’s how we can change things.

You haven’t used music as such a central aspect in your previous films. Did you look at other bands — past or present — to get an idea of how you wanted to use music as a part of the movie?

I’m dating myself but when I was growing up it was Bob Dylan, Woodstock, and the anti-war movement and how music became involved in it. Music is a good place to start when trying to access the emotions, but it shouldn’t be done in a sentimental way. Most people have a very deep connection to music and the artist and you feel the humanity of the situation. Music is really the only medium that can have that effect. I associate the ’60s with Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Rolling Stones, and Joni Mitchell and I also associate the idea of “I want to change the world” with their music.

As a musical culture what do you think we learned the most about when it comes to using music during the anti-war movement of the ’60s and how does that facture into your film?

I’m more familiar with the world music than the heavy metal scene but I’ll use SOAD as an example. Their music is a commentary on our times,but they also bring with them their history and their music sounds like their Armenian roots and here they are trying to make their ancestors and their culture survive through their music. And even though the Turks tried to wipe out a whole race of people, they failed and the evidence of that is in the music. It’s about the culture surviving as much as the individual, and that give me hope. All it takes is for four guys in a band to be extremely popular and every time I hear their music I say, “This is our culture surviving.”

At the end of the Harvard screening a gentleman who was from Darfur said that the film made him feel paralyzed by the whole situation, but he ended by saying that the film is doing something very important in taking the first step of making people aware. It’s so important to at least give people a chance to know. Without that the situation is hopeless. You have to educate people first and know the facts, then take political action.

What is the next step to take in fighting genocide?

STAND (Student Taking Action Now on Darfur) is helping out with getting people involved. The DVD will also prolong the life of the film. Schools are also getting involved and teachers are looking at including the film in curriculum. Our government won’t do anything unless we rattle the cage. Right now it starts with taking action on Darfur. Since box office numbers are still important, going to see Screamers is important to furthering the cause. At the very basic level, I want to at least get antennae up so you don’t look at the news the same way or you at least start to ask some of your own questions. I also know that most people are not quite the same after they see the film.