Once upon a time in Mardin. A stone walled city perched a thousand feet high on a rocky mountainside overlooking the timeless valleys of ancient Mesopotamia.
A “city of the Sun” whose rays penetrate through the narrow streets creating shapes of shadows and light. Bonded to each other, the houses, the mosques, the churches and the courtyards, from above, look like small boxes climbing silently along the steep side of the mountain, as if they wanted to reach the sun.
Mardin always had a special relationship with the sun. In the sixteenth century a neighborhood of the city was called ‘Shamsiyé’ (from the Arabic word “shams” meaning sun). The Shamsis, like the Yazidis, professed an ancient pagan cult that was violently repressed by the Ottoman Empire and were forced to integrate the Assyrian-Chaldean Christian communities. Perhaps from these ‘Sun worshipers’, who lived peacefully following the rhythms of nature, descended the family of Nazareth Manoogian, the main character of the latest film by Fatih Akin, “The Cut”, screened recently at the Forum des Images in Paris with the director Fatih Akin and the actors.
We are in the first decade of the twentieth century and Mardin is teeming with life, flocks of birds drawing pirouettes at sunset, craftsmen, carpenters, blacksmiths hammering hot iron. One of them is Nazareth. A pious and simple man dedicated to the work and care of his family.
Time passes slowly, the family is happy and united. But this happiness is ephemeral. In fact, the First World War broke out, and one day in Mardin Turkish gendarmes arrive to pick up men for military service. From that day Nazareth and his family find themselves dragged by the floods of history that swept away all the Armenian community of the city of Mardin (about 8,000 people according to historians) during what is considered the first genocide of the modern era. Between December 1914 and February 1915, the government of the Young Turks, propagating their pan-Turkish ideology based on ethnic and religious supremacy, decided to eliminate the entire Armenian population, a Christian population who looked to the West and for this reason was accused to favor the enemy in military optics. Special irregular battalions known as tchété in which militated many common criminals were created and hundreds of thousands of people were deported (over a million and a half victims according to some historical sources).
Nazareth is dragged by the flood of history but manages to escape, witnessing the horrors of war, the deportation, the forced marches in the desert where old men, women and children fall and die, till he’s able to reache Aleppo where a part of the Armenian community found a refuge. Nazareth is safe, but he lost faith in his God, he lost faith in man and has one single purpose animating his exhausted limbs and his darkened spirit: find his twin daughters alive. An odyssey begins through Turkey, Syria, Lebanon and beyond the Mediterranean, through exotic and far lands to find his daughters. Finding them means maybe to find the lost fragments of his past life, Mardin’s blue sky that he will never see again.
“The Cut” is an intense cinematografic fresco shot with mastery which focuses on memory, trip and eradication. Using a variety of stylistic elements (the multiplication of roads, the crossing of the desert and the snow, the train tracks, the cyclic music), the film tells the horror and the madness of the war but denounces also the stupidity of racial and cultural discrimination (there are several references to the Holocaust but also frightening parallels with the reality of today’s Syria, the massacres against the Kurds and Yazidis by ISIS) and the paradox of a peaceful people who quickly become an enemy and is forced to abandon his homeland.
“The Cut” is also a documentary film in which a filmmaker of Turkish origins speaks openly about the Armenian genocide, a theme which is still a taboo for the Turkish authorities. Discussing the Armenian genocide represents a violation of Article 301 of the Turkish Criminal Code. Nobel Prize winner Orhan Pamuk, writer Elif Shafak and the turkish-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink were prosecuted for violating Article 301 (insulting Turkish identity). But Fatih Akin’s initial idea was to make a film on the turkish-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink, co-founder of Agos newspaper, killed in 2007 in front of his office in Istanbul.
Hrant Dinkwas a great journalist who helped to shed light on the historical reality of the Armenian genocide and lost his life fort this. After having received threats and pressures about making a movie on Hrant Dink, Fatih Akin changed his mind and decided to film the story of Nazareth Manoogian. He wanted neverthless a Turkish actor to play his role but no one accepted for fear of reprisals by the Turkish extreme right. Is Turkey still afraid of its own history? “The Cut” doesn’t simply denounce war and fanaticism, it is mainly a poetic attempt to open a dialogue even with those who still deny the Armenian genocide and throw mud at the memory of great men like Hrant Dink was.