“The Water Diviner or: How I learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Genocide”

The Water Diviner is a hit film that I instantly wanted to watch, both as a historian of the Twentieth Century and as a relatively recent Australian citizen. 1919 in Anatolia was a pivotal time in the restructuring of the Middle East after the fall of the Ottoman Empire and the Gallipoli Campaign was the foundary where the Anzac spirit was forged. It was also the midpoint for one of the first state sponsored destructions of a group of people based on race and religion in the century.  The facts are that in 1914 the collective Christian population of Anatolia was 20 to 25 percent of the total. In 1923 this stood at 3 percent. A shade under 3 million people had been murdered and one and a half million uprooted from the homes and land and sent into exile.

On its opening this film soared at the box office in Australia and Turkey. A story of this Aussie father’s incredible love for his three sons and his determination to bring his missing boys home from the battlefield of Lone Pine has a universal appeal. Added to this is the theme of reconciliation between Turkey and the ANZACS, symbolized in our yearly dawn service in Gallipoli and Kemal Ataturk’s address to the mothers of fallen foreign soldiers written in the 1930s. In Turkey the film opened at an incredible 600 cinemas and Russell Crowe, as leading man and director, received a standing ovation at the premier in Istanbul. One of the film’s writers, Andrew Anastasios blogged, “The Turkish government, meanwhile, is considering decorating Crowe for his recent film “The Water Diviner,” which is set four years after the Gallipoli campaign in World War I and follows the journey of an Australian farmer who travels to Turkey to discover the fate of his three sons.” (Hurriyet Daily News)”. Plans are afoot for Russell Crowe to attend the Dawn Service at Canakkale/Gallipoli this year to mark the ANZAC centenary.

Many people are familiar, in passing, with the murder of Armenians in 1915 – the “Year of the Islamic Sword”. Debate in the last hundred years has been over the numbers of dead, the way they were killed, the intent of those that did and whether it can be counted as genocide – a term that was coined in 1943 by the Polish lawyer, Raphael Lemkin with the Armenian experience in mind. Basic facts are that in 1915 up to 1.5 million Armenians had been killed in an operation directed by the three highest officials of the Ottoman Empire, known as the Three Pashas. “Without a loss of a single Turkish soldier I’ve slaughtered the Armenians” said Enver Pasha.

At the end of the First World War the Pashas were overthrown and went into exile. In their absence, in 1919, they were tried for their crimes against the Armenians and sentenced to death. This was not carried out officially but all were dead within three years, with Enver dying fighting the Soviets when he turned on them and Talaat and Jemal gunned down by Armenians as part of their “Operation Nemesis”.

Another organiser was Dr Mehmed Resid, known as the Butcher of Diyarbakit. On receipt of a three word telegram from Talat in 1914 which told him to, “Burn – Destroy – Kill” he set about the Armenians, Greeks, Nestorians and Yezidis. Some other local governors opposed the policy, so the good doctor arranged their assassination. Resid chose to shoot himself in 1919 after escaping prison. He had been asked how he could have acted that way as a doctor and said:

“Being a doctor could not cause me to forget my nationality! Reshid is a doctor. But he was born as a Turk….Either the Armenians were to eliminate the Turks, or the Turks were to eliminate the Armenians. I did not hesitate when I was confronted with this dilemma. My Turkishness prevailed over my profession. I figured, instead of wiping us out, we will wipe them out….On the question how I, as a doctor, could have murdered, I can answer as follows: the Armenians had become hazardous microbes in the body of this country. Well, isn’t it a doctor’s duty to kill microbes?”

Not all Ottoman officials took part, Pasha Vehib was asked to gather people for deportation as part of his duties as the general commanding an army corps. When he found out that the deportees had been massacred by the Special Operations group at their destination he arrested those responsible, who were then executed. After the fall of the Pashas Vehib was part of the Military Tribunal that gathered evidence against them and prosecuted them and several hundred officials. For both of these actions he was himself condemned under Ataturk and had to go into exile for the next 21 years. Another person who gave testimony in the short space between the Pashas and Ataturk’s Nationalist government was Reşid Akif Paşa, who addressed the Ottoman parliament by saying, “The deportation order was issued through official channels by the minister of the interior and sent to the provinces. Following this order the [CUP] Central Committee circulated its own ominous order to all parties to allow the gangs to carry out their wretched task. Thus the gangs were in the field, ready for their atrocious slaughter.”

The President of the parliament, Ahmet Riza, protested against the theft of properties and their sale by the government, adding, “Let’s face it, we Turks savagely killed off the Armenians”. Abdulmecid II, the last Caliph is quoted, “I refer to those awful massacres. They are the greatest stain that has ever disgraced our nation and race. They were entirely the work of Talat and Enver. I heard some days before they began that they were intended. I went to Istanbul and insisted on seeing Enver. I asked him if it was true that they intended to recommence the massacres which had been our shame and disgrace under Abdul Hamid. The only reply I could get from him was: ‘It is decided. It is the program.'”

When Dr Reshid had been asked how he thought history would consider him, he replied, “Let other nations write about me whatever history they want, I couldn’t care less”. Unfortunately, since that brief period of individual and collective admission a juggernaut of denial has taken its place. Taner Akcam, a Turkish historian who tunneled out of jail and lives in Germany states, “Denial of the Armenian genocide has developed over the decades to become a complex and far-reaching machine that rivals the Nazi Germany propaganda ministry. This machine runs on academic dishonesty, fabricated information, political pressure, intimidation and threats, all funded or supported directly or indirectly by the Turkish state. It has become a huge industry”.

In 1985 full page adverts appeared in US newspapers to highlight a letter questioning the Armenian genocide. The letter was signed by 69 academics, whose studies are funded by the Turkish government and other Turkish agencies, such as the Ankara Chamber of Commerce. One faculty, the Institute of Turkish Studies is jointly funded by the Turkish government and the US defence companies who sell to them.

One of these academics features in a story that perhaps tells us a great deal about the inner workings of Turkish officialdom in denying the undeniable. After all, Ataturk himself called the genocide, “a shameful act”.  Robert Jay Liston wrote about the Armenian Genocide in a book about psychology. As had happened many times before to others Liston received a letter from the Turkish ambassador to Washington setting out a number of points where his scholarship was at fault and where evidence could be doubted. The only change from standard procedure was that he had included a second document detailing point by point how to rebut anyone writing about what that document referred to as “our problem”. This document was prepared by Heath W Lowry, a US historian who has benefited from Turkish funding. The incident has provoked a great deal of debate on historical revisionism and the morals of a scholar for hire.

What is potentially more interesting is the ambassador’s unconscious act in including that document in the envelope. Was there an underlying desire to put an end to the denial, which was grating his conscience? Perhaps his repressed feelings mirrored Mehmet Ali Bey, Turkey’s Otto Schindler, who said, “It is impossible to hide and conceal this policy”.  In psychoanalysis the unconscious is a place of repressed memory, painful emotions and socially unacceptable ideas.

So where does Russell Crowe’s film, The Water Diviner” come in to this issue? Well, Turkey’s collective unconscious contains a shame that not only includes the stain of Armenian blood but that of Assyrians and Greeks as well. In the film the Greeks are the baddies and we are meant to be uplifted when the Joshua Connor character cracks a snarling Greek combatant with a cricket bat.

The Greeks were equally badly treated in Turkey between 1914 and 1923 by the program – first by the Pashas and then by Ataturk. In 1923 the shattered remnants of the Greeks were taken to Greece and Turks sent to Turkey in exchange. The only ones to stay were the remaining Pontian Greek fighters on the Black Sea, who were unwilling to give up their homeland and stayed to die in the last ditch.

So when the “Satan’s Army” of Greeks in the film were dressed in black with crossed bandoliers they matched the surviving pictures of the Pontian freedom fighters, who rose up but were unable to defend the 350,000 of their people murdered. They certainly did not look like the regular soldiers from Greece who invaded the east of Anatolia and committed atrocities during their later retreat and who wore khaki green uniforms. They certainly were not the civilians in that area who committed massacres of Turks in retaliation for treatment received over the preceding five years. No, Tess Schofield, the production’s costume designer had Pontians in action ambushing Turkish veterans and massacring civilians. Russell Crowe as director had them equipped with machine guns and artillery, which is a stretch of the imagination.

The result is a series of strong impressions; that the Greeks have invaded, when the Pontians had been there for close to 3,000 years; that the town in the later scenes was far inland and a few poorly armed peasants and dervishes were the only opposition, when the Pontians faced an overwhelming force of Nationalist military led by one of Ataturk’s closest allies; that the churches in the town have been unoccupied for so long that their murals need repainting, when they would have been in continuous use up to that point. The town in question is Kayakoy in the south of Anatolia, far from the Pontians and it has its own story to tell and it is not as the film would have us think one of Greeks who, “terrorise the people and burn the towns”.

The scriptwriter’s blog tells us that the production team were looking for a, “a Roman theatre, a hilltop Turkish village, a ruined church and a fortress wall. Miraculously, production found them all within striking distance of Fethiye, in the abandoned village of Kayaköy and ancient ruins of Tlos….. this abandoned Greek village that inspired Louis de Bernières’ novel Birds Without Wings. During the forced population exchanges between Greece and Turkey in the 1920s, the Greeks of Kayaköy, or Livissi as it was known then, were relocated and the town never resettled. Hundreds of forlorn homes slowly crumble into the hillside.”

It is certainly true that the Greeks were resettled, at least those who were left alive. The Greek army never made it to Livissi, where the 6,500 Greek inhabitants of 1914 were reduced to hundreds by 1923, when they were marched to boats and shaken down for any surviving valuables on the dock. Three death marches into the interior had killed the weak, old, children and babies. Torture and murder at their inland destination had accounted for many more. Some had not even made it out of town, murdered in prison, raped, cut to pieces and left for the dogs to eat. So, perhaps not the best choice of location. However, it would have been convenient for the director to get back to his yacht anchored offshore quite easily after a day’s filming.

“The Water Diviner” is a clear attempt to select a period of time at the birth of modern Turkey and paint the enemy as a scoundrel; for Turkey to get on the front foot in denying this other genocide that foreign parliaments are starting to recognise. As one of the Turkey’s favourite US historians, Justin A McCarthy, told the Grand Assembly in 2005, “The question of who began the killing must be understood, because it is seldom justifiable to be the aggressor, but it is always justifiable to defend yourself…..If those who defend themselves go beyond defence and exact revenge, as always happens in a war, they should be identified and criticized. But who should be most blamed are those who began the wars, those who committed the first evil deeds, and those who caused the bloodshed”.

If a film is made that suggests that the Greeks were invaders and not actually a tenth of the population of Anatolia before the First World War; if that film portrays them as the perpetrators rather than the victims to the tune of a million dead civilians and propagates beliefs that feed genocide denial then those who made it should be held to account.

Instead, reviewers hold up The Water Diviner as an object lesson to other Australian filmmakers, as it made more money in five days than any other Aussie movie of 2014. The film has taken $14 million in the first month and won an award for the costume design but does nothing to extend our understanding of the times in which it was set. Rather it seeks to deliberately confuse the audience and smear the memory of the dead, to “kill them twice” as Elie Wiesel, Holocaust survivor and Nobel Peace Prizewinner, pointed out. Who will stand up for those dead and who will speak out and be heard above the ringing of the cash registers?

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