New generations of Armenian-Americans still passionate about recognizing genocide

From 1915 to 1923 Turkish soldiers killed about 1.5 million Armenians were killed. On April 19th, students at Glendale Community College display posters to educate the community about the genocide.
From 1915 to 1923 Turkish soldiers killed about 1.5 million Armenians were killed. On April 19th, students at Glendale Community College display posters to educate the community about the genocide.
Mae Ryan/KPCC
From 1915 to 1923 Turkish soldiers killed about 1.5 million Armenians were killed. On April 19th, students at Glendale Community College display posters to educate the community about the genocide.
Garin Hovannisian, co-director of "1915," a new movie about the Armenian genocide.
John Rabe
From 1915 to 1923 Turkish soldiers killed about 1.5 million Armenians were killed. On April 19th, students at Glendale Community College display posters to educate the community about the genocide.
This weekend marks the opening of "1915," a new movie about the Armenian genocide by Garin Hovannisian and Alec Mouhibian.
1915 The Movie


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April 24 marks the 100th anniversary of the start of what's known as the Armenian genocide, the killing of at least a million Armenian minority members by ruling Ottoman Turks in what then was the Ottoman Empire. 

The 1915 killings spurred the migration of survivors to the United States and elsewhere, essentially creating the modern Armenian diaspora. And four, even five generations in, the memory is still vivid for Armenian-Americans whose ancestors survived.

Monday night outside the Egyptian Theater, two fourth-generation Armenian-American filmmakers unveiled their feature film "1915," a psychological thriller set in the modern day that's based on the genocide. The theater was packed with moviegoers who learned about the genocide growing up.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gyo-G3dhMRM

“I would hear it from my parents, who were the ones who heard it from their parents, who survived," said Alec Mouhibian, 30, who co-directed the film.

Third-, fourth- and even fifth-generation Armenian-Americans keep the memory of the killings alive through word of mouth, art and, more recently, social media.

It's a subject that's long been brought up in the music of the Armenian-American-led metal band System of a Down. More recently, reality star Kim Kardashian — who just traveled with husband Kanye West to Armenia — has tweeted about her visit and the genocide.

UCLA historian Richard Hovannisian says there are reasons for this strong cultural thread. The Turkish government has never recognized the killings as a genocide. And while several countries have formally recognized that a genocide occurred, the United States has not formally done so.

"Most people in the diaspora don't need a dollar or $10 from the perpetrators' side, but the fact is that it's symbolically important," Hovannisian said. "The acknowledgment of wrongdoing and trying to make some kinds of amends belatedly is a great deal."

Hovannisian is the son of a survivor. His grandmother died in the genocide, and his father spoke little of what he endured as a child; his trauma only became evident at night, when he cried out for his mother in his sleep.

Twenty-eight-year-old Garin Hovannisian, the professor's grandson, is also co-director of "1915." He said the lack of recognition of the genocide is what inspires his activism, four generations later.

“The clear and obvious answer is denial," said the younger Hovannisian. "When a government comes and kills your families and burns your villages and begins a century-long process of saying that never happened, that creates the natural instinct to remember even stronger."

The film he made with Mouhibian explores trauma and other themes as its characters prepare to stage a historical play about the genocide.

And that's another thing that's tricked down through generations, said 38-year-old Helen Kalognomos, who was at the premiere.

"That trauma is passed down. It’s something that you feel when your mother or your grandmother talks about it," said Kalognomos, a comic actress. "It’s a feeling that transcends.”

Part of that trauma is the loss of cultural connection, said Richard Hovannisian. Survivors of the genocide were shut out of their ancestral homeland afterward, unable to go back.

"So an iron curtain came down between the homeland and survivors, and this, in a sense, aggravates the situation, because not only was it a loss of life, it was a loss of cultural heritage," he said.

Playwright Lory Tatoulian said this prompts a kind of drive to keep culture alive, even among some younger Armenian-Americans.

"That land was taken away from us, our history," said Tatoulian, 37, whose Big Bad Armos sketch comedy troupe does its part by riffing lovingly on Armenian cultural stereotypes. "Our history, our history goes back to Noah's Ark, thousands and thousands of years, and that was like — that's not yours any more. So it's sort of like you are carrying this burden, this pain that won't go away."