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David Geffen School of Medicine

Promise Keeper

  Dr. Eric Esrailian
  Dr. Eric Esrailian made a vow to his longtime mentor and friend Kirk Kerkorian to bring a story of the Armenian genocide to the big screen.
Photo: Ann Johansson

By David Geffner

It began with deep friendship. Then a promise. “In 2010, my dear friend Kirk Kerkorian said to me, ‘No studio is ever going to make this story. We have to do it ourselves,’” recalls UCLA gastroenterologist Eric Esrailian, MD (FEL ’06), MPH. The story that Kerkorian, a prominent businessman, former studio head and philanthropist, wanted to tell was centered on the Armenian Genocide of the early 20th century, during which some 1.5-million Armenians were killed as the Ottoman Empire crumbled. Hollywood had attempted before to portray the genocide on the big screen, but, for often-political reasons, the projects always collapsed.

This time, Kerkorian was determined to see it done. At this late stage in his life, he no longer was concerned about the political fire that such a project might draw nor its financial viability. “Mr. Kerkorian wanted the project to be a beacon that would shine a light and generate more awareness, not only about the Armenian Genocide, but also about all human-rights violations, past and present,” Dr. Esrailian says. “He wanted to create a living document — a visual museum — that would teach future generations.

“When someone who is designated a National Hero of Armenia tells you to do something for your heritage and your culture, you need to listen carefully and work hard,” says Dr. Esrailian, Lincy Foundation Chair in Clinical Gastroenterology and co-chief of the Vatche and Tamar Manoukian Division of Digestive Diseases at UCLA. ”He was, in effect, entrusting me with his lifelong passion to see the truth told on screen. Needless to say, I was honored.”

While Dr. Esrailian had overseen many significant projects for UCLA and for non-profit organizations, he’d never undertaken something as meaningful for his own patrimony. He spent the next two years delving into the history of the Armenian Genocide, which the government of Turkey has never acknowledged. He studied source materials and learned about the true events at the core of Franz Werfel’s 1933 novel The Forty Days of Musa Dagh. Several efforts to adapt Werfel’s book as a movie — by MGM in 1934 and again in 1968, with stabs at the project by Sylvester Stallone in 2006 and Mel Gibson in 2009 — foundered following pressure from Turkey and Turkish support groups. The great-grandson of survivors of the genocide, Dr. Esrailian also drew from his own family stories.

  On Track
  On Track
  Top: Dr. Esrailian (second from left) on the set of The Promise with (from left) director Terry George and actors Oscar Isaac and Christian Bale. Bottom: The filmmakers were invited to the Vatican for a special screening of the movie.
Photos: (on set) Jose Haro; (Vatican) Giambalvo & Napolitano

Kerkorian dreamed of making a sweeping historical love story that would portray the events of the genocide without excessive brutality. Not only would the film harken back to romantic epics like Dr. Zhivago, but every dollar it earned would be donated to charitable organizations and human-rights education, an unprecedented gesture. Kerkorian would finance the entire project with his own money, and in 2012, Dr. Esrailian and Anthony Mandekic, CEO and president of Tracinda Corp., a private investment firm owned by Kerkorian, launched Survival Pictures for Kerkorian to make that dream come true. Dr. Esrailian and Mandekic reached out to another friend, the film producer and studio executive Mike Medavoy, to work with them. “Mike is the son of Russian-Jewish refugees, and he was born in China and lived in Chile as a child,” Dr. Esrailian continues. “He made hundreds of movies but nothing that directly addressed the subject of genocide.” Oscar-nominated screenwriter Robin Swicord (whose Greek father-in-law, Elia Kazan, fled the Ottoman Empire) and Terry George, who directed the Academy Award-nominated feature Hotel Rwanda, came on board.

Some five years later, The Promise, with Dr. Esrailian credited as a lead producer, opened nationwide in April 2017. The story centers on Mikael (Oscar Isaac), a medical student who leaves his village in Anatolia for Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul) on the cusp of World War I. Although Mikael is “promised” to a woman in his village whose dowry pays for his studies, he falls in love with an Armenian woman from Paris (Charlotte Le Bon) who is traveling with a muckraking journalist (Christian Bale) determined to rouse the U.S. government to stop the Turkish slaughter of Armenians.

While the story of The Promise is driven by a fictional love triangle, it is woven within a fabric of historical detail. In one scene, Talaat Pasha, one of the triumvirate of Ottoman rulers during World War I known as The Young Turks and a primary architect of the genocide, issues a demand to U.S. Ambassador Henry Morgenthau (James Cromwell) to make good on U.S.-backed insurance policies for dead Armenians. There is a vivid portrayal of the siege at Musa Dagh, where Armenian resistance fighters held off annihilation for 53 days until a French warship was able to evacuate some 4,200 men, women and children from local villages.

Mikael’s altruistic nature and chosen profession connect the character to Dr. Esrailian, but the UCLA physician says he cannot imagine the challenges that the actual victims and survivors of the genocide had to endure. He sees dramatic parallels between the story that unfolds in The Promise and the human-rights crises of today. “People still are fleeing their homes because of ethnic or religious persecution,” he says.

Kerkorian did not live to see the film released; he died, at age 98, in June 2015, as The Promise was beginning production. But, Dr. Esrailian notes, Kerkorian’s legacy already continues at UCLA, where support from his estate has helped to establish the Promise Institute for Human Rights at the UCLA School of Law.

The Promise means so much personally,” Dr. Esrailian says. “The promise was from Mr. Kerkorian and from us to complete the film. The promise is for us to never forget. And the promise is for all of us to vow to do something so that it never happens again.”

David Geffner writes extensively about film. He is the executive editor of ICG Magazine.


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