Film Reviews

Review: ‘Intent to Destroy’

Hot Docs 2017

Filmmaker Joe Berlinger and director Terry George on the set of The Promise.
Photo courtesy of José Haro.


Intent to Destroy
(USA, 115 min.)
Dir. Joe Berlinger
Programme: Special Presentations (International Premiere)

Veteran doc filmmaker Joe Berlinger’s explosive 2016 film Tony Robbins: I Am Not Your Guru was one of the most exciting features at last year’s Hot Docs festival. The seasoned award-winning director returns this year with Intent to Destroy, an engrossing film-within-a-film about the shooting of The Promise, a historical fiction feature about the Armenian genocide.

Certainly, the film industry loves a doc about what it does—and it is a passionate line of work—but Intent to Destroy raises the stakes of this inward-looking examination significantly. Berlinger embeds himself and his crew within the production of The Promise, a feature that takes place within the 1915 Armenian genocide in which 1.5 million people were killed by Ottoman Turks. Directed by Academy Award-winning filmmaker Terry George (Hotel Rwanda), The Promise is a highly politicised and controversial project to undertake, considering the Turkish government’s total erasure of the massacre from official discourse.

The documentary’s exposition unfolds fairly conventionally at the outset: the facts and narrative behind the genocide are introduced lucidly by voice-over and subject matter experts, perhaps as a pre-emptive nod to the fact that audiences may not be familiar with the particulars of this oft-ignored historical event (I certainly wasn’t). However, as Berlinger begins to look deeper into the whys and hows of the contemporary denial of the genocide by Turkey (and other governments, including the United States), the significance of the documentary’s focus on a feature production becomes obvious, ultimately pointing to nothing less than the power and influence of mass media, particularly the film industry itself. Berlinger delves deeply into history books, political alliances, economic factors, and inter-governmental relations in order to show the shocking degree to which historical records can effectively be wiped clean (and entire populations misled) in the interests of a powerful few.

In a particularly affective moment, Berlinger catches actors of Middle Eastern provenance like Armenian-American Angela Sarafyan (West World) and Iranian Shohreh Aghdashloo (The Expanse) in tears between takes on the set of The Promise as they reflect on the suffering of their ancestors and the perpetuation of a cycle of violence and destruction to this day. More relevant to local audiences, Canadian director Atom Egoyan recounts the bold political threats he received during the production of his 2002 drama Ararat, a film that similarly explores the nature of historical truth and erasure of the Armenian genocide.

While Intent to Destroy may seem like a conventional, albeit accomplished, doc at first, it doesn’t shy away from complicating matters in the latter half of the film, ultimately producing a smart and affecting portrait of the powerful effects of living in a culture, where media can both reflect and create—and even remarkably distort—an entire lost history.

Intent to Destroy screens:
-Friday, May 5 at Hart House at 3:00 PM

Visit the POV Hot Docs Hub for more coverage from this year’s festival!