Why Kim Kardashian’s a fan of Irishman Terry George’s new film

At the core of The Promise is the first World War genocide of the Kardashians’ fellow Armenians, a cause close to the family's heart

Terry George, the Irish film-maker behind Some Mother's Son and Hotel Rwanda, is surely accustomed to rubbing shoulders with the glitterati, having attended the Academy Awards as a nominee on three occasions. (He won with The Shore, in 2012.) He is also no stranger to rave reviews.

Still, this month marks the first time that the writer-director has been publicly championed by Kourtney and Kim Kardashian. The occasion was the red-carpet premiere of The Promise. The film is an ambitious historical drama set during the first World War genocide of Armenians by Turkish troops.

“So proud of the movie #ThePromise Everyone please go see it and finally hear the story of the Armenian people,” tweeted Kim, who, it later emerged, was suffering with flu, but was keen to lend her public support regardless.

The Kardashians' father, Robert, was an important figure within the Armenian community in California

“The Kardashians’ father, Robert, was an important figure within the Armenian community in California,” George says of his new fan. “So they are very into their heritage. Cher as well. So we had all these people at the premiere. Which is useful for getting the word out.”

The Promise, which stars Christian Bale, Oscar Isaac and Charlotte Le Bon, uses romantic drama as a springboard to recount the systematic killing of 1.5 million Armenians between 1915 and 1917, as conducted by the Ottoman government. These events are widely acknowledged as the first modern genocide yet remain comparatively under-reported.

"I think that goes back to the end of the first World War," George says. "Initially, the British occupied Istanbul – or Constantinople. They rounded up some of the genocide perpetrators and began putting them on trial. A few were executed. Then, as the British and the French began dividing up what was left of the Ottoman Empire, they needed the co-operation of people like Atatürk," he says, referring to the founder of modern Turkey. "So the genocide perpetrators were turned over to the Turkish government, and the whole thing was brushed under the carpet.

Turkish governments have suggested that there was no systematic slaughter at all

“Subsequent Turkish governments have suggested that there was no systematic slaughter at all. Their story is that there was an uprising of Armenians in the north; that they had to move them out of that area; that there was a war on and people died. That revisionist version became the official version in Turkey and then the rest of the world.”

Two years ago, as the centenary of the slaughter approached, Pope Francis urged the world to recognise the atrocities as "the first genocide of the 20th century". Ireland, however, remains one of the nations, alongside Israel and the United Kingdom, that refuse to describe the extermination as genocide.

"What's strange is that, at the time, this was one of the most heavily publicised stories on the eastern front," George says, "to the extent that when Adolf Hitler was encouraging his generals in Poland to show no mercy, he said: 'Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?' That speaks to the revisionist movement by the Turkish government and their successors. This was an active campaign. And it was very successful."

The Promise was largely financed by the late Kirk Kerkorian, an American-Armenian billionaire, who had long hoped for an Armenian version of Schindler's List or The Killing Fields. George, who first became familiar with the history through Samantha Power's Pulitzer-winning book A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide, insists there was no additional interference from his benefactor.

"I never met the guy. He was ill by the time I came on board. The production company, Survival Pictures, had a script already, which I adapted. They were very positive about the fact I didn't have any connection to the Armenian community. That I came from a neutral perspective was a plus to them."

In this spirit The Promise is careful to steer clear of anything that might be read as anti-Turkish propaganda. "The governor character who warns the missionaries and the orphans to get out is based on numerous governors and politicians who took a stand against this – and, indeed, who were often fired or killed for their efforts. As with any conflict there are good and bad on either side. I think it's important to show that this was a political policy, not something all Turks supported."

After just three screenings The Promise received more than 80,000 votes on IMDB, most of which rated it 1/10 or 10/10

The subject is still incendiary. The film is the latest victim of online "vote brigading": the practice of down-voting reviews on websites that allow for crowd voting. After just three screenings The Promise received more than 80,000 votes on IMDB, most of which rated the film 1/10 or 10/10.

"There's really not much debate about this any more," George says. "It's sort of like climate change. You can argue against it, but only if you ignore the facts. This is past being controversial. There are denialists, of course. But having gone through the same with In the Name of the Father and Some Mother's Son and Hotel Rwanda, you learn to ensure the veracity of the events you portray. And how to defend them if you get into any argument."

Terry George ended up in Long Kesh. One fellow prisoner was Gerry Adams. Another was the hunger striker Patsy O'Hara

Turbulent political history is hardly new ground for George, who was born and raised in Belfast. In 1971, as a teenager, he was a trainee draftsman for the Northern Ireland Civil Service when he was arrested and detained for eight weeks without trial. He later became involved with the Irish Republican Socialist Party. In 1975 he was driving with armed members of the group when British soldiers stopped them. He did not have a weapon but was sentenced to six years in prison. He ended up in Long Kesh: one fellow prisoner at the time was Gerry Adams; another was Patsy O'Hara, the third hunger striker to die in 1981. George was released in 1978 for good behaviour; he then attended Queen's University Belfast before moving to New York, in 1981, with his wife, Rita, and their daughter, Oorlagh.

There he carved out a career as a journalist before revisiting his past as an artist. Debuting in 1985, The Tunnel, his first play, was based on an attempt to escape from Long Kesh in 1976. In 1993 he made his debut as screenwriter and assistant director with In the Name of the Father, a prison and courtroom drama chronicling the wrongful conviction of the Guildford Four, starring Daniel Day-Lewis, and directed and cowritten by Jim Sheridan.

George made his debut as a director with Some Mother's Son, a drama inspired by the hunger strikers. He has subsequently explored various conflicts in his work, including the second World War, in Hart's War, and Vietnam, in A Bright Shining Lie.

Would he be the same film-maker were it not for Long Kesh? “It had an enormous and direct impact on me in terms of storytelling. I guess now, 40 years or more later, you reflect on it as a part of your life that gave you a particular insight, particularly a political insight, that led to looking at other conflicts. And a lot of times you look and think, There but for the grace of God go I.”

Hollywood doesn't make films like this any more. It makes $200m films about cars chasing submarines across the ice

In this spirit it was not so difficult to return to genocide, a topic he broached in Hotel Rwanda, his historical drama from 2004. "Very few people will make films like this or get the opportunity to do so. Hollywood doesn't make films like this any more. It makes $200 million films about cars chasing submarines across the ice. So to get the chance to create characters that will take audiences inside a complex situation is a gift. Do research on almost any historical event or war and you're going to run into difficult material. Pretty horrible stuff. But I still jumped at the opportunity."

The Promise is on general release


“What was it Theresa May said? Frictionless Border? How the f**k is that going to work? What level of disconnect is going on here? The fact she is willing to call an election in the middle of a crisis in Stormont. The EU removed the physicality and the psychology of the Border mentality. To see that potentially coming back is pretty scary. Who knows where this is going to go, especially if Scottish independence comes into play? It took half of my lifetime to get a decent road from Dublin to Belfast. And now they’re going to put something in the middle of it.”