Decision Not To Distribute Film on Armenian Deaths Reconsidered

By Peter Schmidt — November 27, 1991 3 min read

Under pressure from Armenian-American organizations, a panel of the California Department of Education moved last week to reconsider its decision not to give schools copies of a documentary film depicting the Ottoman Empire’s alleged campaign of genocide against Armenians seven decades ago.

The controversy over the film, which was mandated by a state law, reflects the continuing debate between Armenian and Turkish Americans, and scholars, over the extent and responsibility for the mass deaths of Armenians during and after World War I.

Before last week’s action, the education department’s curriculum-development commission had decided against distributing the film, entitled “The Armenian Genocide,” even though the panel had already paid a producer $50,000 to make it.

The reason, explained Susan Lange, a spokesman for the education department, was that the producer, J. Michael Hagopian, had completed the documentary after deadline. As a result, she said, it was not reviewed and had “never got through the first hurdle” in the commission’s approval process.

“Ultimately, the issue was that he did not complete the film,” Ms. Lange said. “There is no intent here to incite the Armenian community.”

After a deluge of protests by Armenian Americans and their interest groups, however, the commission agreed to review its decision to reject the film “to get people to calm down,” Ms. Lange said.

Panel members voted to take up the issue again at their February meeting.

Curriculum Mandate Opposed

The education department had been required to produce the film under a 1987 state law that called on schools to include discussions of genocide and related issues in their curriculum. (See Education Week, Sept. 16, 1987.)

The law, sponsored by former Assemblyman Mike Roos, required the education department to produce films on the massacre of Armenians and on the World War II internment of Japanese Americans.

The department opposed the measure, saying it did not want the legislature mandating which books and other instructional materials are used in state schools.

The 1987 law did not actually require that the films be distributed, and left it to the education department’s curriculum commission to review the films’ quality.

In addition to its failure to be turned in on time, Ms. Lange said, “The Armenian Genocide” was also rejected because “our staff had serious concerns about content and both the quality and the presentation of the material.”

The film, which used photographs and interviews with survivors to recount the deaths of what some historians have estimated at a million or more Armenians in the Ottoman Empire, “lacked a lot of verification of data that was used,” Ms. Lange said.

But Mr. Hagopian maintains that he completed the film on time. He has been nominated twice for Emmy awards for previous films on the massacre of Armenians, Mr. Hagopian said, arguing that his final version of the film was of high quality and that many of the education department’s criticisms seemed to be based on early drafts.

Department officials appear to be “looking for an excuse” not to release the film to spite the legislators who required them to produce it, Mr. Hagopian said.

The filmmaker also accused the department of bowing to pressure from Turkish-American organizations, which sent letters criticizing the film as historically inaccurate and as likely to incite students to hate Turks.

Berdj P. Karapetian, the executive director of Armenian National Committee’s western regional office, which lobbied for the 1987 law, said his organization mounted its own letter-writing campaign to get the education department to reverse its decision not to distribute the film.

Ms. Lange acknowledged that the education department had received several calls from Armenian and Turkish Americans about the film.

“It is difficult to try to make one film that fills one group’s expectations of how they want their history told,” Ms. Lange said.

A version of this article appeared in the November 27, 1991 edition of Education Week as Decision Not To Distribute Film on Armenian Deaths Reconsidered