The Son of the Olive Merchant (Le fils du marchand d’olives)


A cross-eyed sheep in wolf's clothing.

A cross-eyed sheep in wolf’s clothing.

(2011) Documentary (Choices Video) Anna Zeitindjioglou, Mathieu Zeitindjioglou, Jean-Claude Dreyfus (narrator). Directed by Mathieu Zeitindjioglou

It is said that history is written by the victorious. It is certainly not written by the victims. In 1915-16 during the height of the First World War, Turkey embarked on a relocation program of its Armenian minority program. According to Turkish history, many Armenians died during this relocation although the Turkish government hadn’t intended them to do so. Some of the Armenians had allied themselves with Russia and carried out terrorist attacks which necessitated getting rid of the snake at their bosom so to speak.

The rest of the world sees things quite differently. Not so much a relocation as a genocide, in fact, the first of the 20th century (and sadly not the last). Somewhere between a million and a million and a half Armenians died during an 18 month period. Eyewitness accounts have all manner of atrocities being committed – sexual assaults, children being burned alive, boatloads of refugees sailed into the Mediterranean and then the boats capsized or sunk. The town of Ani, once a beautiful capital of the region, was literally razed to the ground as were many other villages and towns.

French filmmaker Mathieu Zeitindjioglou now living in Paris has his roots here. His name was changed from the original Zeitounjian to Zeitindjioglou – they have the same meaning in Armenian as in Turkish. His ancestor managed to escape to France because authorities thought he was a Turk.

After marrying Anna, a vivacious Pole, he is convinced to visit Turkey for their honeymoon and get a sense of his homeland today. One gets the sense Mathieu was a bit reluctant to do so; throughout the film he is behind the camera and rarely a participant directly in the proceedings. Frankly, I think the movie would have benefitted from his insights; how he felt about seeing these places where his ancestors once called home.. We are left with Anna’s descriptions of his eyes as the only clues.

Anna drives the film; she relentlessly questions Turks about the genocide, which in Turkey is not recognized as such. Museums contain sections that are revisionist, blaming the whole thing on the Armenians themselves. Questions to ordinary Turks on the street gets either ignorance that the event took place at all, or a kind of “well they did far worse to us” attitude. Anna is also present at conferences in which Turkish diplomats make their case to join the European Union; not everyone in Europe was in favor of this because of the country’s revisionist stance and refusal to at least acknowledge that the policy was of deliberate obliteration of all Armenian presence in their country. Although that happened nearly a century ago, I can kind of see their point. Imagine if Germany today made it official state policy that the Holocaust never occurred.

The interviews in Turkey are for the most part shot guerrilla style on a small camera, so at times the camera remains far too static and the interviews themselves can be repetitive. The film is fairly short so I suppose that reinforcing the main point with five or six different subjects saying the same things is useful. It also should be noted that it is illegal in Turkey to go on record saying that the Armenian genocide took place so some of the interview subjects may well have not wanted to go on the record saying that it did and risk arrest, which of course the filmmakers also did so one must give them both appropriate marks for their courage.

Interspersed in the interviews are animated sequences using a wolf-boy allegory to depict Mathieu’s journey. The animations are uniformly well done and seem to be the closest thing we get into Mathieu’s mindset. These are narrated by Dreyfus in a fine stentorian voice and had some of my favorite moments in the film.

At times I got the sense that the filmmaker was floundering a bit in trying to make his point but that can be overlooked because of the quality of the animation as well as the archival photographs and film that Zeitindjioglou utilizes throughout. If the images look a bit too uncomfortably close to those from Auschwitz and Rwanda one shouldn’t be surprised. After all, atrocities transcend time and place and inhumanity and brutality is no different in Ankara in 1915 as they do in Warsaw in 1938 and Kigali in 1994.

The movie is available on Amazon and on VOD. While it isn’t playing the festival circuit any longer, it is worth seeking out. Most Americans are ignorant that the genocide took place at all (unless you happen to be of Armenian descent) and this is a good opportunity to learn something while accompanying the Zeitindjioglous on their journey.

REASONS TO GO: Interesting and well-done animations. Informative about a genocide few Americans know much about.

REASONS TO STAY: Lacks direct personal insight. Wanders aimlessly at times. Interviews are occasionally repetitive.

FAMILY VALUES:  There are some disturbing images, some bad language and mature themes.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie gets its name from the filmmaker’s last name which is translated from Turkish as “Son of the Olive Seller.”

CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/19/13 the film has yet to be receive scores on either Rotten Tomatoes or Metacritic.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Sarah’s Key

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: The Godfather Part II

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