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Author aims to uncover genocide's screen link

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  • Author aims to uncover genocide's screen link

    Contra Costa Times, CA
    July 11 2005

    Author aims to uncover genocide's screen link


    MORAGA - As a child in the 1930s, Ed Minasian often found refuge in
    the movie theater across the street from the three-story tenement
    where he grew up in Massachusetts.

    "From our window I could see the Grace Episcopal Church, and next to
    it was the Capitol Theater. On some Sundays, I chose the latter over
    the former," Minasian said. At 10 cents a show, it was the best
    entertainment value of the day, and the darkened theater offered an
    escape from everyday woes.

    There was plenty to escape from: The Depression was in full swing on
    one side of the ocean, Adolf Hitler was coming to power on the other,
    and in the Armenian community he grew up in, the memory of the
    atrocities committed against his people during the genocide that
    began in 1915 was still fresh.

    Armenians say that Turkish forces, trying to purge the country of
    Armenians, caused the deaths of 1.5 million people in outright
    killings or in forced deportations that led to starvation during
    World War I. The Turkish government denies the genocide occurred.

    For someone of Armenian descent, it rarely takes long for the
    conversation to circle around to the genocide 90 years ago. For
    Minasian, it takes no time at all for the conversation to circle
    around to movies.

    The 80-year-old Moraga resident, who lost siblings during the mass
    killings, has spent 24 years researching the place where those two
    circles intersect: 1930s Hollywood. His findings, which he hopes to
    publish in a book, detail how the Turkish government managed to
    squelch repeated attempts by MGM studios to make a movie about the

    The Armenian community -- scattered throughout the world after the
    genocide -- had hoped the film would finally bring international
    attention to their plight, and he felt the loss keenly.

    "All of us knew, yes, Turkey had something to do with stopping that
    movie from being made, but we never knew who, what, when, where,
    why?" Minasian said. "Well, I found out."

    He was 10 when the book that piqued MGM's interest -- Franz Werfel's
    "The Forty Days of Musa Dagh" -- came out in 1934. It quickly topped
    the bestseller charts, but it was another 10 years before he finally
    sat down to read it.

    By then Minasian was in the Air Force, "stationed in a godforsaken
    place in west Texas called Rattlesnake Army Air Base," where they
    trucked in girls from nearby towns on the weekends to dance with the

    "None of us ever got to finish a dance, because we were always cut
    in, but I had plenty of time to read in my off hours," he said. He
    found the book at the base library. "I read that book more often than
    any other book. I used to read it every April ... because April is
    the anniversary of the genocide."

    Werfel's novel is a fictionalized account of the following events:.
    Having heard about the soaring death tolls on the forced "death
    marches" to the Syrian desert, the villagers of Musa Dagh decided to
    resist Turkish forces. Nearly two months later, the survivors were
    rescued by the French, who spotted their distress banners from nearby

    The villagers were relocated to the Middle East, where they formed a
    community in the Anjar area of present-day Lebanon, said Barlow Der
    Mugrdechian, a professor of Armenian Studies at Fresno State
    University who knows of Minasian's project. The incident is "a
    well-known story to the Armenians."

    But the book, written by an Austrian Jew as Hitler was gaining
    influence, had an even broader appeal. It was embraced with
    particular enthusiasm by Jews who saw it as an inspirational tale,
    and Germany quickly banned the book.

    "I say, look, if the world had responded to the Armenian genocide,
    there might not have been a Holocaust," Minasian said.

    When MGM bought the rights, intending to bring the story to the
    screen with the help of Hollywood greats like producer Irving
    Thalberg and Armenian director Rouben Mamoulian, Armenians everywhere
    were ecstatic, he recalled. "That wonderful book is going to be made
    into a movie, and that movie will play all over the world, and
    finally our story of the genocide will get out."

    The celebration was short-lived.

    MGM soon dropped that project, and several subsequent attempts over
    the next few decades. It was widely rumored that the deal collapsed
    under pressure from the Turkish government, and in 1981, Minasian
    decided to find out exactly what had happened.

    Over the next decades, Minasian sifted through archives from Armenian
    newspapers, Hollywood institutions and the U.S. State Department to
    piece together a picture of the doomed flick's fate.

    Between raising a family and pursuing a teaching career, he has
    written articles on the topic published by the National Association
    for Armenian Studies, and a 300-page manuscript he hopes to publish

    "He's done a rather thorough study of this whole issue," said UCLA
    professor Richard Hovannisian, a leading scholar of Armenian studies.
    Turkey's role in the movie's demise isn't a matter of speculation,
    it's well-documented in diplomatic correspondences in the U.S. State
    Department archives, he said. "(The movie) would have attracted
    worldwide attention on the screen, so the quashing of the work was a
    blow to historical memory."

    In his quest to document who dealt that blow, Minasian was granted
    rare access to MGM's archives by the studio's story editor, Samuel
    Marx, and he spent more than a week sifting through four grocery
    carts filled with files on the Musa Dagh movie. He dictated the
    interesting bits into his tape recorder. It took nearly three years
    after that to transcribe the recordings into notes.

    Over the years, he also read through Werfel's papers housed at UCLA
    and the scripts kept by the American Film Institute.

    To cap it off, he used the Freedom of Information Act to get the
    State Department's file on MGM and the Musa Dagh movie.

    Minasian knows he faces a few publishing hurdles. To begin with, he's
    an unknown author with no agent, and also, he's been told his subject
    is "esoteric" and "passť." He figures he may end up self-publishing
    the book.

    His passion for film is one of the forces driving the project,
    evident in the old movie posters lining his walls. Conversations
    about almost anything can lead back to movies, from the book Minasian
    just finished reading ("The Da Vinci Code," whose movie version will
    star Tom Hanks) to Armenia's early embrace of Christianity (which
    elicits a reference to the recent Crusades flick "Kingdom of

    When "Sideways" came out last year, Minasian was the first to spread
    the word throughout the local Armenian community: Some of the final
    scenes feature an Armenian-American wedding, filmed at a real
    Southern California Armenian church.

    For Minasian, the genocide isn't just history, it's family history.

    His parents both survived the massacre but lost their first spouses
    and some of their children. His mother was 19 when she watched the
    men in her village, including her first husband, marched away by
    Turkish soldiers, carrying the shovels to dig their own graves. His
    mother and sister joined the long line of Armenians forced to march
    toward the Syrian desert, with only as much food and water as they
    could carry.

    His father was already living in the United States, hoping to send
    for his first wife and three children back in Turkey, when the
    massacre began. Only one daughter from that marriage survived, and
    when Minasian met her in 1976, she told him about a brother he had
    never heard of, who died of typhus at age 3 on one of the forced
    marches. Minasian, who still wonders why his father never mentioned
    the little boy, now carries a copy of the child's picture in his

    His work is a tribute to them.

    "I see it as my legacy for my folks, who were survivors, and so many
    of the people I came to know in my youth and even now," he said. "You
    see, we're not fighting for vengeance, we're fighting for justice. We
    want the Turkish government to own up to what they did."


    NAME: Ed Minasian

    AGE: 80

    EDUCATION: Master's from UC Berkeley

    OCCUPATION: Retired teacher from Laney College in Oakland

    RESIDENCE: Moraga

    CLAIM TO FAME: Spent years researching MGM's attempts to make a movie
    about the Armenian genocide
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