Sunday 20 August 2017

George and the Promised Land

From Northern Ireland to Rwanda, writer and director Terry George is no stranger to conflict

Christian Bale and Charlotte Le Bon in 'The Promise'
Christian Bale and Charlotte Le Bon in 'The Promise'
Terry George with the Best Live Action Short Film Oscar of 2012, received (alongside Oorlagh George) for The Shore

Anne Marie Scanlon

You better write nice things about me," says Terry George, "or I'll tell that you tried to steal my computer". In all honesty, I did try to take the 2012 Oscar winner's computer but it was all his own fault. I was so caught up in what the director was saying to me that I inadvertently picked up his laptop, which is exactly the same make as my own, and it was only when I tried to stuff it into my handbag I realised what I was doing.

George needn't have worried; I've always had a weakness for Belfast men - it's not just the accent but the cheeky charm they deploy which other men just wouldn't get away with. When I tell George that I think we met in New York in the early 1990s, he immediately comes back with, "you must have been all of 10 then". See?

We're meeting to talk about The Promise, starring Christian Bale, Oscar Isaac (totally unrecognisable from his role in Ex Machina) and Charlotte Le Bon, which George has directed. The film is a love story, a love triangle, that occurs alongside the outbreak of WWI and the Ottoman Empire's purge of the Armenian community.

'The Armenian Genocide', as it has become known, (in fact George tells me the word 'genocide' was coined in 1946 specifically to describe events in Armenia) in which two million are reported to have perished, is not as well known as subsequent global atrocities. To date Turkey refuses to admit that the event ever occurred.

Having already been aware of the 'Armenian Genocide' before seeing the film, I was quite shocked at how angered I was at the behaviour of the Turks who are the undisputed bad guys. I wonder if George worried that he'd be accused of Islamophobia for his portrayal of the Turkish?

"No," George replies promptly. "You present the historical event as it happened…The persecution of the Armenians, the Greeks and the Syrians was definitely based on the fact that they were Christians and there was an attempt to purify the Ottoman Empire. But," he continues, "the refugee situation that we portray is almost identically happening today with the Syrians and the Iraqis who are fleeing in the exact same area."

The filmmaker stresses that The Promise is denouncing the Ottoman Empire which is a completely different thing from Islamophobia.

George goes on to say, "having learned from In the Name of the Father, Some Mother's Son and Hotel Rwanda - how those films were attacked for their veracity, I was extremely careful to do the historical research…I'd learned that you better have your facts straight on the story''.

Long before The Promise went on general release the controversy had already begun. "We screened it twice in Toronto [Film Festival] with a total audience of 3,000," George tells me. "By the end of that week we had 86,000 reviews on IMDb, 55,000 were one out of 10 and the other 30,000 were 10 out of 10."

At the start of The Promise we see the characters enjoying life in the relatively modern Constantinople, yet within weeks, the veneer of civilisation has gone, replaced by medieval barbarity. I ask George if he thinks this could happen again.

"It happened in Aleppo already," he replies. "One of the really sad things about the film is that the images we present - as we were filming in Spain, they were showing on TV, in the exact location that the story was set in, there were refugees fleeing across the desert, trapped up a mountain, drowning in the Mediterranean…

"The city of Aleppo, which was the biggest city in Syria, has just been flattened in the way that Dresden and Warsaw were. So it happens."

George himself is no stranger to conflict. As a child, the screen writer and director loved writing and wanted to do something like journalism.

"In Belfast that was the situation, the Catholics went towards the arts and Protestants went towards technology and the law and so forth because you couldn't actually get a job in (those things) back then. By the time I was 16, The Troubles had broke out and that kind of nullified any objective that you had."

In 1975, at the age of 23, George was arrested for paramilitary activity and subsequently sentenced to six years in the notorious Long Kesh jail (also known as the Maze Prison). He was released in 1978 and three years later he and his family moved to the US.

In 1993 he made his debut as a screenwriter (and assistant director) with In the Name of the Father which was subsequently nominated for seven Oscars. I wonder if he is worried about being turfed out of his adoptive home under the Trump administration, as his residence is still dependent on a visa. George laughs out loud.

"I'm always worried about it…You know you get to a point where it's like la-di-dah… I'm blessed, I'm a film director, screen writer, working in Hollywood, living in the Hamptons with a house in Coney Island, Northern Ireland. If they want to throw me out - go ahead," he says.

But then becoming more serious, he adds: "I'm more worried about the people who clean my house, the people in LA who work in the restaurants, the Irish who have been trapped. When I went to the States there was an amnesty, a big chunk of the Irish were legalised, there's a group now who are trapped and I don't know if they're going to get any solution from this crowd."

The director is similarly dismayed by Brexit and the implications it has for the people of Northern Ireland. "I think it's a disaster," he says passionately, "given that (the EU was) the underpinning of the peace process".

We meet shortly after the death of Martin McGuinness, who was a key player in the peace process and George has no time for the people who linger on McGuinness's early years. "For him and Adams to persuade the hardcore of the IRA to buy into the peace process, and then for McGuinness to get Paisley and Robinson on board and create a relatively stable government…just look around the world and ask who else could have achieved that?"

George also doesn't have time for people who perpetuate the story that Christian Bale is a diva.

"Christian Bale is the loveliest actor that I have worked with," he declares. "Well, not by far," he corrects himself, "I mean Helen Mirren, Don Cheadle but Christian Bale...if you talk to anyone who has worked with him - he's the best."

And they probably say the same thing about Terry George.

'The Promise' is in cinemas nationwide from April 28

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