August 24, 2020

Movie Review: The Ottoman Lieutenant (Netflix - 2017)

Initial comment - let's remember that the first rule of fiction, even historical fiction, is the suspension of disbelief. That means as you are watching a movie or reading a book that is not history or a biography, you need to keep telling yourself that this is not true, it's entertainment. However, when you watch a movie set in actual historic events, you expect the author to at least adhere to some aspects of reality.

If you decide to watch The Ottoman Lieutenant, be prepared to engage in a major suspension of disbelief. That said, you may want to watch it. Let me give you some information that will inform your decision. Consider that the movie production cost was about $40 million, but grossed worldwide just over $400,000 (less than $250,000 in the United States).

If you can imagine it, the movie is a Turkish-American romantic story set in the city and environs of Van, in eastern Anatolia (present-day Turkey) in the opening days of World War One. At the time, Van was a city with a majority Armenian and Kurdish population. The Armenians were arming themselves and forming militias, knowing full well that war was coming, and they would likely be caught between the Ottoman and the Russian armies. The Ottoman Empire entered the war on the side of Germany in October 1914.

The love triangle in the movie, which I found to be unlikely, involves an American doctor (Josh Hartnett) working in an American-sponsored hospital in Van, established and run by an older doctor (Ben Kingsley). An American nurse (Hera Hilmar), who met the young doctor while he was in the States on a fundraising trip, decides to bring much-needed medical supplies and a truck to the hospital. A bit far-fetched.

Bringing the supplies to eastern Anatolia requires permission from the Ottoman authorities. Ottoman Army Lieutenant Ismail Veli (Michiel Huisman) is assigned to escort the nurse to the hospital in Van. You see where this is going - young doctor, young nurse, young officer.

As someone whose professional focus has been the Middle East, I find the historical aspects of the lead-up to World War One of interest, and was curious as to how the producers were going to treat the obvious issue: the Armenian genocide that began in 1915.

The disappointing answer: the producers either ignored it or adhered to the official Turkish government position. I should have known how this was likely to be handled since the major investors in the project are Turkish, the production companies are Turkish, and the final cut of the movie was done in Turkey.

The film treats the Armenians as the cause of the problem - blame the victims. In the Turkish view, Ottoman attacks on Armenians were reactions to armed Armenian gangs roaming the countryside raiding travelers and Ottoman villages. The killings of Armenians were part of this violence, unorganized in nature, but in no way an organized government genocide.

After I watched the movie, I did more research and discovered that there is a school of thought that this movie was a response to another movie - The Promise - that depicts the Armenian genocide as just that, an organized attempt to eliminate the Armenians in what is now Turkey. I plan to watch and review it. Where this movie smacks of denial, perhaps The Promise will better address the issue.

It is hard to generate any sympathy for the Turks, given the recent actions of their megalomaniac president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. In July of this year, he revoked the museum status of the Hagia Sophia, the sixth century church and later mosque, into a mosque. The Hagia Sophia houses some of the world's greatest Christian art, which will now be recovered. Just last week, he did the same thing to another former church/museum, the Chora Church. (See my article: "Sultan" Erdogan converts another museum to a mosque.)

Add to that, Erdoğan's actions in Syria since 2015 have been unnecessary, unhelpful, and dangerous. It appears to many of us Middle East observers that he is tacitly supporting the Islamists in Syria, much as he facilitated the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria in their earlier years. Think not? How did all of the foreign fighters in Syria actually get to Syria?

Now the self-styled sultan is trying to expand what I call his neo-Ottoman reach to Libya and the Eastern Mediterranean, has established a military base in Qatar. (Read more of my articles on how unhelpful Erdoğan has been.)

If you're a fan of Turkey and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, you may like the movie. Otherwise, save yourself the 106 minutes.

It is available on Netflix.