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'Orphans of the Genocide' Director Talks Universality of Armenian Genocide

Bared Maronian wanted to give a voice to the voiceless (and identity-less). The four-time regional Emmy Award-winning writer-director talked to us about his new film "Orphans of the Genocide," which makes its KCET debut on April 8 at 9 p.m., leading up to the 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide on April 24. 

The documentary traces the lives of the orphans who lived through horrors of war, losing parents, being separated from siblings, and shipped to various countries during the genocide. It follows Maurice Missak Kelechian, whose research findings unveiled the site of an Armenian orphanage at present day Antoura College near Beirut, Lebanon, where 1,000 Armenian Genocide orphans once lived and forcefully underwent Turkification during WWI.  

In addition to the Antoura site, the film unveils numerous other orphanages where Armenian orphans were housed. It also profiles an orphan who was adopted and later became one of Turkey's highest-profiled national icons as the daughter of Ataturk, the founder of modern-day Turkey. 

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You've said that the Armenian Genocide is a universal subject and not just an Armenian issue. Can you elaborate on that?

The stories of the Armenian Genocide orphans that we highlight in the documentary are of universal proportions. Meaning, the experiences that the orphans of the Armenian Genocide went through are the same experiences (loss of family members, starvation, pain, epidemics such as typhus, social displacement) that the orphans of the Cambodian Genocide, the Holocaust orphans, and the Darfur Genocide orphans went through. 

Therefore, the Armenian Genocide is not only an Armenian issue. It concerns all of the civilized world. A large number of scholars agree that, had the world paid closer attention to the Armenian Genocide -- the first genocide of the 20th century -- the genocides that followed it would have never happened. 

Why did you choose Antoura Orphanage (now Antoura College in Lebanon) as the focal point for this documentary?

I chose the Antoura Orphanage as the focal point of the film because it was the inspiration to the film. The film is based on an article by British award-winning journalist Robert Fisk of The Independent newspaper delineating the story of 1,200 Armenian and Kurdish orphaned children being "Turkified" in a makeshift, hostile orphanage by direct orders from Jemal Pasha, one of the three masterminds of the Armenian Genocide. 

The 1,200 orphans were being stripped of their identity, their names, their culture and their religion, and they were forcibly being turned into Turks -- an act that constitutes genocide according to the definition of genocide stated by the United Nations. 

What are some of your most resonant memories and experiences from conducting research or interviews for the film?

In many ways, producing this documentary was an arduous journey. I can openly confess that 80% of the information that we dealt with in the film was new to me. I was astounded by the fact that the world's largest orphanage was an orphanage in Alexandrapole (currently Gyumri). Armenia housing over 20,000 Armenian Genocide orphans in one complex ... that was huge. 

I was also astounded, positively I should say, by the fact that this orphanage was funded and operated by Americans, specifically the American Near East Relief that saved over 132,000 Armenian Genocide orphans from annihilation. 

How long did it take to complete this documentary and what, aside from financial difficulty, was the hardest part of the process?

It took us three and a half years to complete the film. The orphan aspect of the Armenian Genocide was uncharted territory. At the onset of our research process, we were having a hard time finding primary research on the topic. Even though there are a few books in Armenian on the topic. Two years into the project we found ourselves sitting in front of huge piles of documents and we realized that what we found was only the tip of the iceberg. 

Today, college students from around the world contact me for information about the Armenian Genocide orphans, and use our unearthed documents in their papers and theses. Most of these students are non-Armenians. 

As an Armenian, did your connection to the subject matter make the filmmaking process more challenging and emotionally exhaustive?

It was an exhausting experience. While working on the film, especially during the editing process, I had to live and relive the experiences of those feeble, innocent children, who were tortured beyond belief. Now, after making this film, I am a different person. I feel content for the mere fact that students are benefiting from our work and educating each other and the public at large about genocide in general, because aside from obtaining worldwide recognition of the Armenian Genocide, our ultimate goal is to prevent future genocides from happening.  

What happened to the children of the genocide who weren't sent to asylums, where they were "Turkified," between 1915 and 1922?

The children of the Armenian Genocide were subject to all kinds of indignities, abuse, exploitation, torture, and disease. It is believed that children over the age of 13 were killed and the rest were taken in either by hostile or friendly institutions or families. 

Most were integrated into Turkish, Kurdish, and Arab families and were raised as Turks, Kurds, or Arabs. Today in Turkey, articles and books are being published about hidden or Turkified individuals, who are confessing on their deathbeds about their Armenian roots. Unfortunately, nobody knows the exact number of those orphans or their offspring, but scholars agree that the number is significantly large. 

What was Near East Relief's role in rescuing Armenian genocide orphans?

Near East Relief had the lion's share in rescuing genocide stricken Armenian children. Americans were raising large amounts of money to rescue, shelter, feed, and educate Armenian children as early as 1915. Besides saving the lives of those tens of thousands of Armenian orphans, the Americans made every possible effort to protect those Armenian children's culture, traditions, and religion. To me, that is the ultimate humanitarianism. 

The 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide is less than a month away. Do you think this film will be more impactful in light of the centennial commemoration?

My goal is to educate the public on this crucially important subject and invite their attention to the recognition of all genocides, the awareness of all genocides, and of course, prevention of future genocides. By the end of April 2015, thanks to public broadcasting and Link TV, "Orphans of the Genocide" will reach 50.6 million households. My personal goal is to raise that 50.6 million to a 100 million by the end of 2015 for the 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide.   

What new projects are you working on?

My current project is another very important documentary called "Women of 1915" about the plight of the Armenian women during the genocide and all those American, European, and Scandinavian women, who at their young ages flocked into the killing fields of the Armenian Genocide and saved thousands and thousands of Armenian women, who in turn founded the post-genocide Armenian diaspora. 

The film is almost 40 percent complete and we are looking for financial support. We invite foundations, organizations, and private donors to donate tax-deductible contributions. To learn more about the project, visit the Armenoid Productions website or contact me here.

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