Michael Hagopian, who died on December 10 aged 97, survived the massacre of Armenians by the Turks during the First World War and went on, as a documentary film maker, to campaign for the killings to be recognised officially as “genocide”.
According to historians, between 1915 and 1918 some 1.5 million Armenians died in a series of wholesale massacres and deportations which took place amid the chaos of war and the dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire. Turkey maintains that the deaths (which it estimates at 300,000 Armenians and about as many Turks — many of them victims of famine and disease) occurred within the context of a civil war sparked after Armenians, backed by Russia, rose up against the Ottomans. It remains a crime in Turkey to portray the killings as “genocide”.
Hagopian was determined to refute the Turkish claims. Among several documentaries, The Forgotten Genocide (1976), the first full-length feature on the killings, involved nearly 400 witness interviews and 20 years of research and received Emmy nominations for best documentary writing and production.
The River Ran Red (2008) told how hundreds of thousands of Armenians were forced into the Syrian Desert, where most of them died of starvation, and was voted best international historical documentary by the New York International Film & Video Festival in 2009.
To date, 20 countries have officially recognised the events of the period as genocide. Earlier this year a resolution to that effect was narrowly approved by the American congressional Foreign Affairs Committee. On several recent occasions, however, similar resolutions have been adopted by the committee only to fall short of endorsement by a vote of the full House.
In 2007, for example, a committee resolution branding the massacre of Armenians as genocide was greeted by a jubilant Hagopian as a sign that “representatives in Congress now realise the Armenian community has a lot of political power”. But in the end support for the bill ebbed away as Ankara recalled its ambassador to Washington and politicians within Congress feared that ties to Turkey – whose airspace was a crucial corridor to supply US troops in Iraq – would be irreparably damaged. Turkey is again lobbying America to prevent any vote in the present instance.