What does metal band System of a Down have to do with the mass extermination of Armenians in 1915? Descended from survivors of the so-called “Armenian genocide,” band members teamed with Armenian-American filmmaker Carla Garapedian and partner Peter McAlevey to make “Screamers,” a soapbox doc that intercuts concert footage with talking heads and scenes of horrifying human atrocity. But a noble cause does not a good movie make. Pic repeatedly drowns its impassioned message with music, creating an awkward hybrid between history lesson and concert doc that will be a tough sell to either aud.
If the recent Dixie Chicks study “Shut Up & Sing” demonstrates how quickly the public can turn on artists for being politically outspoken, “Screamers” counters with a more optimistic view: System of a Down’s fans actually expect a level of political activism from the band, who have made it their personal cause to spread awareness of the “ethnic cleansing” Hitler reportedly used as his model for the Holocaust. To this day, Turkey denies the “historical intrigue” of the deportations and massacres as a lie, prosecuting critics for denigrating “Turkishness,” while U.S. and U.K. politicians resist officially recognizing the Armenian genocide.
With his Weird Al hair and King Tut goatee, lead singer Serj Tankian proves most eloquent on the subject. Docu shows Tankian reflecting on his heritage, both on the road and in conversation with his disabled grandfather, who shares stories of the long marches he endured as a child.
Pic’s most surprising revelation concerns the extent to which System of a Down use their celebrity to draw attention to the issue (many of their songs address the subject directly), even going so far as to broadcast related news footage during their concerts and giving classroom lectures on the subject.
And yet, the movie scrambles the message. Every few minutes, just as the interview footage begins to gather momentum, another heavy-metal song rumbles to life, and Garapedian and editor Bill Yahraus whisk auds away again to an arena where goth kids are worshipping at the band’s feet.
On one hand, System of a Down specifically wants the world to acknowledge the eradication of more than a million Armenians as “genocide,” a semantic distinction that might pave the way to reparations. But pic doesn’t define the term until 50 minutes in, and no sooner does it explain the “G word’s” potential — “If it’s ‘genocide,’ then you have to do something about it” — than it offers the counter-example: “The Bush administration seemed to think if they called it ‘genocide,’ then they were doing something.”
“Screamers” begins to lose focus as montages take on the many calamities of the past century at once. Photos of forlorn Armenians and skin-and-bones corpses certainly turn the stomach, but pic’s slideshow-of-horrors strategy blends them with images of the Holocaust and mass killings in Rwanda, Sarajevo, Srebenica and Darfur, making it tricky to distinguish one mass grave from another.
The effect, much like the band’s music, is one of shock and rage. Instead of communicating the facts in an organized and effective way, the film embodies an emotional response to the atrocities. The band and crew seem to be venting their frustration, but auds seeking a provocative intellectual discourse would be better served by Atom Egoyan’s “Ararat.”
Most of the interviews with relevant politicians and activists take place primarily on park benches and noisy city streets, which gives the film a disorganized and almost impulsive feel, while fighter-jet clips and other anti-violence inserts have a way of upstaging the rocking concert footage.