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Russell Crowe Water Diviner.jpeg

The Well-Digger’s Sons

Judith Mahoney Pasternak May 1

The Water Diviner
Directed by Russell Crowe
Warner Brothers, 2015


We have a movie, and we have a firestorm. Let’s start with the movie.

The Water Diviner, Australian actor Russell Crowe’s directorial debut, recounts the based-on-a-true-story journey of a bereaved Australian farmer searching in Turkey for his lost sons in the aftermath of World War I. Taken on its own terms, the film’s epic account of war and undying love has moments of greatness, sadly marred by a romantic subplot as implausible as it is unnecessary.

The 1915-1919 war between the British, French, Russian and U.S. Allies and the German, Austro-Hungarian, and Turkish Central Powers involved most of the world’s major powers of the time. In fact it took place almost entirely in Europe but reached as far as the Asian parts of Turkey, including the Gallipoli Peninsula in Anatolia. Anatolia was the historic homeland of Turkey’s Armenian population, against which the Turkish government began, on April 24, 1915, a systematic campaign of mass murder and deportation, called in Armenian Medz Yeghern, the “great crime,” and acknowledged by most historians to have been genocide, although Turkey still denies that label. And Gallipoli in Anatolia is where, the next day, on April 25, 1915, the Allies landed an invasion force of ANZAC — Australian and New Zealand — troops of the British Empire. It was the beginning a months-long battle that would be catastrophic for the Allies and terrible for the Turks as well. In the end, the Allies won the war, took over various parts of the defeated Ottoman Empire, occupying Turkey, creating Britain’s Palestine Mandate (which the United Nations partitioned in 1947), and imposing catastrophic penalties on Germany (which by the way fertilized the ground for the Third Reich, but that’s another story).

The film’s opening sequence in the vast red Australian outback is a masterpiece of cinematic sleight of hand, brilliantly delineating its protagonist’s character in a few swift strokes while distracting watchers with the stunning, bleak beauty of his environment and the apparent hopelessness of his effort. We watch Joshua Connor (Crowe) as he digs — and digs, and digs, and digs — for the water his dowsing sticks have said is down there somewhere, and by the time it gushes up, we know about Connor’s uncanny ability with the dowsing sticks, his loneliness, and, most important, his dogged determination.

The story proceeds. It’s 1919, and WWI is over at last, but it has cost Connor and his wife their three sons. The brothers were lost four years earlier, on the first day of the Gallipoli Campaign in Turkey. Flashbacks relate the family’s one-time closeness, the brothers’ deep bond, and the horror of war in general and the Gallipoli Campaign in particular. When Connor’s wife dies too, he makes her a graveside promise that he will find their sons and bring them home.

So he sets out for Turkey and arrives in Istanbul, where his way to Gallipoli is blocked by the occupying British forces, and he has to turn for help to the local population — that is, the Turks, the people he blames for his sons’ deaths and who in turn blame Australians for the Turks’ own losses at Gallipoli. Luckily for him, almost everyone he meets speaks English, including an engaging 10-year-old street urchin (Dylan Georgiades) who turns out to be the child of a beautiful young hotel keeper (Olga Kurylenko) whose husband was also lost at Gallipoli — well, you see where this is going. It’s the implausible romantic subplot. 

With their help, Connor makes his way to Gallipoli, only to find more British opposition there, again forcing him to turn to locals, this time in the person of a Turkish Army officer (Yilmaz Erdogan) who may or may not be the person who actually killed Connor’s sons. But away from the distracting beauty of Istanbul and back to the business at hand, which is war, Connor and the film turn serious again, and the slow growth of trust and, eventually, camaraderie between the two men is credible and moving. In the end, the theme of The Water Diviner may be that, once face to face, humanity will trump enmity every time.

It is true, however, that at no point does Connor come face to face with any Armenians, nor is the Medz Yeghern noted in any way in the course of The Water Diviner. Which is where the firestorm comes in.

Armenians around the world were protesting what some labeled the film’s “genocide denial by omission” even before its U.S. opening, but when that opening was scheduled for April 24, coinciding exactly with the beginning of the Armenian genocide, the protests became harsher and more widespread. Crowe stands accused of moral insensitivity at best and the deliberate whitewashing of a historical crime at worst. Salon.com’s Andrew O’Hehir labeled The Water Diviner Crowe’s “disgraceful Turkish fantasy” and asked what kind of person could “[make] a film set in Germany or France or Poland in the 1940s that made no reference to the fate of Europe’s Jewish population” or even “appeared unaware that there ever were Jews in Europe, let alone what had become of them?”

But O’Hehir’s anger overreaches and in fact, makes room for a response exonerating Crowe. Some widely acclaimed and beloved movies come to mind, starting, perhaps, with two multiply honored WWII films set in France but with no Jews or reference to Jews: Casablanca (in 1943, Morocco was a French-ruled protectorate) and Forbidden Games (Jeux Interdits). There no Jews in those movies because the stories the films are telling aren’t about Jews or what was becoming of them at the time. Similarly, The Water Diviner is a story about a man who comes to Turkey on a wrenching personal quest, not speaking the language and interacting primarily with the Turks as a defeated people and with the forces that defeated them. And as it happens, 1919 was the moment of a hiatus in the genocide. Worth noting, too, is the fact that the film’s U.S. release date was not only the centenary of the genocide, but also the day before that of the start of the Gallipoli campaign, a date almost as significant to Australians as to Armenians.

Yes, the Turkey of the WWI era committed a crime against humanity. But not all Turks participated in that crime. All the Turks, however, suffered defeat and its consequences. To relate a story in which some of the defeated behave heroically — even without specifically acknowledging their country’s crimes — is not to condone the crimes. To insist otherwise would be to demand that every single work set, say, in the United States at any moment in its history, explicitly acknowledge that nation’s many crimes — to name only a few, slavery, the long denial of equal rights to African-Americans, the continuing constitutional denial of equal rights to women, and of course the genocide perpetrated against indigenous Americans.

Or as Sigmund Freud might have said, sometimes a story is only a story. And Crowe has spun a good one.

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