Timed to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide (traditionally memorialized on April 24), 1915 is not, in the usual sense, a historical drama. That is, most or all of the film — depending on your interpretation — is set on April 24, 2015 . . . or, as I like to think of it, next week.
Relatively speaking, very few American films have dealt with the slaughter of the Armenians; the Jewish Holocaust involved something like six to ten times as many victims and has been the subject of at least a hundred times as many movies. Some of this is no doubt the result of the U.S.’s strategic alliance with Turkey — the bad guys in the context of 1915 — and of Turkey’s continued denial that any genocide took place.
From the start, 1915 lets us know that it’s structured around several levels of reality. The second sequence is introduced as though it’s set in 1915 . . . until someone forgets their lines. We discover that this is actually a stage production, a rehearsal of a play that will be performed that night and never again. (Within the story, the venue is identified as the Los Angeles Theater downtown, in which most of the movie was shot.)
The mastermind of this is Simon Mamoulian (Simon Abkarian), a writer-director-actor who has been the pride of the local Armenian community . . . until now. The angry demonstrators chanting outside the theater are not, as one might expect, Turks or Turkophiles but rather Armenian Americans who feel that the play is sure to aestheticize and thus trivialize the most tragic event in their history — an accusation that could be levelled against the film itself.
We might initially think 1915 is going to be centered on politics, but we quickly get hints that there is something less specific and more abstract going on. The play-within-the-film is about Ani, an Armenian woman, who leaves her husband to run off with a Turkish soldier. He can save her from death, but at the spiritual cost of abandoning all her loved ones (including an eight-year-old son). Simon has cast his wife, Angela (Angela Sarafyan, pictured above with Abkarian), in the role; and the young matinee idol (Sam Page) really does want Angela to run off with him. (That Simon and Angela are being played by actors of the same names evokes yet another possible level of reality . . . the one that you and I are in.)
The entire stage cast worries about the way Simon is directing Angela; he appears to be hypnotizing — maybe drugging? — her to think that she’s becoming Ani. And maybe she is being possessed by the dead woman her character is based on. He constantly tells her that she must confront the past and then leave it behind. But the past he’s talking about isn’t merely 1915; it also involves some terrible event that befell them seven years ago in this very theater.
It’s hard to say whether this adds up to a historical drama or a horror film or a mystery; it has elements of all those genres. We are given hints of these and more, but writer-directors Garin Hovannisian and Alec Mouhibian refuse to resolve or clarify much of what they seem to be setting us up for. Things are still ambiguous at the end.
Abkarian — whom you’ve seen in numerous movies, even if you don’t recognize the name — has by far the biggest part. He mostly delivers, except when the script hands him weighted or didactic lines. The only familiar face among the supporting cast is Jim Piddock, best remembered for his hilarious, low-key performance as the commentator partnered with a cheerfully idiotic Fred Willard in Best in Show. He gets the few funny moments in this otherwise dead-serious film. His casually tossed off “Genocide, Schmenocide!” is too amusing to be offensive.