THOUSAND OAKS — The state Department of Education paid a Thousand Oaks man $50,000 to make a documentary on the massacre of Armenians by the Turks, but has refused to distribute the film to schools after expressing concerns about alleged interference from the Legislature and about the quality of the film.
J. Michael Hagopian, who was born in Turkish Armenia in 1913, the son of a surgeon, was nominated twice for Emmy awards for earlier films on the subject. But because of a dispute with the education department, Hagopian's latest film may never reach its intended audience--California's junior high and high school students.
"The Armenian Genocide" tells the story of the massacre of perhaps as many as 1.5 million Armenians from 1915 to 1923 in what was then the Ottoman Empire. The film, which took two years to make, includes interviews with survivors, grisly black-and-white photos of dead children, and student discussions of how such a tragedy could be prevented in the future.
The 25-minute film shows mass deportations, forced marches and starvation. One survivor says that her father was taken by soldiers and shot and that her brother was able to retrieve only their father's head because the rest of the corpse had been eaten by dogs.
"When I was 2 years old my parents considered hiding me in a well because they feared the family would be killed," Hagopian said.
But his family escaped, Hagopian believes, because his father's skills as a surgeon were too valuable to the Turks.
Turkish officials reject the accusations that more than a million Armenians were slaughtered, saying that perhaps 300,000 died during the mass deportations and that both Turks and Armenians were victims of a civil war, famine and epidemic that plagued the country between 1915 and 1923.
A state law passed in 1987 required the Department of Education to produce a film on the topic and one on the World War II internment of Japanese-Americans for use in state schools.
The education department opposed the mandate, just as it resists any effort by the Legislature to require that certain texts or other instructional materials be used, department spokeswoman Susie Lange said.
"It's inappropriate for the state Legislature to mandate the making of movies," Lange said. "To say: 'You shall develop a movie and this will be the movie (used in classrooms)' is poor education."
The Japanese-American internment film was reviewed by the department's curriculum commission but not endorsed for use by California schools because of concern over its content, said Jerry Cummings, consultant in the department's materials and textbook office.
Hagopian's film was never reviewed by the commission because it did not meet a deadline, which was moved up after his contract was signed, officials said.
Hagopian, now 77, sees his film as a good educational tool.
His first film on the Armenian genocide, "Where Are My People?" was made in 1965 and aired on KCOP-TV. "The Forgotten Genocide," his 1975 production marking the 60th anniversary of the massacre, also aired on KCOP and was nominated for two Emmy awards.
Hagopian said he plans to put pressure on the curriculum commission to review the final version of the film, which contains footage of interviews with 325 survivors of the massacre, many of whom have since died.
"When I look at it, I often get emotional," he said. "I had hoped it would reach a lot of students. I had hoped it would arouse a lot of discussion and questions."