The Ottoman lieutenant

The Ottoman lieutenant

Over the weekend my wife and I went to see the film “The Ottoman Lieutenant,” directed by Joseph Ruben. It narrates the story of the love between an Ottoman officer and an American nurse in Van, the city that became a milestone with an Armenian insurgency in 1915. 

Based on the passionate love between a young American anti-racist humanitarian nurse Lillie (Hera Hilmar) and Ottoman officer İsmail (Michiel Huisman), the film depicts Turkish-Armenian clashes and the invasion of Van by the Russians. A third character in the film, American doctor Jude (Josh Hartnett) is also in love with Lilly, conflicting with İsmail. 

We enjoyed the film and I certainly recommend it. Whenever I was to learn more about a film, I turn to the veteran Turkish film critic Atilla Dorsay. He praised “The Ottoman Lieutenant” on the T24 website. “The film very well depicts the passion that is the main theme of the film. The young actors who are mostly little known, expect for John Hartnett who plays the doctor, are very good in their roles. I particularly liked İsmail and Lillie, Michiel Huisman (who also performs in Game of Thrones on TV) and Hera Hilmar,” Dorsay wrote. 

My wife Tülin and I were both very much moved by the film. I watched it based on my historic knowledge of the Van rebellion, which I once made a documentary about. 

The film was correct to define the mutual massacres as “common pain.” Ziya Gökalp, the Turkish writer, poet and political activist, is reported to have told a military court that the incidents were not genocide but a “reciprocal massacre.” The name of my documentary, and a book that was published in 2009, is also “Common Pain.” 

The major rebellion in Van in March 1915 was certainly a milestone. The idea of deportation emerged in the Ottoman administration following the Van revolt. 

American historian Justin McCarthy has written that Muslims in Van were effectively destroyed without having any opportunity to organize any resistance. Anything associated with Islam in Van was burnt and torn down. Apart from three very ancient structures, all mosques in the city were torched. 

The Van rebellion and these horrific events took place after the disaster that the Ottoman army suffered at Sarıkamış and while a bloodbath was ongoing in the Dardanelles. The Russian army invaded Van amid the Van rebellion and other Russian invasions in Eastern Anatolia also began. In response, the Ottomans decided on a policy of deportation of Armenians. 

The narrative presented by “The Ottoman Lieutenant” is very different to the narrative presented by the recent film “The Promise,” which is much closer to Armenian views. The New York Times has written that Turkish and Armenian views clash in these two movies. It said “The Ottoman Lieutenant” was “Turkey’s quest to control a bitter history.” 

It is natural that there are differences of opinion in history, but it is important that the film “The Ottoman Lieutenant” is bringing to the screen incidents that the Western public barely knows about. 

While on the subject of a “promise,” I should write this: Russia, to encourage the Armenians to rebel, “promised” to deliver Eastern Anatolia, up to Sivas, to the Armenians. The weak Ottomans signed the Yeniköy Agreement in 1914 in order to pass “reforms” in that direction.  

What happened next? In 1915, while Britain and France were dividing up Ottoman land in the secret Sykes-Picot Agreement, Russia was allocating Eastern Anatolia to itself, making no mention of the Armenians.