Flatliners, Dead Man Walking, and the Importance of Humanity in the Recognizing the Armenian Genocide

I will be the first to admit that applying the lessons of movies to genocide is difficult. Flatliners, to recap, is about doctoral students who kill each other and bring each other back to life in order to experience the afterlife. The ultimate goal of the film is to make a statement on the power of atonement for past sins in order to move on with life. Dead Man Walking is a much more serious film (and, on that note, a better one) involving a criminal facing death row for the murder and rape of two teenagers. This film makes a statement about the importance of atonement as well, while also wrapping in the complexity of the death penalty in its dehumanization of criminals. So before I write this essay, I feel it necessary to note that neither of these films, particularly Flatliners, feels on par with the gravity of the Armenian Genocide. This is not some movie event; it’s the death of almost two million people, and with that comes a sanctity that places it in a realm above films about doctors who kill themselves. Nevertheless, I’ll do my best to apply the lessons of these movies, particularly on atonement, to the modern political spectrum surrounding acknowledgement and potential reconciliation.

Flatliners offers a surprisingly profound perspective on forgiveness for a movie about semi-suicidal doctors; that atonement and reconciliation with the Other are contingent upon atonement and reconciliation with one’s self. This is particularly evident in the film’s final moments, as Nelson is falling from the tree, feeling what Billy Mahoney felt as he died. After he ‘dies’ in the afterlife, and him and Billy exchange their nod before he is yanked back into the world of the living, it becomes clear that Nelson was so intent upon flatlining because he could not forgive himself for Billy’s death. Effectively, the phantom Billy that keeps attacking him in the living world is a manifestation of Nelson’s own guilt, beating him repeatedly because he never reconciled with his own guilt. And again, I know that applying this theme on a genocidal scale is a bit far-fetched, but it is true that such an idea is directly relevant to the contemporary situation of acknowledgement surrounding Turkey and the Armenian diaspora. Such lessons are very evident in Turkey’s relationship with Germany, which recently voted, much to Erdogan’s disapproval, to recognize the slaughter of approximately two million Armenians as genocide. This brought to light the general moral failure of Turkey to face its past in the eyes of the international community, which furthers a long running narrative that acts against reconciliation between Turkey and the Armenians. However, in light of the message behind Flatliners, it is important to note here that Turkey must acknowledge in order to forgive itself for crimes committed. Turkey can come to an agreement with none of the agents in this tragedy until it admits to itself what has been done, and until it recognizes that there can be no reconciliation with the Other until there can be reconciliation and consideration within the Self.

As for Dead Man Walking, this idea is taken significantly further, as this film recognizes the internal diversity and humanity of the wrongdoer. Matthew Poncett is a complex character; he is racist, sexist, xenophobic, a potential holocaust denier and terrorist sympathizer, and also a human being with thoughts, guilt, a family, and emotions that matter in his own narrative. The question of whether death deserves death, and whether punishment deserves punishment, are palpable throughout the film, and the viewer is left wondering whether it is wrong to demand that the scales of justice be reset with complete equivalency. Of course, in the case of the Armenian genocide, nobody is demanding the death of the Turks as compensation for the genocide of the Armenians anymore, but such context as Dead Man Walking’s take on internal complexity highlight the diverse narratives present in the situations. Let us do away with the idea that the committers of genocide and oppression are unilaterally aligned. Just as there were plenty of Muslim Turks who acted in protection of their Armenian neighbors in 1915, there exists today a growing body of Turkish people who recognize the Armenian genocide and demand, along with the Armenian diaspora, acknowledgement of the atrocities committed during WWI. And just as it took until Matthew’s head was on the chopping block to recognize his role in the murder and rape of the two teenagers, it will certainly require immense pressure to get Turkey to admit to what’s its done. As Matthew states at the end of the movie, killing is wrong, no matter if it is him doing it or a government. Turkey’s actions were, undeniably, wrong, and only facing the truth behind that will promote reconciliation and forgiveness.

I would say ultimately that these movies are, in a sense, applicable to such a political situation because they promote both acknowledgement of one’s sins and the humanization of all parties. Narratives of oppression must be remembered in full, for the good of both sides, in order to establish a precedent for reconciliation. Both the good and the bad within a wrongdoer’s actions are important for effective political transformation and forgiveness. This process is not easy, and involves both sides being willing to listen to the other’s perspective, even when the oppressor’s narrative seems as though it should be less than valid. But, I contend, it is the only way.