Directed by Garin Hovannisian
I don’t know whether this was just my bubble and the influence of listening to the radio in my older brothers car, but hard rock/metal ventured closer to the mainstream in the late 90s/early 00s, I believe largely due to the popularity of grunge and evolution from there (note: I am not a music expert, so don’t destroy me for my ignorance). But whatever the case, I listened to plenty of System of a Down, Korn, Linkin Park, Rage Against the Machine, Mudvayne, etc. and while I’ve “grown out” of this phase, I still look fondly back on that moment in music in my life. As a young man in middle school/high school, I likely failed to grasp the politicization of System of a Down’s music, but the band, consisting of 4 Armenian-Americans and led by Serj Tankian, infused their music with plenty of political messages. Tankian most notably has been a political activist for many years, with a major focus on getting the Turkish genocide of the Armenian people from the early 20th century being recognized as such by nations across the globe, particularly the United States, who failed to call the genocide what it was for political reasons.
Truth to Power focuses on System of a Down and in particular Serj Tankian’s journey from rise to activism. It’s not your traditional rock music documentary, although it does spend time covering the band’s background and rise to fame through their music, but there is a precise focus on both the politics of the band, and Serj Tankian’s specific journey. The other members of the band are featured and give a chance to voice their viewpoints, but much of the film is fueled by Serj’s ambitions as an artist with a platform. And I think that’s the largest thing I took from this film. While in the entertainment business, making money by bringing joy and happy experience to their droves of fans, Serj also views his responsibility to use his platform to bring these Armenian atrocities to light, as well as other political events. It’s extremely heartwarming to see someone embrace their culture and heritage in a way that Serj Tankian does. As an America, he has no responsibility to advocate, but he feels that connection and responsibility anyway.
The film was continually engaging and really provocative in terms of getting me to reckon with and think about the responsibility of those with voices, and the deafening quiet of those in power ignoring moral wrongs for the benefit of themselves or “the greater good”. It seems obvious now, why wouldn’t the US recognize the Armenian genocide? At the same time, the film, by following Serj Tankian and positioning him as the hero, feels very much like a concentrated effort to celebrate and glorify Tankian. As with all documentaries, I always wonder about the agenda and motivation of the filmmakers, and this one feels very one sided. That’s not to say that Tankian isn’t worthy of this framing, by all accounts he should be celebrated for everything he was able to do both for the recognition of the Armenian genocide worldwide, but also the many other forms of activism that he brought to his fans and the masses. By no means do I want to knock the film for being hagiography, but as a documentary, I always have that question in the back of my mind when it positions the subject so much dead center and celebratory.
That being said, Truth to Power is a powerful representation of the ability for public figures to use their platform for good, to shed light on things long in the shadows that otherwise would never get the attention they ought to. And for that, Garin Hovannisian does an incredible job framing Serj and his journey with System of a Down to the point where he was able to overcome whatever obstacles and public scorn that came along the way, while also positioning the bands journey alongside. Certainly the activism brought a voice to the voiceless, and attention to ideas the band’s fans would have otherwise ignored, but the political messages were also met with the standard heated voices asking them to stick to music, and stop fighting for Armenia and just release their next album, etc. That’s the nature of fandom, both joyous and toxic. I was surprised and taken with this unique take on music documentaries.