Interview with Filmmaker David Ritter
The Iraqi village of Havresc (originally called “Hay
Vrej,” the Armenian words for “revenge through survival”) was once populated
with Armenian Genocide survivors and their descendants.
1970, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein’s military destroyed villages, such as
Havresc, that were minority strongholds, and pushed their inhabitants into
cities in order to assimilate them.
Saddam’s death in 2006, persecuted Iraqi Armenians with family roots in Havresc
decided to return to the village. With the rise of nearby ISIS
forces several years later, Havresc became a safe haven. The Armenians were
later joined by Assyrians and Yezidis.
all odds, this village of 150 families blossomed thanks to the leadership of
Mayor Aslan Murad Vartanian, a Havresc native. He and Armenian elders
persuaded compatriots to come back and rebuild the village. Sporting a
handlebar moustache reminiscent of fedayee predecessors, Murad
is now father and protector to all in Havresc. Once a
career special unit sniper in the Iraqi army, he today heads a citizen militia
with support from neighboring Kurdish groups. Murad’s home functions as
an arsenal where, astonishingly, he and others restore and convert guns from
WWI and WWII – some purchased, some found while farming – into modern weapons.
outnumbered, the Havresc militia has nevertheless beaten back ISIS on many
occasions. We know of their acts of bravery thanks to independent
filmmaker David Ritter’s documentary, HAVRESC: Stand on Courage.
is an interview with Ritter conducted by Lucine Kasbarian.
Lucine Kasbarian: Tell us about your professional
and religious background.
a filmmaker/documentarian who studied photography and video production. I come
from a Roman Catholic background and eventually found myself as a “Roaming
Catholic,” which means I visit and respect various Christian
denominations and communities. Throughout my experiences and while
befriending Middle Eastern Christians, the Orthodox sects became
a fascination for me. Little of Christian Orthodox history and culture is
known to the greater Christian community. I gravitate towards the Orthodox and
see value in their rich history throughout the world.
Kasbarian: How did you find and come to be interested in
the people of Havresc?
Ritter: My time in Havresc was
a result of my anger and frustration at what was happening to many religious
and ethnic minorities over the past five years in Syria and Iraq. I resented
that the “social justice crowd,” whose doctrines dominate our schools and
media, had little to say about the horrors so many
people there were and are facing. I was disgusted that world
leaders and governments initially dismissed the attacks by ISIS and acted
as if there was no threat from such groups. I wanted to support the
Christian militias of Iraq and volunteer my services to them and their
my channels, I was introduced to Jeff Gardner, a photojournalist who has spent
much time in the Middle East.
knew about my background as a filmmaker documenting the demographics of racial
and ethnic minorities. My last feature-length film,
was entitled German Town: The Lost Story of Seaford Town, Jamaica.
So Jeff felt that I should visit Havresc. He had visited
Havresc in 2013 and was gob-smacked by how amazing these people were,
especially their leader, Aslan Murad. We agreed that this village and its story
Kasbarian: Though the U.S. Congress unanimously
approved and, as a result, the Obama Administration adopted in 2016 the term
“genocide” to describe the horrors suffered by Christians and Yazidis at the
hands of ISIS, would you speculate why mainstream media has made so
little of the modern-day genocide of Christians in the Middle
Ritter: To be fair, the Obama
administration has spent the majority of its time stating that ISIS was not a
threat, and the U.S. mainstream media followed its lead.
mainstream media have an agenda. If I had to speculate, it is
because they usually care about an issue only when the governments,
corporations and special interests they cater to can benefit.
think the obsession with political correctness is also part of this
conversation. For instance, much of the media on the Progressive Left want
people to think that owning a gun or arming yourself
is intrinsically wrong. But guns are a safeguard in situations such
as Havresc’s. Armenians – as victims of state-sponsored genocide on
their native lands – know very well how dangerous it can be for a civilian population to
be prohibited from possessing arms.
documentary spotlights Havresc men explaining that guns saved
their families and community.
the concept of gun control is highly problematic in such situations.
most mainstream media want people to see militiamen as
dangerous to society. True, some militia members are threats, but others
are not. It depends on the
circumstances and the militia’s purpose. A gun in the hand of
a responsible person can be used to defend and save endangered lives
rather than harm innocent people.
Kasbarian: Why do you think Middle Eastern
Christians – the oldest Christians on record – have been largely abandoned by
their Christian brethren around the world?
Ritter: There are a few
reasons. One is “political correctness” – that is, Westerners defending
co-religionists elsewhere is viewed as a bit chauvinist.
Western churches function like businesses. Defending Christians
overseas does not increase their bottom line.
some of these churches and their leaders are afraid. They have seen
what happens when people confront Islamic extremists: media outlets
are bombed and journalists killed. Fear holds people back.
there are clergy, churches and Christians who are doing all they can to aid the
Christian communities of Iraq. I met them while I was there, few as
they are. In my travels, Christians have stepped forward to
help the Syrian and Iraqi people. More would follow suit if they had the
leadership and information to do so.
hear about Middle Eastern Christians avoiding refugee camps for fear of
abduction and abuse and, moreover, not approaching the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) nor
applying for immigration status because they feel they will largely be passed
over. In this context, one can better understand why some Christians would
prefer to endure or resist in endangered zones. Please speak about this
Ritter: The truth is these
Christians would, indeed, most likely be passed over.
It took nearly five years for anyone to acknowledge that Christians and Yazidis
were even an endangered people in the Middle East. They were – and still are –
the primary targets for ISIS and Jihadist violence.
me to explain the attitudes of Western leaders who create policies that
are unmindful of Christians, I would have to adopt the mindset of a
globalist. I refuse to do that.
policies may also have some basis in simple ignorance. I have met many
non-governmental organization (NGO) workers and United Nations members over the
years, most of whom meant well. But the isolation within which many of them
exist on the ground, and their lack of understanding of the inner
politics and cultures of the countries in which
they work, is stunning. Poor management may also play a role.
could also be more pernicious reasons. For example, many EU
leaders such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel, as well as the Obama
administration, seem fixated on supporting more Islamic migration into Europe
and the U.S. – but not Christian or Yazidi refugees.
Kasbarian: An aid worker predicts that Havresc
will grow. Do you agree? Could publicizing Havresc attract greater
threats? One viewer at a screening said that beating back ISIS is a
short-term solution and that in the long run, the villagers should move to
Armenia. Expediency may encourage one to flee. But attachments may dictate
otherwise. Is it crucial to relocate to foreign lands – or to Armenia, for that
matter – when the people already there are unemployed and conditions are
Ritter: I’m not certain about
Havresc’s future, but so far much has been done in a short period of time. Havresc actually faced more attacks when the
village was getting no media coverage at all, so neither Murad nor I think
media exposure will hurt. Being in the open can be a better tactic than having
nobody know about you.
is just one of many threats and risks to villages such as
Havresc. But even running away may not work. Would you necessarily
be safer in North America? Germany? France? England? Have we not seen massive
attacks in those places on an almost weekly
the San Bernardino, California shootings in 2015 where Pakistani-American extremists killed 14 people and injured 22 at a county employee event in what the FBI called an
act “inspired by foreign terrorist groups,” I was in Havresc with
Murad in his living room watching the news. Murad pointed to the TV,
looked at Jeff and me, and said, “You see? Now it’s coming to you in
America. It won’t stop. This is their plan.”
Kasbarian: You have been present
at your U.S. film screenings from coast to coast. What’s
next? And why do you think the general topic of your film is of
interest primarily to Assyrian and Armenian circles but ignored by the
Ritter: I’m hoping for many
more screenings in the U.S., Canada and Europe. But in the end, my
goal is to go back to Iraq and/or Syria to help while there’s still a
need. When I address the issues of radical groups like
ISIS, too many people I know who follow mainstream media will express
apathy, become defensive or change the subject. Sometimes they
claim that “Christians are just as violent as ISIS.”
is what their media has led them to believe, I suppose. Then again, I have met
people across the political spectrum – from the Left to the
Right – who agree that ISIS and Islamic extremism
is a serious threat to the world. I also think most Americans
agree that radical Islamic Jihadists are a real danger.
American and European mass media is more interested in demonizing Syrian
President Assad than ISIS. Mainstream media function as gatekeepers
of information. If they cannot control the narrative and the people relaying
the information, then they ignore or discredit the people relaying the
is a trend in globalist mass media to diminish the relevance of racial, ethnic,
cultural and religious differences among peoples. On the other hand,
other media and some progressives call Western people racist or xenophobic when
they show a love for their heritage or religion.
there be people in high places who enjoy seeing certain cultures and
religions wiped out? I have met such people.
Havresc documentary, however, shows men and women holding strong to their
Christian faith and ethnic identities. They are proud of their Armenian
and Assyrian ancestries and all that comes with it.
Kasbarian: Speaking of mainstream media in the U.S. and
Europe depicting national or ethnic pride as xenophobia, how can Westerners
deal with this?
Ritter: It is important not to
conflate patriotic ideals and non-extremist forms of nationalism with
supremacist ideas. You can love Armenian, Greek or German culture and desire to
protect your culture and nation without possessing a desire to harm
others. Our media and educational institutions throw around words such as
“racist” and “xenophobic” too loosely.
must ask themselves whether such strong terms are always appropriate, or whether they instead
induce a Pavlovian response that stigmatizes the targets of these terms.
are being used as if they are “Newspeak” – the controlled language created by
the totalitarian state in George Orwell’s dystopian novel, 1984. Governments,
advocacy groups, media and people alike should define their grievances and
positions rather than stigmatize the views of others with loaded
Kasbarian: As an independent filmmaker, what’s your take
on mainstream media attempting to silence truth tellers and freedom of
expression by disparaging independent and alternative news media by
calling their reportage fake?
Ritter: The term “fake news”
is being used by many to attack independent reporting whose facts
and opinions conflict with mainstream narratives and
with people and institutions in high political positions.
that politicians who voted for wars and conflicts like the invasion of Iraq –
and used false information to sway the public into agreement – peddled fake
news. For example, the public was told about Iraqi “weapons of mass
destruction.” These weapons were never found. The public was
told ISIS was not a threat by these same politicians and their media outlets.
That itself was fake news.
is such a thing as fake news. It circulates throughout the Internet, sometimes
created by paranoid people on grass roots levels. But far more fake news comes
from mainstream media outlets that are government and corporate-sponsored.
us not conflate fake news with dissent and genuine questioning. Hillary
Clinton claimed she was once under “sniper fire” in Bosnia. That
turned out to be fake news.
are citizen journalists the ones being attacked for fake news when politicians,
government outlets and mass media have been caught throughout the years
fabricating news or simply not reporting the facts?
Mourad says, “We Armenians live like the lion and if necessary, we will die
like the lion.” His words speak to the moral courage and dignity of the
Armenians. Can the story of Havresc empower others?
Ritter: I hope this
documentary inspires all minorities and majority nations and groups to take a
stance to protect themselves, their culture and religion from people who wish
to harm them and destroy the things they love. I
think people should have militias and guns even if they are not
endangered – just as we have fire extinguishers in our
homes. We do not buy a fire extinguisher after our home has turned to ash. We buy it before that happens so we
can stop a fire before it destroys everything.
Imagery of Kurdish leader, Massoud Barzani, is prevalent in Aslan Murad's home
in northern Iraq, which is in the Kurdish
Is having such imagery a matter of basic survival for Murad and Havresc?
Ritter: I cannot comment on
Murad’s political connections, but he is working with many Kurdish people – a
reality of living and working in Iraqi Kurdistan – where all operate under Kurdish authority
and work together for a bright future. In order to have a
functioning security force, Havresc has to go through proper political
channels. That’s the law and reality now. No Christian community
in Kurdistan can operate as an island unto itself.
can we support Havresc?
Ritter: Anything sent to www.Echo612.org goes straight to
Havresc. I am funding this film screening tour from my own pocket and
from the money we collect at events from DVD and admission sales and the
donations from institutions that host the events. I give 30 percent of
what we make at each event to Echo612 to help Havresc. The donations
will purchase food, medicine and basic aid for residents until things are
secure and stable. It is not a long-term program. The people of Havresc do not
want to be on a welfare system. They want to be independent and
next screening of Havresc: Stand on Courage will be in
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada on January 19, 2017:
invite the filmmaker to screen this documentary in your area, contact David
Ritter at: firstname.lastname@example.org
details, visit: http://havresc.com/
To donate to the village
of Havresc, visit: http://www.echo612.org/
About the interviewer:
Kasbarian is a syndicated journalist and political cartoonist. Visit: http://www.armeniapedia.org/wiki/Lucine_Kasbarian
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