The System of a Down singer is a fascinating artist and activist, but the 79-minute duration barely erases the surface.
At first glance, it’s tempting to call “Truth to Power,” a documentary about the music and activism of System of a Down frontman Serj Tankian, the “Last Dance” of music docs. Impressive archival footage cannot hide how too reverent the treatment of Garin Hovannisian’s film is. This is not surprising given that like “The Last Dance”, its subject matter was an instrumental part of its creation. Tankian contacted Hovannisian to kick off the project and had even scored two of Hovannisian’s previous films. This warm relationship comes at a cost: like “The Last Dance”, “Truth to Power” is a promotional film, not a journalistic piece.
But unlike “The Last Dance,” it doesn’t have an hour-long narrative that’s worth losing to the point that you start to forget about those reviews. At 79 minutes, “Truth to Power” makes you want a more complete treatment, because Tankian and his revolutionary group deserve it. What you get instead is a detailed Wikipedia-style account of key moments in his life: growing up as an Armenian-American child in Los Angeles – the grandson of an Armenian genocide survivor – his achievement. that music was his passion, how his nu metal band System of a Down rose to fame by delving into their Armenian roots and getting into politics, and a glimpse into his artistic endeavors after the band’s last album in 2005.
It’s just in the first half. In the second half, Hovannisian lets his storytelling breathe a little more as he begins to recount the part of Tankian’s life that clearly matters the most to the rocker and filmmaker: his campaign to get the United States to acknowledge the guilt. of Turkey in the genocide of over a million Armenians during the First World War.
Because Turkey has been strategically important to US interests in the Middle East, there has long been a reluctance to condemn their brutal ethnic cleansing that took place under the aegis of the regime that predated the modern Republic of Turkey: l ‘Ottoman Empire. Denial of the Armenian genocide is the norm in Turkey, and the authoritarian government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan has threatened to undermine diplomatic relations with any country that recognizes it. Some of the home movie footage Tankian himself shot from his campaign is fascinating: particularly when he confronts former Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert (now a convicted felon and child molester recognized) in the middle of the year for refusing to bring a motion of condemnation. on the first floor of the house.
Equally compelling is Tankian’s campaign to fight corruption in his home country. In 2015, System of a Down gave its first concert in Armenia, and Tankian took the opportunity to publicly denounce Serzh Sargsyan’s corrupt presidency. Tankian’s lyrics, drawn from his body of work, promoted social justice and progressive activism, and they struck a chord in Armenia, arguably becoming the musical soundtrack of the democratic movement there. It all culminated in April 2018 when the Velvet Revolution peacefully overthrew the oligarchic Sargsyan regime and resulted in the election of new Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan. This is the time when Hovannisian came on board to make the film. So far, Tankian has been personally invited by Pashinyan, who cited System of a Down as his inspiration, to visit Armenia and celebrate the new democracy as one of the country’s national heroes.
It is all fascinating. Less fascinating is the emphasis on talking heads interviews throughout. It’s cool to see Rick Rubin and Tom Morello showing up to add their praise to Tankian, but it’s curious that they don’t say more. Rubin spends much of his brief screen time talking about how Tankian sought lyrical inspiration in his library for what has become System of a Down’s biggest hit, “Chop Suey!” And Morello doesn’t have much to add other than how electrifying it was to see System play the Viper Room for the first time. Where’s Michael Moore? He directed System’s music video for “Boom!” Which makes it an electrifying statement against the drumbeat of the Iraq war. It’s a talking head that would add a little more fire.
Roundabout methods of conveying inspiration, such as flying the text of the lyrics towards the viewer or long, loving shots of Tankian in a notebook as he is framed alone by a window of his California home, would be Forgivable in a meatier documentary – one that truly questions why music can be so powerful as a tool of political action. In such a condensed movie, however, it looks like what we’re getting is a blind cult of the Tankian hero rather than a demonstration of art’s ability to be an agent of change. Hovannisian opens his film by asking Tankian: “Can music change the world?” One small problem is that you know even when this question is asked, the rest of the movie will exist to provide a “yes” answer. A bigger problem is that “Truth to Power”, in striving so hard to show that music can indeed change the world, never sheds light on why.
“Truth to Power” is now available to watch in virtual theaters.
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