How an incendiary rock star’s Armenian heritage informed his calling and impacted the world
Truth to Power is now streaming in virtual cinema engagements.
At a glance one might surmise that Truth to Power is a typical music documentary in the common understanding of that idea; a film about an artist, made for fans of that artist.
While fans will certainly vibe with this story, it’s just not that kind of film.
Truth to Power does cover the history of Serj Tankian’s musical career, both as frontman for System of a Down and in his solo work, then widens its scope: this is a man who has always had bigger things on his mind.
For his entire career as a musician, Tankian has been an advocate for justice and social causes. His heritage as an Armenian informs every part of his life, including his calling as an artist and citizen of the world. His grandparents escaped the Armenian Genocide of 1915, an event obscured by history, little known to most, but absolutely formative in his own life and within the intenational Armenian community, a people living in diaspora around the world. It became his mission to overturn the US’s insulting stance of not recognizing the Armenian Genocide in an official capacity.
Tankian tells his own story firsthand, with some help from friends including other members of System of a Down (who are also of Armenian descent), and their legendary producer Rick Rubin.
Tankian’s deep political interest and advocacy made him both beloved and hated, at home and in his mother country, and his rhetoric sometimes polarized fans, frustrated his bandmates, made powerful enemies, got him into trouble, and limited the band’s commercial career opportunities.
As Tankian’s celebrity profile increased, so too did both his interest in his homeland and his ability to influence change. His attention turned to the Armenian state and its corrupt government, and in 2015 — the centennial of the Armenian genocide — the reunited band played their historic first show in the country. It would prove to be a catalyst for change with an angry populace.
Even as a casual fan of System of a Down who owns their records and was aware of their political activism, most of this story was unknown to me. I was completely floored by where the film ends up going, and very much moved by Tankian’s story. I was not prepared for the astonishing events that would unfold, with a new Armenian revolution and Tankian himself becoming something of a national hero.
It’s satisfying and inspiring to see how decades of work and activism do bear fruit, and I was definitely swept by the drama of this fascinating account, even if I was always acutely aware that this is Tankian’s own telling of how things transpired in his life.
While Tankian doesn’t appear to be credited as a producer on the film, his “Serjical Strike Entertainment” production company’s logo appears prominently. There’s no question that this is his version of this history, and that could open it up to hagiographical possibilities, especially considering how the story centers directly on Tankian directly, to the exclusion of the band’s other members (who make only brief appearances).
But despite the film’s inherent bias, I don’t think at all that Tankian is taking a dishonest approach here or trying to take credit for international events that are obviously far bigger than his personal influence — it really seems that Tankian is just genuinely and rightly proud to have had a hand not only in honoring his family’s legacy and making some rad fucking music, but also in making history.
He wanted to tell his incredible story.
And I for one am very glad that he did.