Truth to Power
2021, NR, 79 min. Directed by Garin Hovannisian.
REVIEWED By Matthew Monagle, Fri., Feb. 19, 2021
It’s been a bittersweet two decades for fans of System of a Down. After the one-two punch of albums Hypnotize and Mesmerize in 2005, the band has been in something of a musical purgatory, touring infrequently and publishing only the occasional single (supporting their political causes). And while Truth to Power, the new documentary from lead singer Serj Tankian, may not offer a clear future for the band, it will at least explain some of the endeavors – musical and political – that have kept the band on an indefinite hiatus.
Less a behind-the-scenes documentary than an exploration of politics and art, Truth to Power opens with a brief history lesson on System of a Down. With help from bassist Shavo Odadjian and drummer John Dolmayan, Tankian walks audiences through its origins and the various musicians that ultimately led to the band’s signature sound. There are several fun anecdotes to be found, including one where the band – then the opening act for Slayer – repeated the first song in their set until they were satisfied with the crowd’s attention.
That said, the story being told in Truth to Power is that of Tankian. As the film pushes past System's early success, the narrative focuses on his creative side projects – an off-Broadway musical, a symphony, and a jazz album, to name just a few – as well as his emerging political activism. Tankian’s Armenian identity is core to his ethos as an artist, and Truth to Power pivots smoothly into political documentary once Tankian begins to build a coalition to encourage governments – including that of the United States – to recognize the Armenian genocide of the early 1900s.
Most documentaries promise – or, at least pretend – to maintain a little critical distance from their subjects. While we are always somewhat aware of the filmic choices that go into the documentary process, we can at least pretend that multiple perspectives are being entertained throughout the film. Produced by Tankian, scored by Tankian, and rooted in Tankian’s perspective as both an Armenian-American and an international rock icon, Truth to Power abandons all pretenses of impartiality. The film exists to make us care about things Tankian cares about, making it another outlet for his brand of humanitarian activism.
Then again, that’s kind of the point. For decades now, System of a Down has bartered stardom for civics, encouraging their fans to pay attention to injustices in Armenia and elsewhere. Even the occasional tension between Tankian and other bandmates – both Odadjian and Dolmayan seem to bite their tongues on criticism of their lead singer’s outspokenness – has not prevented them from touring and fundraising on behalf of their cultural homeland. The film may be enamored with its subject, but Tankian clearly understands the currency the success of System of a Down affords him.
Perhaps Truth to Power, then, is a film for our time. As our expectations of journalism evolve, so too will our expectations of documentary cinema. Tankian has crafted a movie with an overt political ideology and cast himself as the well-intentioned face of a cultural revolution. But none of this takes away from the issues at the center of the film – public recognition of the Armenian genocide for one, the enduring challenges of democracy in post-Soviet countries for another – and the countless people who looked to Tankian and System of a Down to help spread their stories across the world.
In the opening minutes of the film, Tankian is asked if music can change the world. Like everything else in Truth for Power, it’s a calculated moment, and Tankian’s hesitation plays nicely in the film’s trailer. But that which is calculated can also be true, and in the end, nobody can say that Tankian didn’t try to make a difference.
Available now as a virtual cinema release.