6 Days With -- Well, Near -- George Clooney in Armenia

by Griffin Shea 6:30 AM PDT, May 05, 2016
Photo: Getty Images

ET sent a war correspondent to get the movie star to talk about his humanitarian efforts as the country remembered a century-old genocide.

George Clooney was in Armenia, and so was I.

That’s the only thing I can say with any authority, having hardly laid eyes on the man, let alone spoken to him, despite spending six days in a former Soviet republic trying to track him down at a genocide memorial.

It’s absurd, the lengths to which journalists will go for a few minutes with an A-list celebrity, but the reality is even stranger: I am now convinced he’s a genius. 

Armenia’s not the easiest place to get to, especially if you’re starting from Johannesburg, South Africa, where I now live after some 15 years of work covering the kinds of things that inspire genocide memorials. It’s about 24 hours of travel each way, all to get to a place that I haven’t thought much about in years. One of my first jobs in journalism involved a lot of stories about Armenia’s post-Soviet border conflict with Azerbaijan, which recently flared again. At least 45 people died in four days of fighting in early April. When Putin has to call up your country to tell you to chill out, you know you’re in bad shape. 

The thing about countries with a legacy of conflicts is that even though I know better, I arrive expecting brutalist buildings, gray skies and unhappy people. 

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But Yerevan, the capital city, is the opposite of brutal. It’s ringed by snow-capped mountains and dissected by broad boulevards connecting open plazas with dancing water fountains. The city’s statues and parks are dedicated to composers, painters and writers. Public art appears surprisingly, often playfully, as you walk between smoke-filled cafes that stay open late.

It’s a distant and unusual place to go to see someone who’s not exactly media-shy. In April, Clooney was on the cover of Esquire, where he spoke passionately about Syrian refugees, Trump and the rise of Islamaphobia. He appeared on Meet the Press to talk about the “obscene” amount of money spent in elections and why his $15 million fundraiser for Democrats deserved to be protested. He’s also logged time this last year alone promoting Tomorrowland, Our Brand Is Crisis, Hail, Caesar! and the upcoming Money Monster. All that while smiling and attempting to redirect red carpet interview questions about his wife, lawyer Amal Clooney, away from personal questions and back to her work getting people out of jail.

Do I really have anything to ask him that hasn’t been asked a million times before? Or even asked in the last month?

Actually, yes. I want to ask how he does it. How does he navigate the intersection of celebrity and humanitarianism so well, when others stumble despite the best of intentions?

I’ve covered Madonna in Malawi, Angelina Jolie’s adoptions and Oprah Winfrey’s school in South Africa, but often only because something went wrong. Despite their money, fame and goodwill, it took all three of those women a lot of work to get things right. Then there’s another tier of celebs who engage in poverty porn: parachuting in, posing for photos with hungry kids, and flying back out. 

Clooney comes in to get stuff done and makes it look effortless. His visits to Darfur, for one, were followed up with solid lobbying. Not On Our Watch, the group he started with Matt Damon and Brad Pitt, earnestly advocated for Zimbabwe and Myanmar, two countries whose strife I have spent years reporting on and in. Frankly, Clooney and his friends probably got more attention for that than my 10 years of work documenting Zimbabwe’s collapse and Myanmar’s upheavals combined.

But on this trip, I’m really just trying to talk to Clooney, who is part of the Selection Committee for the the first annual Aurora Prize for Awakening Humanity. I arrived late Thursday, a good 24 hours early, to get the lay of the land. An army of press people and volunteers had everything set up in a very nice hotel for dozens of journalists, many of whom (like me) were flown in by the organizers of the Aurora Prize. It’s sort of a cross between a Nobel Peace Prize, a Hollywood awards ceremony, and a policy shop. The $1.1 million award -- given in a highly produced, televised ceremony with a dance number, musical guests, and scripted banter -- honors a humanitarian who regularly risks their own life to save others. There are also panel talks, meetings with lawmakers from around the world, and several actual Nobel laureates in attendance.

It wasn’t until Saturday morning that I realized Clooney was going to a series of events that I was not accredited for and had no means of monitoring.

I found some remarks from one event with Clooney -- in English! -- on the Armenian news agency. He was talking about how viewers get desensitized to violence in media coverage. 

“Three days ago, 500 people were reported to have been killed in a shipwreck, and then you switch the channel and continue to watch other news. We have to change the effect of news and movies,” he said.

“We have to speak about people who risked their lives to save others. We have to speak about concrete events, not about numbers, because when we look in the eyes of people, the situation changes.”

But I still had nothing directly from him. 

Dr. Leymah Gbowee, Syeda Ghulam Fatima, Dr. Shirin Ebadi, George Clooney, Hina Jilani and Marguerite Barankitse attend the laying of the flowers at the Genocide Memorial in Yerevan, Armenia. Photo: Getty Images

The good news: Everyone wants to talk about Clooney. The bad: No one wants to be quoted about him. Which is odd, because of the dozens and dozens of people who sat in those talks and meetings alongside him, not a single person was anything less than glowing. Academics, artists, volunteers, linguists, students – everyone said they were struck by his sincerity, his intelligence, and most particularly by the sense that his attention was absolutely focused on the person he was talking to. Everyone who met him, likes him. They just wouldn’t say so on the record.

So, following Clooney’s urging, I scheduled some interviews with people who are trying to change the world.

Josephine Kulea came from northern Kenya, where she works to prevent child marriages and genital mutilation. Four days prior, she had rescued an 8-year-old girl. 

Father Bernard Kinvi, a finalist for the prize, runs a Catholic mission in the Central African Republic, where he protected 1,500 people (mostly Muslim women and children) from a rebellion that erupted in 2013. We have a mutual friend, another journalist, Krista Larson from AP, who despite the dangers, spent weeks in the country and wrote about a little girl who was disabled by polio and left in a forest. She'd been separated from her family during the chaos, with no way of finding them. After hearing her story, Father Bernard agreed to take custody of the girl.

Angling for a solid, quotable quote about Clooney, I asked Father Bernard if the media attention helped his work. He said yes: Krista’s mother, inspired by the story, organized a fundraiser at Regina Elementary in Iowa City, where she teaches. They raised nearly 2,000 euros, which he used to buy wheelchairs for the disabled children he’s now raising. He changed lives with 2,000 euros. A million dollars could change his entire world.

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Marguerite Barankitse, who likes to be called Maggy, came from Burundi. When her country’s civil war started, and her Hutu neighbors were threatened with death, she hid them in her home because as a Tutsi she thought they would be safe. When they were discovered, she was forced to watch their executions, and then her home was burned down.

So she built an orphanage, and then a hospital.

Last year, when Burundi’s president decided to run for a third term -- in defiance of the peace deal brokered by Nelson Mandela – she spoke out against the new violence. Her center, Maison Shalom, was forced to close. She fled to Rwanda, along with 250,000 others from Burundi. Now she cares for the refugees.

I have pages of stories like this. None of them are about Clooney. But it’s OK, because he’s having a press conference on Sunday, just before he returns home.

Sunday is the anniversary of the Armenian genocide. Thousands and thousands of residents trek up a hillside on the edge of town to lay flowers at an eternal flame in remembrance of the 1.5 million who died 101 years prior. Kim Kardashian West tweets about having made that trip last year with her sister and family. 

I look all over for Clooney, but no luck. Later I see footage of him with the president and the patriarch of the Armenian church. Clooney spoke to Armenian TV, but not the hordes of foreign correspondents.

Hours later, during the award ceremony that evening, he spoke for four minutes and 38 seconds.

He invoked the legacy of his own Irish ancestors who fled the potato famine and depended on helping hands to settle in their new country.

“If we are to survive as a people, we can’t simply look away, not from the people of Syria, or South Sudan, or the Congo. We call them refugees, but they are people just like you and me,” Clooney said. “You stand right in front of them and when you look them in deep in their eyes, you might very well see an Irish potato farmer. You might see a young Armenian girl named Aurora trying to get home. “

“We have all been  given this gift of humanity at some time in our history. Tonight’s award celebrates heroism and bravery far beyond what most of us could do in a lifetime. Much further beyond. And our nominees didn’t graduate from some hero school. They were just everyday people who saw a need and who did something about it, something extraordinary.”

I heard him say this, but hardly saw him. While he was on stage at the Karen Demirchyan Sports and Concerts Complex, I was typing on my laptop in a seat with dozens of other journalists in the audience. And as soon as the ceremony was done, we all dashed across the theater to a curtained-off room to wait for his press conference to start.

He doesn’t show up.

Instead, Maggy arrives, even more radiant after receiving the Aurora Prize, confident of the good this money will do for her work and the other organizations that she’s going to support with the million-dollar prize. Since I can’t ask Clooney my question, I ask her about the International Criminal Court, which she wants to investigate Burundi’s president.

“I have no hatred for the president. On the contrary, I only have compassion. And I’d like to turn to the international community. There must be negotiations. I’m convinced he will understand, and if he doesn’t understand, the ICC will do something, because he is a criminal.” She says she’s so sure because if the Court doesn’t act, she’ll go to The Hague and protest in the streets until they do. I believe her.

Laureate Marguerite Barankitse at the Aurora Prize Ceremony. Photo: Getty Images

After three days, I have not a single original quote from Clooney, who I’m supposed to write about. And now, we’re told, he’s left Armenia.

On the fourth day, I turn to a trusted trope, vox pop: the person on the street interview. Someone in Yerevan will tell me something about him.

Yerevan’s market is partially under construction, and being a Monday, it’s quiet. Most of it is full of tourist tchotchkes, especially pomegranates -- in wood, paintings, embroidered on tablecloths.

But in one corner, slightly set off from the stalls, are tables of exquisite silverware, much of it intricately designed filament work. On napkin rings, flowers bloom from silver lace. Tiny lockets shaped like Bibles unclasp to reveal the Lord’s Prayer, in three languages and three different alphabets. Not tourist stuff.

Levon Keoshgerian is a silversmith from Aleppo. Last year, he finally fled Syria’s war with his 75-year-old mother. He keeps an envelope of photos showing what used to be his store there. A beautiful shop of silver platters and jewelry, the sort of place you go to buy wedding or baptismal gifts.

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His family is Armenian, but his grandfather lived in what is now Turkey, under the Ottoman Empire. In a black and white photo, his grandfather sits in front of his shop in Turkey, where he sold rugs. When the genocide began, he escaped to Aleppo to keep his family safe. Two generations later, his family are refugees again.

Everyone in this tiny corner of the market fled Aleppo. Their phones are full of pictures of bombed-out churches, collapsed buildings, broken families. Because they’re ethnic Armenians, they received some government support to relocate, but this is not a rich country. They’re all skilled, and smart, and working to make a living, which they can do because a little country with few resources and its own troubles gave them a chance.

We talk for hours, but I still don’t have any quotes about Clooney. 

As I’m writing on Monday night, a bus explodes on a road near the genocide memorial, where we’d all been the day before. A colleague reports back that he found a finger blown down the block. It appears to be a criminal act rather than terrorist.

Before the trip, I’d emailed Jill Thompson, who’s the director at Mpendulo Savings, an organization in South Africa that aims to ease the impact of HIV and unemployment on vulnerable families. She talked about the doubled-edged sword celebrities bring to charities.

“It can bring much-needed attention to difficult issues that charities are trying to address,” she said. But, she added, “the issue can become trivialized in the eyes of the public if the celeb hasn't done their homework and/or lets his or her ego take over.”

Clooney, she said, “is low-key and keeps the focus on the issue and not on himself.”

And that, I now realize, is his genius. Clooney doesn’t want us to talk about him. He wants us to talk about people saving lives. He wants us to think about Krista’s mom raising money in Iowa and how we can all help. By stiffing the media, he got me to do what he wanted without saying a word.

Or at least I think that’s what he did. What do I know? I’ve never met the guy.