Earlier this year, video director Meiert Avis was talking to Chris Cornell about their latest collaboration: a video for “The Promise” that Cornell had written and recorded for the 2016 historical film of the same name examining a love triangle in the wake of the Armenian genocide.
A lyric video released in March already featured scenes from the movie. For the official video, Cornell, directors Stefan Smith and Avis and the film’s producer Eric Esrailian wanted to widen the scope both geographically and temporally, showing actual footage of fleeing refugees and war-torn cities from Libya, Syria and other countries alongside historical atrocities.
Avis would send rough cuts back and forth to Cornell for feedback, with the songwriter providing one main suggestion: Make it less depressing and more optimistic.
“It’s very hard to put the pieces together for me,” Avis tells Rolling Stone. “I’ve had many people break down when they watch the video. They either cry or are silent for 10 minutes.”
Avis had no idea “The Promise” would end up being Cornell’s final music video, released one month after the Soundgarden and Audioslave musician died by suicide. But the clip, featuring a performance Cornell recorded in Brooklyn in March, doubles as a fitting testament to the musician’s lesser-known altruistic side.
“He was always curious about how others were feeling and he had an interest in learning about their lives,” Esrailian, a philanthropist and close friend of Cornell’s who brought him onto the project, tells Rolling Stone. “He was always asking how he could help me with some of the different non-profit projects I was working on.”
“He was always curious about how others were feeling and he had an interest in learning about their lives.”
“I was asking, ‘How close to it am I and how far away from it am I?'” Cornell told Rolling Stone in March of the song. “I married into a Greek family, and my wife’s grandparents were affected by the same genocide at the same time, since it was part of the same Ottoman Empire policy. So I saw the nearness to it.”
For the video, the Armenian genocide becomes a microcosm of human-rights atrocities around the world, with Cornell drawing on personal experience, research and perennially pervasive headlines about Rwanda, Cambodia, Darfur and other regions for inspiration. “Chris had the idea of, ‘How can we bridge the video … with fear-inducing images of what people have to deal with as well as messages and images of hope and perseverance and resilience and survival,’ which is what the song is also about,” Esrailian says.
This dichotomy – scenes of reunions, rescues and marches for justice contrast with bombed-out cities, debris-filled classrooms and crying mothers – stands at the heart of the video, whose original, darker cut focused more on genocide and its effects. Avis and Smith omitted the historical and explanatory text they originally conceived for the video, giving the images of disparate groups fleeing an ominous universality.
“When you destroy whole cultures and fragment families, you’re left with psychic scars that last hundreds of years,” says Avis, who helmed videos for Cornell’s 2008 song “Ground Zero” and Audioslave’s 2002 hit “Like a Stone.” “When you’re part of that history, it’s very unnerving when you see it happen in front of you. There’s a cognitive dissonance where we’ll spend billions of dollars protecting the habitats of a certain kind of frog – the ecosystem is very important – but at the same time, the human ecosystem is completely ignored and a 10,000-year-old culture is considered worthless. That’s what we’re trying to address in the video.”
Despite the heavy subject matter, both Avis and Esrailian say that Cornell’s mood while working on the video was only positive. “He was happy, passionate, engaged and creative,” says Esrailian. “He was focused but excited; not stressed. Just happy.
“I’m a physician and for me, when people are having mood disturbances – unless they’re able to really hide it well – I’m pretty astute to being able to pick up on those things,” he adds, noting the pair spoke almost daily. “Given the amount of time and how close we were, nothing gave me any sense that he would have any kind of sadness in his life. It was quite the opposite. … The song is a promise to persevere, survive and thrive – that’s the song he was out there promoting.”
Avis recalls one memory of shooting during a New York snowstorm earlier this year. “He was just talking about how happy it made him to scrape the snow off his doorstep that morning and to be in New York with his kids doing the normal shit that dads do,” he says.
“I hope [the video] provides a wider human context for the tragedy of his death.”
Per Cornell’s request, the video’s release date has special meaning. Tuesday, June 20th, marks World Refugee Day, an annual commemoration by the United Nations Refugee Agency to spotlight “the strength, courage and perseverance of millions of refugees.” Cornell pledged to donate all proceeds from the song and video to humanitarian aid charity International Rescue Committee.
Oscar-nominated director Evgeny Afineesvky (Cries from Syria), Ross Kemp (Libya’s Migrant Hell) and Armenian photojournalist Nazik Armenakyan (Survivors) were among various filmmakers and charities to donate footage for use in the video.
“This movie’s a great opportunity to tell a story that needs to be told, to help engage the healing of something that happened at a specific time and place, but it also reminds us that it’s happening now and reminds us what to look for,” Cornell told Rolling Stone earlier this year. “You can see it now in Syria, where you have one regime that is trying to deny any [killing] is happening and you have ISIS on the other side who is targeting a different group and advertising it.”
“The hope is that we don’t forget the past but that we also are able to shift gears and focus on the people that we can help today and actually get engaged and stimulate a sense of altruism and advocacy for those who are in danger,” Esrailian says. “A lot of the same patterns and techniques used to oppress others or to violate human rights have been replicated over and over again that if we draw attention to it, we can raise the alarm and have people intervene. Everyone can do something, even if it’s local or abroad. People don’t have to feel like they’re helpless.”
With “The Promise” video, the confluence of personal and global tragedy blends with philanthropy and altruism. One month before his death, Cornell and his wife Vicky toured refugee camps in Greece and focused their Chris and Vicky Cornell Foundation on child refugees. While Cornell never saw the finished video, he was, according to Avis, “very involved and certainly knew where we were going.”
“I hope [the video] provides a wider human context for the tragedy of his death,” says Avis. “I hope it creates something with purpose because Chris had purpose and to lose your purpose is a terrible thing.”
The singer’s most memorable moments: Soundgarden’s grunge classics, Audioslave’s hits and his poetic solo material. Watch here.