The straw-man argument at the center of Truth to Power, a documentary about the art and activism of System of a Down frontman Serj Tankian, is: “Can music change the world?” If you know anything about Tankian — or Fela Kuti, Pete Seeger, Billie Holiday, N.W.A, Ludwig van Beethoven, and on and on — the answer is self-evident. But once filmmaker Garin Hovannisian moves past this question and begins showing how Tankian and his bandmates have improved the status of their ancestral homeland, Armenia, the power of truth starts hitting its marks. The film is well-paced, tightly edited and engaging, and at times, it’s quite inspiring.
The crux of the film is System of a Down’s role in emboldening Armenian politician Nikol Pashinyan to kickstart the 2018 velvet revolution that toppled the country’s oligarchy, allowing him to become prime minister. For decades — long before Kim Kardashian became an activist — Tankian and his bandmates have used their music to elevate consciousness about Armenia’s history to fans who likely didn’t even know the country existed.
For years, the band has taught them that in 1915, Ottoman Turks attempted the genocide of Armenians, Greeks, and other neighboring peoples, killing more than 1.5 million people, and that the modern Turkish government continues to deny the genocide. System of a Down’s song “P.L.U.C.K.” addressed the genocide (the acronym stands for “Politically Lying, Unholy, Cowardly Killers”) on the band’s first album in 1998.
“We’re System of a Down,” Tankian tells an audience in an archival concert clip early on in the film, “and it’s our responsibility to tell you these things and rock you at the same time.”
Truth to Power excels in showing the two lives of Serj Tankian. Apolitical System of a Down fans will love the footage of him playing keyboards in a field in a music video for his first band, Forever Young, and hearing “Waco Jesus,” the first song he wrote with System guitarist-vocalist Daron Malakian. There is also candid footage of System’s members messing around on keyboards at the house of producer Rick Rubin (who describes their genre as “ancient folk music mixed with heavy metal”) and the band’s earliest gigs.
But the doc also shows Tankian’s gentle side. For instance, he has kept his Grammy and MTV Awards in a closet ever since he turned his home office into his son’s bedroom. And it shows some of his idiosyncrasies, such as the time he wore a small camera on his head like a bodycam for a spell. Hovannisian weaves in Tankian’s activism in a scene with the singer recalls a vow he made to his grandfather: “I made a promise that I would do my best to take this issue to the forefront of whatever I do in my life.” And that’s when the picture becomes more than a standard rockumentary, as it shows how Tankian learns both the glory and the burden of activism.
The Tuesday after the release of System of a Down’s breakthrough, Toxicity, in 2001, was 9/11. Realizing the platform he had, Tankian wrote an essay on System of a Down’s website about the United States’ ties to big oil in the Middle East in an attempt to explain the terror event, much to the horror of his bandmates and the world at large. “You don’t go to someone who just had a death in the family and talk about how shitty that person was,” System drummer John Dolmayan says in the film. “I was really pissed.” Tankian adds, “I was so naïve that I thought because it was the truth that it was OK to say it.”
Footage of Tankian confronting then–Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert about recognizing the Armenian genocide shows the musician’s more diplomatic side, though he later says he became aware of death threats for confronting the Congressman. And shots of him and his bandmates playing Yerevan, Armenia in 2015, when Tankian allowed what he calls “the truth serum” to come in and impugn Obama’s decision to not recognize the Armenian genocide show how he was unafraid to push buttons. (The U.S. House of Representatives finally passed a resolution recognizing the genocide in 2019.) As the film shows later, the Yerevan episode wound up resonating well into Armenia’s revolution when Tankian’s words took on a pivotal role.
The film darts in and out between Tankian’s political advocacy and musical life, which now includes composing film scores (including the understated music running through Truth to Power), and it broaches why he and his bandmates haven’t been able to make a new album since 2005. At one point, he even reads mean tweets from angry fans. But with an 80-minute runtime, Tankian’s efforts in Armenia take more of the spotlight. That’s not a negative thing. The story of Serj Tankian’s struggles is also the story of Armenia’s struggles. By the time he comes around to answering “Can music change the world?”, tears are flowing. Perhaps the real message here is that to effect real positive change, you must become one with your cause.