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CJ Newton is helping tell the true story of Sofia, who escaped the Armenian genocide in Turkey


It was definitely fate that brought Petaluma screenwriter CJ Newton and fashion designer Caroline Hallak together at the Petaluma Visitors Center last year.

Newton describes their chance meeting as being like a scene out of a Hollywood movie, with the opening featuring a glamourous brunette stepping out of a shiny, red sportscar and introducing herself as a fashion designer from Beverly Hills.

"She pulled up to the visitors center in her Maserati, and I was there in my boring Toyota," laughed Newton, author of the screenplay "Batting Second." "It was an ordinary Tuesday for me, and I stopped in to the center to buy a button for the Butter & Egg Days Parade. That's when she walked in, looking glamorous, and speaking with a French accent."

Newton happens to speak French, and the two struck up a conversation. He mentioned that he was a screenwriter, and then learned that she was an Armenian from Montreal, Canada. She was now living in Los Angeles and working in fashion design. Hallak was visiting Petaluma in hopes of finding shops in the area to sell the wine bags she makes from leftover Academy Awards dresses.

"She came up to wine country hoping to sell designer wine bags," said Newton. "She thought they would be a hit with people who want to gift an expensive wine in something a little nicer than a paper bag."

Newton provided Hallak with some suggestions for wine shop owners in town for her to talk to, they exchanged business cards and went their separate ways. A year later, Newton got a phone call from Hallak.

"She asked if I remembered her, and reminded me that she was Armenian," said Newton. "Then she asked if I would help her tell the story of her grandmother, who escaped the Armenian genocide of World War I. It's an amazing story, and it's true. I had the time and agreed to write the script."

In 1915, the Ottomon Empire of modern day Turkey decided it wanted to remove the Armenian population from the country and ordered them all to leave. According to ArmenianGenocide.org, the forced deportations were disguised as a resettlement program. The brutal treatment of the deportees, most of whom were made to walk to their destinations, made it apparent that the deportations were mainly intended as death marches. An estimated 1.5 million Armenians perished in the genocide.

"It's a big issue in Europe, and it's the main reason Turkey hasn't been allowed full membership into the European Union," said Newton. "Turkey has not apologized for what happened."

Newton said that Hallak's grandmother, Sofia, witnessed the murders of her husband, parents, and one brother and a sister during the genocide. Sofia was spared because she had children. Her younger brother, Jean, escaped with Greek fisherman to France and emigrated to Canada in 1925.

Sofia fled Turkey by donkey, hiding her children in saddle bags and drugging them to keep them quiet. Tragically, she accidently overdosed one of her children, killing the child. Sofia eventually made it to Aleppo, Syria with her remaining children.

Newton is busily writing the script for the story, which he and Hallak plan to turn into a film. The project is very timely with the 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide coming up in 2015.

"I work fast and will be finishing the script this month," said Newton. "We plan to start raising funds in September. There's a large, affluent community of Armenians in Southern California that we plan to approach to help finance the film. We want to enter the completed movie in festivals, such as Sundance. Hallak also hopes to one day build a monument in Glendale in honor of the Aremenians who were killed in the genocide. There is a large Armenian community in Glendale."

Newton said that he doesn't want to depress the American audience with another "Schindler's List," but that this is a historical event and a story about a "forgotten Holacuast" that needs to be told.

"It's a sideline to World War I that not a lot of people know about," said Newton. "It's an unpleasant period in history."

Though the story sheds light on a dark period of Turkish history, Newton plans to balance it with what's going on today in that part of the world.

"I have some modern history that I'm putting in the end notes of the film," he said. "Turkey is now a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and is now sheltering more than 135,000 Syrian refugees who are escaping a new genocide happening right now in Syria."

To learn more about Hallak, visit www.carolinehallak.com. To learn more about Newton, visit www.battingsecond.wordpress.com.

(Contact Yovanna Bieberich at yovanna.bieber ich@arguscourier.com)