Film documents Nanking’s ‘holocaust’
When Iris Chang parked her car on a lonely road in rural California two years ago, placed the end of an antique revolver in her mouth and ended her own life in a bout of depression, the celebrated young journalist died having failed to answer a question that had haunted her most of her adult life.
Chang is most famous for "The Rape of Nanking," her 1997 New York Times bestseller and the first popular account, in English, of the murder of more than 200,000 Chinese civilians at the hands of Japanese soldiers in the run-up to World War II. In the opening pages of that book, the author contemplated a riddle friends say she never managed to solve: How did this massacre, one of the most brutal and best documented wartime atrocities of the 20th century, go ignored in the United States for six decades?
Another decade later, the people behind "Nanking," a documentary inspired by the book that premiers today at the Sundance Film Festival, have no definitive answers of their own. But they hope at least to extend Chang’s effort to cure the country’s amnesia.
"It’s been called the ‘forgotten holocaust,’" says Bill Guttentag, who co-directed the film with long-time collaborator Dan Sturman. "Those two words should never be in the same sentence."
While it may have been largely forgotten on this side of the Pacific, the story is vividly familiar to most Chinese. On December 10, 1937, Japanese troops arrived at gates of Nanjing (current spelling), then the capital of Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist government, in a bid to incorporate China into Japan’s "Greater East Asia Co-prosperity Sphere." Many expected the Japanese would take the city peacefully, but instead the soldiers went on a two-month rampage of mutilation, rape and murder that left only 300,000 alive in a city once home to more than twice that number.
One the most respected American scholars of Chinese history, Jonathan Spence, has referred to the occupation of Nanjing as "a period of terror and destruction that must rank among the worst in the history of modern warfare."
None of the main people behind "Nanking" knew anything about the massacre before they started. Ted Leonsis, the AOL vice-chairman who produced the film, says he came up with the idea after encountering Chang’s obituary in the New York Times by chance while on vacation in the Caribbean. He’d thrown the paper away after reading it, he says, but the obituary page stayed on top of the trash, and her picture stared at him every time he walked by.
Back home, Leonsis read Chang’s book and, shocked that he had never heard the story, decided to revive it in film form. Looking for a feature-quality documentary capable of reaching a wide audience, he tapped Guttenberg and Sturman, winners of an Academy Award last year for the documentary short "Twin Towers," to direct the project.
To compensate for their own lack of familiarity with the issue, the trio assembled a massive team of researchers then spent six months scouring archives, assembling old footage and photographs, and scouting for survivors and veterans to interview. The film employed over 140 people all told, according to the directors the largest crew either has ever used.
The filmmakers decided to build the film around the story of the "Safety Zone" committee, a group of 22 resident foreigners who stayed behind in Nanjing and set up a two-square mile safe area on the edge of city that sheltered tens of thousands refugees from the Japanese onslaught. The group included a number of fascinating figures, including John Rabe, the local head of the Nazi Party who was later dubbed "the living Buddha of Nanking" for the number of lives he saved, and Minnie Vautrin, an American missionary who risked her own life on numerous occasions to keep the city’s women safe from rapacious soldiers.
Vautrin, in a disturbing parallel with Chang, committed suicide shortly after leaving Nanjing.
The decision to concentrate on the Safety Zone, according to Leonisis, came from a desire to examine the unexpected heroism war can produce, a notion reflected in the film’s slogan: "Even in the Darkest of Times, There is Light." Members of the Safety Zone committee, all long deceased, are "played" in the film by an impressive line-up of actors (including Woody Harrelson and Jürgen Prachnow of Das Boot) reading from the trove of letters and diaries the group left behind.
Effective as the technique is in adding life to the story of Nanjing’s Western heroes, the more striking and valuable part of "Nanking" lies in the on-camera eyewitness accounts, as few of those who were there are still alive.
"If we hadn’t done this now, there would have been no survivors left," says Leonsis.
To get the interviews, Guttenberg and Sturman spent over a month in Asia. Most of that time was spent in China, where the pair managed to find 22 survivors of the massacre. Among them was Chang Zhiqiang (no relation to Chang the writer), nine years old at the time of the invasion, whose uninterrupted five-minute recollection of the killing of his mother is arguably the film’s defining moment. Meeting Chang, Sturman says, was the most memorable experience of the project. "It just transcends culture, the emotional devastation."
Among the film’s most chilling moments is an interview with Teramoto Juhei, a Japanese veteran who described the gang rapes he helped commit while stationed in Nanjing with an almost gleeful air. When they met him, the directors say, the old soldier was perfectly nice, with a welcoming family and a collection of ceramic Disney figurines arranged in his garden.
"It’s like the Hannah Arendt line about the banality of evil," Guttenberg says of the encounter. "You walk up and see Snow White and the Seven Dwarves and the guy can’t stop shaking your hand."
According the observations of the foreigners who were there, roughly 20,000 Chinese women some as young as 8, others as old as 70 were raped by soldiers in the first two months of the occupation.
In part because of statistics like this and the refusal of extreme right-wingers in Japan to acknowledge them the Rape of Nanjing remains a point of extreme tension between China and Japan. Anger over the publication in Japanese of new history textbooks that gloss over the episode was one of the explanations floated for the massive anti-Japanese protests that spread across China last year, and China has consistently blasted Japanese leaders for making visits to the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo, where military officers in charge of the Nanjing occupation are buried.
Japan has yet to issue a formal apology for the atrocities.
The continued festering of the controversy, 70 years after the event, has made it difficult for the filmmakers. Three associate producers in Japan reportedly quit under pressure from friends and family members, and both producer Leonsis and a Japanese actor in the movie have had their personal blogs bombarded with comments railing against them for perpetuating historical lies.
Leonisis, however, remains unbowed. He likens the critics to Holocaust deniers "a small group" and rejects the notion that his film might inflame delicate relations between the two East Asian powers. "I’m hoping this film will activate discussion and will be a healthy thing," he says. "The world is small. It’s time to get over this." Screenings: Saturday, January 20 – The Library Center Theatre – 2:30pm Sunday, January 21 – Holiday Village Cinema III – 9:15pm Monday, January 22 – Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center, SLC Wednesday, January 24 – Holiday Village Cinema II – 8:30am Friday, January 26 – Holiday Village Cinema IV – 1:00pm
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