Skip to main content

Pan-Cultural Film Festival, Part 1

By Flora Moon

For one week in February of this year, nearly 1,700 Houstonians and visitors were treated to the First Houston Pan-Cultural Film Festival, sponsored by Ancestral Films, a nonprofit arts organization whose mission is to increase cross-cultural interaction and social awareness through the medium of film. !D' s Flora Moon attended the festival and spoke with several key participants. Her interviews with Ancestral Films Executive Director Mohammed Kamara and documentary filmmaker Vojtech Jasny (Why Havel?) will appear in the July/August issue. Following is her interview with documentary filmmaker Nancy Tong, whose film In the Name of the Emperor deals with the women who were forced into prostitution (or "comfort stations") by the Japanese government and some of the soldiers who took part in the 1937 Nanjing Massacre.


Nancy Tong

In 1992, Christine Choy, who was the cinematographer of the film, got a mysterious phone call from someone who asked her if she wanted to make a film about the Nanjing Massacre. She brought me into a meeting in which we were shown a little bit of black-and-white silent footage of the Nanjing Massacre. I thought, "My God, I've never seen anything like this." It reminded me of footage that I saw when I was young, growing up in Hong Kong, of the Holocaust and also of Hiroshima after the bombing. And I had heard about the Nanjing Massacre, but inever knew why the massacre [occurred or about] the rape that was going on. I said, "My God, that's a lot of stuff there. I'm not sure I can deal with it." Chris and I felt that we needed some time.

We talked about it. We knew that there was this strong, powerful footage, but you can not just show it and say, "Okay, this is massacre footage." You have to put in perspective in order to make it relate to our contemporary life. This massacre happened 50—odd years ago—so what? What is its relevance to us now?

It was the time of Bosnia, and daily I was watching stuff that was going on over there, the raping of Muslim women, the ethnic cleansing. So it made sense suddenly: This kind of thing is still happening. That's how the whole film came about.

The people who talked with us are a group of concerned Chinese­ Americans who wanted to do something about this [footage]. They had collected a limited amount of money, and they asked us how much we needed. We gave them a budget.

They said, "First of all, our most important [objective] is to try to go to Japan and China: China to look for survivors, Japan to look for people who were involved , like soldiers, people who denied that it ever happened, government officials, people like that." It was 1992, 5 years after the massacre, and we knew that those people who remembered would be in their seventies, so: "We've got to do it now."

In 1992, in late summer, we took a trip to Japan and China. In China we were not allowed to do anything because in three months they were expecting the Japanese Emperor Akihito, the first visit of any [member of the] Japanese imperial family. They didn't want our presence in Nanjing to reap any memories that the old folks had; they didn't want any anti­-Japanese sentiment when the Japanese emperor came. What they did was tell us that this was not the right time. "If you want us to help you, we will charge you a lot of money. You have to send us a whole script, what you're going to do, what questions, and we wi II facilitate everything," facilitate meaning they would get the survivors to a certain government place and we could conduct our interviews there. We felt that wasn't the way we wanted to conduct the interviews, number one.

Number two, we didn't have the money to pay them. And number three, they never gave us a time.

We went to Japan right after China. I have a very good friend in Japan who made all the connections for me. Within ten days we interviewed three of the soldiers who were in Nanjing, and they told us in a very, very detailed way exactly what day they were there, exactly what they did, how many people they killed, why they killed these people, why they had to kill women; they even described the weather. It was almost like a confession, like, "I want to tell you all this so I can clear my conscience." We were also able to do interviews with academics and historians from both sides, people who did a lot of research and said, "Yes, it did happen," and also people who said, "I've done a lot of research, and there was no proof that the massacre ever happened."

We had only something like $40,000 [to work with]. We had a little money left [after the trip], so we hired a graduate student from NYU. I supervised the editing, and we cut a 30-minute sample. From that I tried to raise some more money.

In 1993, when I was in New York, I was reading a lot of stories about Korean and Filipina comfort women who are suing the Japanese government. I found out that this whole issue of comfort women was completely denied by the [Japanese] govern ment and completely unresolved. In fact, there were 200,000 women who were comfort women, used by the Japanese military as sex slaves. This was a h uge amount, 200,000 people, and why has this story been buried for 50 years? I couldn't understand it.

I found out that comfort women really started with the Nanjing Massacre. In fact, when I went back to the transcript of the soldiers, one of the soldiers said, "After the rape and everything, so many people came down with venereal disease that a whole regiment of soldiers were hospitalized." In Tianjin, they had to have a hospital to specially serve soldiers who came down with all kinds of VD. Then another soldier said, "I remember they started coming in February." At that point it clicked. Comfort women are completely relevant to the Nanjing Massacre. I did more research, and it happened that actually comfort women began in 1931 in Shanghai, but [the practice] wasn't organized in any way. In 1937, after the Rape of Najing, the military became very involved and set up this whole system of comfort women.

In 1993 I raised some more money, and we went to Japan again, this time primarily for the comfort women [thread of the story]. There was a conference in Tokyo in October 1993 of Asian women meeting just around the comfort women issue. We were there, and we interviewed one of the comfort women. She was actually living in Japan all these years. She just came out after all these years as a comfort woman. She had served for eight years in China. That's how that whole comfort women issue began. It was in August of that year that the Japanese government finally [admitted] that indeed it had been organizing comfort stations. All these years, they were denying it: "No, it is not the government, not the military, it's always been entrepreneurs doing this business, just like Americans setting up these places for the Gls." We interviewed the professor who found documents in the military that prove the Japanese military were involved in it. That's how that whole story came out.

Funding from concerned Chinese­ Americans, that was our phase one. That enabled us to make our first trip to Asia and also enabled us to cut a sample reel. And after that, in 1993, we basically took the sample reel and showed it to a lot of people. At the PBS conference in April of that year in New Orleans, although I didn't really get results as far as money was concerned, but just to be there, to show it to an audience, to get the reaction of the audience, that was very encouraging. Then I sent the tape to NAATA [the National Asian American Telecommunications Association]; they rejected it. I also sent it to the New York Council on the Arts. I think we got $15,000 or $20,000 from them.

Then the surprise came. I had tried to get a $5,000 grant from the National Film Board of Canada. I got a call all of a sudden from one of the producers, from the National Film Board Studio D, which is a women's studio, and the producer said, "Five thousand dollars is not going to get you anywhere. Don't underestimate what you can do. Why don't you sent us something, because we are very, very interested in films about the conditions of women during wartime." So I sent her a proposal and a sample, and then they said, "We'd really like to help you. Tell us how we can help." I said, "I'm ready for editing. Is there any way you can assist us in editing?" They said, "We'll give you our best editor, we'll give you our best Steen beck, and you don't have to worry about paying for any of this. It's coming out of our budget. So why don't you get all your material, come up, and cut?" So I did.

All the material that we filmed [in Japan], all the tape, all the transcriptions, all the transfers were done at the National Film Board. That saved us a huge bundle. All the materials that l found at the National Archive had to be made into work prints, and the National Film Board did all of that, too. We tried to cut something, but unfortunately, after about nine months, after having two editors, we still felt that there was something not working. So in 1994 we took the film back to New York and cut it. Then we borrowed another $50,000 or $60,000 to finish it.

The reason I think we were able to bring this film to that stage is because both Christine and I were working with very little salary. I was living on my credit cards. At the beginning of the film I had $6,000 in the bank. At the end of the film I was $20,000 in debt. That was personal money I put in.

This Film has shown in the Hong Kong Film Festival, and after that I sold it to Hong Kong television. Hong Kong tv showed it in July 1995, Taiwan tv showed it in October 1995, and Korea [showed it] in March 1996. In Japan, there has been a lot interest. In fact, NHK looked at it and wanted to show it, but although they appreciate the fact that we didn't sensationalize the Nanjing Massacre, they wanted us to change the title of the film. In the Name of the Emperor is completely inappropriate for Japan because NHK is a government­ sponsored station. My reaction was, "Okay, why don't you suggest a few names? Let's see whether we can agree." The next day I got a call and they said, "Well, even if you change the name ..." TV Asahi is also very interested . They also said they liked it, but they couldn't show it either. At certain points we've been talking to cinemas, peace associations, but I think the risk for them is too much. The right wing is still very powerful in Japan, and it's enough of a force to be able to blackmail or threaten any organization that wants to screen a film like this.

Most of the documentary people in Asia are the people who work for television, like the people who try to make their own version of 60 Minutes or 20/20 type of magazine shows. I think in Asia it's very hard to survive as an independent documentary filmmaker because there is no channel to show these films and there is no funding for films like this. Theaters are not going to show it.

So all the people interested in making documentaries are already absorbed in the job market making films for television. There is a very small circle of people. In Japan there are a few.

In Hong Kong there are one or two. I think in China there are freelance people who want to do documentaries, but because of the censorship and the situations in China, it is still very difficult for them to break that barrier.

There were a few screenings in Toronto. TVOntario actually licensed the film for two years. I tried to show it to the CBC, which is kind of like the PBS here, but they said that the format is different from theirs. Their format is still the BBC type, which means they have heavy narration. They wanted their host to present it and to narrate it. Our film has no narration; it completely did not fit their format. And I think CBC was running into some difficulties. I think 80 percent of their films have to have Canadian content . [Studio D's] budget is being cut all the time, and every year they are limited to certain projects that they can fund. So I think that they took a big risk. This film did not have Canadian content. They were the angels of this project.

We showed it in New York through the Asian Cinevision Film Festival; also in Los Angeles at the Asian Pacific Film Festival. The Human Rights Film Festival has picked up the film too, and it has shown in eight cities in the United States. We had a couple of benefit screenings at the Asia Society. Film Forum picked up the filming New York, and it showed last year on the 58th anniversary of the massacre, which was on December 13. The response was very good. The New York Times, Daily News, and New York News Day all wrote very, very good reviews.

I've submitted it to PBS th rough POV twice, and twice it was rejected. submitted it to PBS in Alexandria. They rejected it. I also sent it to the Pacific Mountain Network [covering the Western United States]. Their response was that they liked the film but there were too many subtitles; we would have to change the whole film, no subtitles, all dubbed, and also they want us to recut the beginning. If we are to show the film as is, we will have to pay them for the satellite feed. PBS said that they have limited funding and too many submissions. POV, I don't know, I haven't called them back. They write that they like the film, [but] it's probably just a form letter.

This is the first time I've tried to go through to PBS. Chris's films, like Who Killed Vincent Chin?, have been shown before. She's had more dealings with PBS. I really don 't know. I think maybe part of the reason [for the rejection is the] Asian subject. For PBS, they think, "Oh, it's Asian, maybe it's a good film, but there are so many other films about really American subjects." Maybe that's it. I don't know. Europe really liked it. So far we sold it to France, to ARTE. They actually paid a lot of money for it. And even Bulgaria, Spain, Finland—a lot of places have it. BBC said that last year, the 50th anniversary of World War II, they had another program they produced on the Pacific War so they didn't want to duplicate [subject matter]. That's our first tier, trying to sell it to free TV, because that's when you get the most money. Now we probably will try a second phase of showing it through satellite or as kind of a secondary film.

I'm doing [distribution] myself, especially in Asia, because I have contacts and I have friends who have contacts. Friends who make films gave us nu m bers of people who are the marketing directors or the buyers for these stations. We're just cold calling. We send them faxes and send them a tape. They look at it and get back to us. We also sent about five or six tapes to German tv, and so far they have shown no interest in it. I think last year there were just too many war films, too many Holocaust films. The market was completely saturated.

It's difficult to make a living, especially if I insist on directing my own films. When a film is done, you're exhausted. You still have to distribute the film. And then you have to write new proposals, do new research. That could take as long as a year on serious subjects, and then you send these proposals out and people are going to get back to you in half year. We can't live like that. From my last film I'm $20,000 in debt. I'm fortunate because I'm bilingual, so I am able to get into productions for Asia. If some of the Hong Kong filmmakers want to come to New York to do feature films, I'm their line producer. All my films are low budget, so I know how to cut corners for other people. So I regularly do consultation work, doing budgets for other people, that's how I survive.


Flora Moon, a former member of the IDA Board of Directors, is a documentary and new media director executive producer, and writer based in Houston. She is currently exploring the use of the Internet for documentary filmmaking.