December 17, 2007

Life During Wartime: Survivors Bear Witness in 'Nanking'

Seventy years ago this month, Japanese forces invaded the Chinese city of Nanking, having subjected the capital at that time to months of bombardment before taking control of the city. For the next six weeks, over 200,000 Chinese citizens and prisoners of war were murdered, and 20,000 women and girls were raped. A small group of Westerners who had been living there chose to remain; they established a Safety Zone for refugees, and saved some 200,000 people.

The story of the Nanking massacre is not as well-known to most Americans as other more documented stories from World War II. When AOL mogul Ted Leonsis happened upon an obituary for writer Iris Chang, who had committed suicide ten years after the 1994 publication of her acclaimed book The Rape of Nanking, he was compelled to read her work, and then was inspired to make a documentary about the Nanking tragedy.

Leonsis hired Academy Award-winning filmmaker Bill Guttentag (Twin Towers; You Don't Have to Die) and Dan Sturman, a producer on Twin Towers and an associate producer on Charles Guggenheim's A Time for Justice. Nanking tells the story of the occupation through survivors from both sides, as well as through staged readings of journals and diaries of the Westerners who risked their lives to save lives. The film, which opens December 12 in New York through THINKFilm and HBO Documentary Films, earned a Documentary Editing Award at Sundance for Hibah Frisana, Charlton McMillan and Michael Schweitzer, and a spot on the Academy Awards Short list for Best Feature Documentary.

IDA caught up with Dan Sturman via e-mail as he was readying for the New York premiere.

IDA: Although you and Bill Guttentag have made documentaries about events in American history, this is the first time that either of you had tackled a time in history that's relatively unknown--at least to American audiences. What is it about the history documentary genre--and its best practitioners--hat you admire, and, conversely, how did you want to go about telling the story of Nanking differently?

Dan Sturman: In many ways, I think the process of making a historical documentary is not much different from working as an investigative journalist. It's all about uncovering a story. It's just that in a historical film your sources are much older.

Two of my favorite docs are One Day in September and Anne Frank Remembered. In both, the filmmakers took a familiar piece of history and shined a new and fascinating light on it. They dug up footage that had never been seen before and found stories that had never been told. Then they pieced everything together in a way that transports the audience back in time.

Because the story of Nanking is largely unfamiliar to a Western audience, our task felt somewhat easier; much of what we learned and saw along the way seemed fresh and interesting. Of course, we also did our best to turn over every rock in search of unique footage and compelling stories.

IDA: Talk about the production process. How did you find the footage? How did you track down the survivors--and the perpetrators?

DS: Filmmaking is a collaborative effort, and this was doubly true for Nanking. Through the exhaustive efforts of a number of different associate producers, we found footage in archives in eight or nine different countries--and not just in Asia. Surprisingly, one of our most compelling "gets" was an Italian newsreel shot by a crew who filmed during the attack on Nanking, and who then managed to stay on in the city for the first couple days of the Japanese occupation.

In order to track down survivors, we relied on our very talented co-producer, Violet Feng. A native of Shanghai and a Berkeley Journalism School grad, Violet spent a month scouting and networking in Nanjing. Sadly, many of the survivors she was searching for live in poverty, and very few of them have telephones, making old-fashioned detective work a necessity. In one instance, Violet learned about a survivor who is homeless and who apparently lives near a dumpster in a certain part of the city.  Violet managed to find him, and his interview is one of the most powerful in the film.

We filmed in Japan in the spring of 2006. By that time, very few of the soldiers who fought in Nanking in 1937 were still alive. We did manage to interview six different Japanese soldiers, one of whom died only two months after our meeting. We found these soldiers through the generous assistance of a Japanese activist, Tamaki Matsuoka. An elementary school teacher by trade, Matsuoka has devoted her weekends for the past 15 years to tracking down and filming over 250 Nanking soldiers. In addition to helping us locate the living soldiers, she also allowed us to use some of her own interview footage.

IDA: This film is being released in concert with the 70th anniversary of the Nanking occupation. How has the film been received in China, and in Japan? Talk about the process of shooting in Japan.

DS: We traveled to Beijing in July for the theatrical premiere of Nanking, which was quite an odd and fascinating experience. Apparently, China only allows 20 foreign films a year to be released in theaters, and these releases are staggered throughout the year.  Our release window was between Transformers and Pirates of the Caribbean, and it felt like a very big deal. We appeared on television shows and had camera crews following us around (I got the sense we were a bit of a disappointment after Michael Bay). Since then, we've screened in theaters around the country and have become the top grossing documentary in Chinese history.

The 70th anniversary of the invasion is coming up on December 13, and we are told there will be a new round of promotion in China.

At this point, we estimate that Nanking has already been seen in theaters in China by more then two million people (and pirated DVDs are now widely available). In contrast, there are probably fewer than 20 people in Japan who've seen the film. We've been rejected by every Japanese festival we've applied to and we've been unable to find a distributor. Two days after our premiere at Sundance, a group of conservative politicians and filmmakers held a press conference in Tokyo and announced plans to make a $2 million film that will rebut the lies of our film. Apparently, it's now in production and will be called The Truth of Nanking.

IDA: Nanking is one of three major American-made World War II documentaries released in 2007--the others being Ken Burns and Lynn Novick's The War and Steven Okazaki's White Light/Black Rain--in which survivors--both citizens and soldiers tell their stories, rather than pundits and historians interpreting their stories for them. Talk about this approach to presenting history.

DS: I do think there is an emotional power and drama that comes from first-hand testimony that simply can't be replicated. Historians and pundits can provide information and exposition and perspective, but one can often get this same information directly from an eyewitness. Looking into the eyes of the atomic bomb victims featured in Steven Okazaki's film tells me more about the power of the atomic bomb than any recitation of historical facts.

I think it's virtually impossible for most Americans to truly understand what the world was like during World War II. Tens of millions died and hundreds of millions suffered during a very short span of time. As filmmakers, I think we are all trying to convey the magnitude of this tragedy, not just on an intellectual level, but also on a visceral, emotional level.

IDA: The horrors of Nanking have echoed in so many subsequent episodes in history--the India-Pakistan partition, Pol Pot and Cambodia, Bosnia, Rwanda and Darfur. What lessons can we draw from Nanking and how can we apply them today?

DS: The clearest lesson I get from Nanking is that civilians suffer horrifically during wartime.

Thomas White is editor of Documentary magazine and the Documentary e-zine.