Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Nanking, a Documentary Changing World Perception

Ted Leonsis’ documentary film, Nanking, was not among the recently announced list of nominees for Academy awards, but he and the film had already won appreciative reception from millions around the world. At least 20 million in China have already seen this film. In the U.S. favorable reception from first limited release has now encouraged more general release across the country.

He did this by presenting the history of the Japanese occupation of Nanking (now called Nanjing) in a particularly persuasive way on especially shocking crime against humanity that has been largely unknown outside of Asia.

Leonsis happened to read the obituary of Iris Chang and became curious about her best seller, “The Rape of Nanking.” The book led to his decision to tell the story on the silver screen.

In December 1937, Japanese Imperial forces laid siege and then occupied Nanking, at the time the capital of the Chinese republic. According to the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal conducted at the end of WWII, over the next six weeks of occupation, the troops slaughtered 200,000 Chinese civilians and prisoners of war and raped around 20,000 females from babies to elderly.

The film tells the story of atrocities from the eyes of a handful of Americans and Europeans that elected to stay in Nanking. They organized a safety zone to protect civilians fortunate enough to have reached them.

The film employed professional actors to narrate excerpts from the diaries and letters they left behind. These eyewitness accounts were intermixed with tearful interviews of actual Chinese survivors recalling the horror and pain along with detached recollections of elderly Japanese men that were once soldiers occupying Nanking.

Spliced between these oral histories were actual movies and stills taken by the organizers of the safety zone, a zone subsequently credited with saving some 250,000 lives. Fortunately, the priceless materials were smuggled out of China undetected by the Japanese soldiers.

Depiction of the more hideous acts of beheading, live burial and gang rape relied more on verbal descriptions than visual images, a barrage of which would have nauseated the audience. The overall effect proved to be such a moving experience that only a storefront mannequin could have remained dry eyed.

The widely acclaimed documentary has won many awards and received 4 star accolades from every major reviewer.

Most importantly, the film takes the Nanjing massacre debate out of the bilateral tug of war between the Chinese and the Japanese. Leonsis personally financed and initiated this project to tell this historical event from the third party’s vantage point.

The matter of fact treatment of the subject coming from white non-combatants will render the film hard for anyone to repudiate.

The documentary film was released in December 2007, just in time to commemorate the 70th anniversary of Japan’s siege and occupation of Nanking. The renovated Nanjing Massacre Museum also reopened in the same month.

Museum officials at the reopening ceremony indicated that their goal is to raise the world awareness of the museum so as to be on par with Auschwitz, Hiroshima and other world heritage memorials reminding humankind of the brutal consequences of war.

The Nanjing Massacre Museum is built on one of the killing grounds used by the Japanese Imperial troops. Visitors can see open trenches exposing random stacks of human remains.

Multi-colored leis of paper-folded cranes have been left by visiting Japanese school children as tokens of regret and respect. The accumulated leis showed that some schools make regular sojourns to this site. One can conclude that not all the people of Japan are blind to history.

Some still living members of the imperial troops have publicly expressed remorse and guilt over their conduct in Nanjing. To do so took great courage as they immediately became targets of hate mail and death threats from Japan’s right wing extremists.

One Japanese filmmaker claiming that the Nanking Massacre never happened is planning to introduce his rebuttal on screen. It will be interesting to see what “truths” he will unearth.

Japan’s Consul General from Shanghai has already visited the reopened museum. He complained to Chinese officials that the exhibits were overwhelmingly one sided and he expressed concerns that the exhibits will inflame emotions and disrupt peaceful development of relations between the peoples of the two countries.

By all indications, the current government of Japan has foresworn its military, aggressor past and is a government of peaceful intentions. Unfortunately, the government is also hobbled by its inability to openly seek reconciliation with the world.

The Nanking documentary will make it that much harder to ignore the past but perhaps will convince the Tokyo government to finally face history squarely.

Only by knowing the lessons of history, can humankind avoid repeating the error.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Dear sir,

Having just watched the movie and been so stirred as to seek out more information, I've come across your writing here and wanted to thank you for it. It gave me a good sense of where things stand between China and Japan with relation to this horrible atrocity, one of which I was never taught about in my own schooling.

I happen to be a teacher who teacher about the Holocaust, and I thought it would make you smile, at least, to know that the movie has compelled me to broaden my teaching under a theme of "consequences of war" instead of a focus on just the Holocaust, so as to include what's been depicted in the movie among other atrocities.

Thanks again and peace to you.