"You're in a foreign land, there's an invading army coming, your government sends boats and planes and says 'get out'. Anyone who has any means leaves. The only people left behind are the poorest of the poor bracing to be ravaged by the invaders. What do you do?"
"Gut check," says producer Ted Leonsis, Vice Chairman of AOL, "what would you do?"
I check that knot in my stomach, and try to feel for my answer: "I don't know. But I hope I'd have the courage of Minnie Vautrin and ten other Americans who chose to stay."
Presented at the 2007 Silverdocs Festival, the film is called: Nanking.
In 1937 when Japanese troops launched a brutal assault on the Chinese city of Nanking, Vautrin, a girls-school teacher from Illinois, and a handful of other Westerners, had the guts to stay behind and single-handedly stand up to the Japanese Army to protect civilians.
Vautrin, without any weapons, would fight off soldiers from raping her girls by day, and write letters about it by night. Her heart-rendering letters are read by Mariel Hemingway in the explosive new film Nanking produced by Ted Leonsis and exhibited at Silverdocs.
As air-raids devastated the city and the invading soldiers shot, bayoneted, beheaded and burned thousands of civilians and soldiers alike, raping thousands of women, these individuals struggled to find a way to protect the innocents. These heroes included, John Rabe (read by Jurgen Prochnow), a German businessman who attempted to use his Nazi Party influence to stop the carnage; minister John Magee (Hugo Armstrong), who set up a hospital to care for the wounded; Bob Wilson (Woody Harrelson), a surgeon who treated a multitude of victims, and missionary George Fitch (John Getz)..
How can an unarmed few hold off a marauding army? These brave souls invented out of thin air, a "safety zone" that spanned two square miles. They told the Japanese and Chinese armies that they were not allowed to enter. Repeatedly the soldiers would come, seeking women to rape or soldiers hiding in plainclothes among the civilians.
Though vastly outnumbered, these Westerners put their lives on the line to keep vicious killers at bay, using only their strength of character. It is a testament to the power of nonviolence that even troops who could massacre civilians without flinching, were somehow held off by the innate power of these nonviolent heroes.
"Here was a woman, an ex-nun, who had become a secretary, who saved the lives of 14,000 women half a world away," Leonsis told me in an interview. "Sometimes I'm standing in line at a movie theatre and see some lady standing by herself buying a ticket and I think, 'this woman could have been Minnie Vautrin'. The power that is within each individual to do really important great things is enormous. And that is one of the things I tried to get in the film, that what you do matters, what you do can be historic if you do the right things the right way."
"If these Americans had left, all those people would have been slaughtered," Leonsis continued, "But they stood up and they were resourceful and they worked together. And then they smuggled out a film. It was a film, shot by Episcopalian minister John Magee with a 16 mm camera, that actually propelled the story of the massacre out of China."
Leonsis had read of Magee's footage, which was carried out of China in the lining of Fitch's coat. But the historic footage was not easy to find. "My son actually found it in a research project at an internship helping on the film," said Leonsis, "It's about 42 minutes long. We show 103 seconds in our movie – it feels like a week. It shows the power of communications and documentary because that film is what got the war tribunal involved and the allies involved because you just couldn't believe what man was doing to man."
I remember having the same queasy feeling in my stomach watching about 103 seconds of footage of doctors peeling back burned skin after the Atomic bombing in Hiroshima in "White Light/Black Rain" a film we reviewed at Sundance.
When Leonsis started this project, prompted by Iris Chang's book The Rape of Nanking, his goal was to have one billion people see his film. Chinese exhibitors have promised him that a billion Chinese citizens will see it when it is exhibited and broadcast in China.
What will the reaction be when a billion Chinese watch scenes like an elderly man telling of his mother, bayoneted and bleeding, trying to nurse his baby brother with her last drop of milk? And The soldiers stabbing the baby with a bayonet and tossing it aside?
I found one very frightening response in the internet discussion of The Rape of Nanking:
"Actually, those Chinese who are familiar with the Japanese atrocities all hold a strong desire for revenge, and hope that China will punish Japan for it one day. Many Chinese don't want to see any more propaganda from Chinese officials about 'Sino-Japanese friendship.' We are looking for an excuse for the second Sino-Japanese war. The short-sightedness, bullying and shameless nature of the Japanese are an opportunity for Chinese to get revenge."
When I read that I wanted to shout "NO! NO!. Can't you see that's exactly the attitude that is perpetrating the cycle of hatred and revenge that causes these atrocities?
It doesn't matter whether it's Japanese or Chinese or Croats or Bosnians or Tutsis or Hutus or Americans or Germans. Every ethnic group has the potential for unbelievable acts of courage and kindness and just as unbelievable acts of brutality and evil. What makes the difference?
It's the thin veneer of civilization, of a justice system, of law, of an orderly way to solve disputes, not war.
"War Crime" is a redundancy—war itself is the crime. War says that shooting and killing people is a good thing. Once you say that, all civilization breaks down. If it's heroic to kill and destroy, how can you draw the line between good ways to kill people and bad ways?
Soldiers start with an innate goodness, revulsion to killing. But military training drums it out of them. Take the following excerpts from the account of one Japanese officer:
I'll never forget meeting those who would be under my command. When I looked at the men of my platoon I was stunned—they had evil eyes. They weren't human eyes, but the eyes of leopards or tigers. They'd experienced many battles and I was completely green.
The day after I arrived, a special field-operations training exercise was announced for all twenty-two of the new candidate officers.
The next-to-last day of the exercise, Second Lieutenant Tanaka took us to the detention center. Pointing at the people in a room, all Chinese, he announced, "These are the raw materials for your trial of courage." We were astonished at how thin and emaciated they looked. Tanaka told us, "They haven't been fed for several days, so they'll be ready for their part in tomorrow's plan." He said that it was to be a test to see if we were qualified to be platoon leaders.
On the final day, we were taken out to the site of our trial. Twenty four prisoners were squatting there with their hands tied behind their backs. They were blindfolded. Second Lieutenant Tanaka bowed to the regimental commander and reported, "We shall now begin." He ordered a soldier to haul one of the prisoners to the edge of the pit; the prisoner was kicked when he resisted. The soldier finally dragged him over and forced him to his knees. Tanaka turned toward us and looked into each of our faces in turn. "Heads should be cut off like this," he said, unsheathing his army sword. He scooped water from a bucket with a dipper, then poured it over both sides of the blade. Swishing off the water, he raised his sword in a long arc. Standing behind the prisoner, Tanaka steadied himself, legs spread apart, and cut off the man's head with a shout, "Yo!" The head flew more than a meter away. Blood spurted up in two fountains from the body and sprayed into the hole.
The scene was so appalling that I felt I couldn't breathe. All the candidate officers stiffened. Second Lieutenant Tanaka designated the person on the right end of our line to go next. I was fourth. When my turn came, the only thought I had was "Don't do anything unseemly!" I didn't want to disgrace myself. I bowed to the regimental commander and stepped forward. Contrary to my expectations, my feet firmly met the ground. One thin, worn-out prisoner was at the edge of the pit, blindfolded. I unsheathed my sword, a gift from my brother-in-law, wet it down as the lieutenant had demonstrated, and stood behind the man. The prisoner didn't move. He kept his head lowered. Perhaps he was resigned to his fate. I was tense, thinking I couldn't afford to fail. I took a deep breath and recovered my composure. I steadied myself, holding the sword at a point above my right shoulder, and swung down with one breath. The head flew away and the body tumbled down, spouting blood. The air reeked from all that blood. I washed blood off the blade then wiped it with the paper provided.
At that moment, I felt something change inside me. I don't know how to put it, but I gained strength somewhere in my gut.
Later, when the National Defense Women's Association welcomed us in Manchuria, they mentioned to me that they had never seen men with such evil eyes. I no longer even noticed. Everybody becomes blood-thirsty on the battlefield. The army created men capable of combat. The thing of supreme importance was to make them fight. Good soldiers were those who were able to kill. We made them like this. Good sons, good daddies, good elder brothers at home were brought to the front to kill each other. Human beings turned into murdering demons. Everyone became a demon within three months
As much as this description makes us shudder, isn't the basic idea the same in all military training? While the weapons might change, isn't the objective the same? To drill the humanity out of the new recruits to turn them into an efficient killing force? We saw this with children being turned into killers of poor farmers in the film "War Dance" and with the girl-next-door being turned into a torturer in "Ghosts of Abu Ghraib". The objective of military training is to get you to think of the enemy as less than human.
If the subject of Nanking inflames passions in China, it equally inflames passions in Japan.
While many Japanese follow in the footsteps of former Prime Minister Murayama, who long ago expressed his deep remorse and personal apology for these "irrefutable facts of history," others are not so willing to apologize. There is a strong right-wing group in Japan that is so passionate in its claim that the massacre never happened that they are putting out a counter film.
If the documentary riles people up in both China and Japan, is there any danger that the film could backfire? That rather than bring peace, it could exacerbate tensions?
"The film is not going to start world war III," Leonsis answered. "The survivors we talked to all want peace. They're not angry. They're saying "this should never happen again."
Director Bill Guttentag added: "I hope when people look at this film it opens up the debate. There is an enlightened peace movement in Japan and we just have to trust our audience. If seeing this film helps lead to a full acknowledgement of the acts that happened on behalf of the Japanese, my personal opinion is that would be better for everybody. Once you bring out and acknowledge the truth, you've taken a really important step to putting that past behind you and going forward in a peaceful way."
"Do I hate the Japanese? No. I dislike very much their policy and I dislike very much the way they are treating the common people of China. But if I am ever given the opportunity of doing the same for the Japanese as we have done here for the Chinese men, women, and children, I would do the same right over again."
— Nanking Sociology Professor Lewis Smythe, who wrote sixty-nine letters to the Japanese army protesting atrocities.
"These pictures have been taken with no thought of stirring up a spirit of hatred against the Japanese, but only with a desire to make all people realize how horrible war is."
— George Fitch describing the painfully disturbing hospital footage he smuggled out of Nanking
"Looking back upon millennia of history, it appears clear that no race or culture has a monopoly on wartime cruelty. The veneer of civilization seems to be exceedingly thin -- one that can easily be stripped away…by the stresses of war."
—Iris Chang, The Rape of Nanking
I asked Leonsis if he could envision a way to use the power of the internet to bring the world together. Could it facilitate developing a better way to handle our conflicts than the failed war system? Could it help raise the "thin veneer of civilization" to the global level, so we could elect world leaders and evolve a legal system that could outlaw war?
Leonsis said he considers himself both a local citizen and a world citizen. "The internet is a powerful tool to build communities of interest and social networks. When you know people very well on a personal basis, you're less likely to want to go and kill them. I also think that you could really bring together and tie in a neat bow a lot of citizens' concerns using the internet and when you have that kind of power, people tend to listen."
Ted Leonsis is the kind of "Filmanthopist" the world needs! He, Bill Guttentag and Dan Sturman have crafted an outstanding film that is destined to make a difference!
I'd like to close with a somber note about Minnie Vautrin. After daring to face down soldiers brandishing bloody bayonets, she sadly fell victim to her own memories of the horror. "Never shall I forget the scene. The dried leaves rattling, the moaning of the wind, the cry of women being led out…Oh God, control the cruel beastliness of the soldiers in Nanking tonight!"
Tormented by the memories of those she failed to save, she finally committed suicide. But to the thousands of people she did save, she will always be known as "The Living Goddess of Nanking".
Perhaps through this film the goddess will rise again—within each of us watching the film, and inspire us all to reach for that common core of humanity in which we are all connected.
Addendum - The Devil Came On Horseback
While Nanking was about a holocaust that happened seven decades ago, Ricki Stern and Annie Sunberg's astonishing film "The Devil Came on Horseback" is a movie about one that is happening now. Former US Marine Captain Brian Steidle is featured in the Silverdocs exhibited documentary. In his role as a military observer with the African Union, he, like the brave saviors of Nanking, exhibited extraordinary unarmed courage and determination to get the story of the genocide out to the world. He was fired upon, taken hostage, and frustrated at being unable to intervene to save the lives of young children.
But he took lots of pictures, and returned to the US to expose the images and stories of lives systematically destroyed in Darfur. His efforts have opened the eyes of the world community to the genocide that is still going on. Now the challenge is in our hands. Will we, as the world's citizens, turn a deaf ear? Or will we find a way to use our people-power to end the massacre and build global institutions of peace?