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The Reeler Blog

The Nanking Experience

(L-R) Producer Ted Leonsis and director Bill Guttentag at Monday's screening of Nanking (Photo: WireImage)

By S.T. VanAirsdale

Only about 10 months behind schedule, The Reeler finally caught a look at Nanking, Bill Guttentag's documentary about the atrocities committed by Japanese soldiers against Chinese civilians in the titular city between 1937-38. The film took home an editing prize last January at Sundance and made its New York bow last spring at Tribeca, returning downtown Monday night for a special screening hosted by Wendi Murdoch -- you know, Rupert's better half.

As such, the attendance of guests like Ivanka Trump, Cindy Adams (at the side of NYC film commissioner Katherine Oliver, believe it or not) and Nanking's producer Ted Leonsis bumped the class level a few dozen strata beyond the bleary-eyed open-bar devotees you grow accustomed to dodging at so many other industry fetes. Leonsis alone, a self-made mogul and philanthropist who's spent the last 25 years since surviving a near-fatal plane crash attempting to accomplish each goal on his famous list of 101 things to do, had me upping my game all kinds of ways. On his list: Make a movie, go to Oscars, win an Oscar. And who knows? With the awards mavens at ThinkFilm in his corner, he might actually have a chance to knock all three off in a few months.

Leonsis told The Reeler that the tragedy at Nanking -- often overlooked historically before the release of Iris Chang's seminal 2002 bestseller The Rape of Nanking -- first struck him when reading an obituary of the author, who committed suicide in 2004. "I threw the obituary in the garbage, and all day her face was staring at me," he said. "I don't know what the connection was, but it got me going." As he learned more about the Japanese occupation and the tiny Western resistance of American missionaries and Nazi businessmen that saved 250,000 Chinese lives inside their makeshift "Safety Zone," the story took on greater significance.

"I was very moved," Leonsis told me. "One part of it was that I didn't know the story, but another was that I closed my eyes to say, 'What if I was halfway around the world and an invading army was coming in?' Your country sends planes and trains to get you out, but you say, 'No, I'm going to stay.' Who does that? How do they do that? And I became obsessed."

Sensing an overlap between his interest in documentary filmmaking and social issues ("filmanthropy" was one of the phrases I overheard Monday), Leonsis put out feelers for a filmmaker with the background, interest and time to take the project on. Enter Guttentag, an Oscar-winner himself who, with his partner Dan Sturman, eventually fused archival footage and photographs with eyewitness testimony and readings (by actors including Woody Harrelson, Mariel Hemingway and Jürgen Prochnow) of the Westerners' correspondence and journals.

"There were two reasons I did it that way," said Guttentag, who also knew only fragments of the Nanking horror before reading Chang's book. "One was because I was just looking for an innovative way of telling the story. The other thing was that the people who were left behind, there weren't a lot of interviews with them, but there was an amazing amount of primary source material. Those were people who'd go out and do these incredibly heroic things by day, and by night they'd come home and write in their journals. The woman Mariel Hemingway plays wrote 1,000 letters. It's just a huge trove of really beautifully written stuff."

The result is harrowing, stirring and altogether exhausting, particularly the first-hand accounts of elderly Chinese -- children at the time of the attack -- recounting rape, torture and the systematic murder of 200,000 in Nanking. The film later pulls in 16mm footage smuggled out of the country by missionary George Fitch: images of a blackened, deformed burn survivor; a woman with a bayonet wound halfway through her neck; a little girl slashed from the elbow down. The filmmaker said he left out far worse.

"Anyone who's used in there has stories beyond what you see," Guttentag said. "There's a bit of a Shoah quality to it; you go ahead and record the whole interview and you hope that somebody can use another part of it someday."

Posted at October 30, 2007 5:15 PM

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