Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Thu Dec 20, 2007 5:43 pm 
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"We didn't want to be observed"

Filmmakers Guttentag and Sturman have produced a short but unforgettable documentary about one of the ugliest stories in twentieth century warfare: the event known as "the rape of Nanking." During a brief period in late December 1937 Japanese forces bombed the city of Nanking, then the capital of China, moving on after assaulting Shanghai. Much of the city's population fled. But the poor had to remain, lacking the money to get out. Troops then moved in and brutally executed several hundred thousand civilians using guns and bayonets and fire, and raped tens of thousands of woman, leaving most of the once beautiful, prosperous city in ruins. They also immediately executed, by various methods, thousands of captured soldiers. And the raping went on and one and on.

The positive side of the story is that a group of foreigners, perhaps less than two dozen, who had been residents in Nanking, remained there to help save the helpless civilians (and soldiers who had fled), and created a Safety Zone to protect them. It was not respected, but nonetheless through their efforts these men and women were able to save perhaps another couple of hundred thousand people.

The presentation lasts only 88 minutes but is packed with mind-boggling material. Using a ground approach similar to the Culture Project's theater events Exonerated and Guantanamo, in which a group of actors dramatically read actual accounts, the foreigners' stories (and that of one Japanese soldier) are reconstructed by Stephen Dorff, Woody Harrelson. Mariel Hemingway, and others. In between their accounts there are interviews with Chinese survivors and some Japanese soldiers involved in the massacres.

The most important foreigners were Bob Wilson, Minnie Vautrin, and John Rabe, whose accounts are voiced by Harrelson, Hemingway, and Jürgen Prochnow, respectively. Wilson was a surgeon born in China, the son of a missionary, who stayed on and tended the wounded after the bombing. Vautrin was a missionary and head of the education department of a college; she hid her women students and saved as many of them as she could from being raped. Rabe was a German businessman and Nazi Pary member who protected hundreds of Chinese civilians on his estate. He and Wilson and John Magee were the most active in establishing the two-square-mile Safety Zone that provided a shaky but essential shield for refugees who fled their homes.

There are some film clips of killings. John Magee (voiced here by Hugo Armstrong) was an Episcopal minister and a filmmaker who helped maintain a hospital. His film footage of maimed and disfigured victims of the atrocities were smuggled out of the country and only discovered in the 1980s in Germany.

The accounts of the foreigners provide a sense of the time line and the main events of Nanking. But it is the actual Chinese survivors, recently filmed bravely describing unimaginable horrors, who make the most vivid impression. I say "unimaginable," but we have heard about them as children, perhaps, and all imagined them. But here they are, described as vividly as if they happened yesterday, to a mother and a baby brother, right before the eyes of a seven-year-old. What must it be like to have been that seven-year-old and to carry such memories through all one's life? That is what one doesn't want to imagine.

Some of the Japanese veterans are smiling as they speak. They acknowledge the rapes and atrocities and massacres and tell how they did it. (How can they be smiling? Perhaps out of embarrassment. Or is the word shame? These are the most troubling moments of the film.) The dozen or so high-ranking Japanese officers who were convicted of war crimes afterward have a memorial in their name in Tokyo and it is a place where right-wing pro-war Japanese like to hold rallies. Getting the films of Japanese survivors was a tricky business, because people in Japan don't want to acknowledge, or even talk about, this moment in their history. They have often denied that things were as bad as some said. The evidence of the film, and the accounts of the Japanese veterans themselves, disproves those denials--though the actual statistics are perhaps hard to establsh.. We do have witnesses, of the events, though, and that is the basic function of this film: to bear witness. Japanese officials complained that foreigners were not supposed to be there, that this was the "first time" [sic] that a war had taken place with neutral observers. "We didn't want to be observed," they said.

But this is not, of course, meant as the attack on one nationality or an incitement to revenge. It's a story of madness in wartime and hence an indictment of war itself. And the film is also a moving account of the bravery of the few foreigners who saw the horrible events as a challenge to perform acts of extraordinary courage and goodness. The information in the film is a heavy burden to take on, but it is not without hope, and proof of the ability of the Chinese to endure suffering.

©Chris Knipp 2007

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