Images of grisly murders and mass graves, war-orphaned children, and refugees in rags, should, it seems, be difficult for people of conscience to turn away from. Yet, the truth is people of conscience do it every day. From Rwanda to Sudan to Iraq, it’s been made painfully clear that there’s no ceiling to atrocities that can be committed in the name of war, and no limit to what audiences will freely ignore. When it comes to atrocities long past, finding a way into the hearts of a media-numbed, disempowered populace an ocean away from the incidents has to be particularly challenging.
The filmmakers behind “Nanking” – a documentary about the horrific situation the Chinese city found itself in after invading Japanese troops early in WWII – find their way in. To say they do it by focusing on heroism and faith of a small group of die-hards and believers – Western missionaries and, yes, a warm-hearted Nazi – feels like a cliché straight outta the Steven Spielberg handbook. Which makes the film by Bill Guttentag and Dan Sturman all the more powerful for not feeling like a cliché at all.
Written with Elisabeth Bentley, and amply produced by self-made AOL magnate Ted Leonsis, “Nanking” is a spare piece of re-creation that doesn’t extrapolate from the facts it’s assembled from a variety of primary sources. Inspired by the work of Iris Chang (author of “The Rape of Nanking,” who committed suicide in 2004), the script is built from letters and memoirs, and read by a Hollywood cast (Mariel Hemingway, Jügen Prochnow, and Woody Harrelson) who’s dressed itself down to sober, somber characterization. Its visuals range from a vast collection of some of the most eye-popping war imagery ever seen to talking-head interviews with frighteningly remorseless Japanese soldiers and Chinese survivors of the siege. A soldier describes “dead body mountains.” A survivor remembers watching his baby brother breastfeed from a mother bleeding out of her chest.
Unlike traditional historical docs, this one’s edited at a pace that doesn’t allow curiosity and voyeurism to overtake the initial shock of seeing rows of severed heads, bloated bodies, and starving children staring intently at the camera. The script highlights how the Westerners creating the “safe” zone for nearly a quarter million Nanking refugees wished and tried to make calls out to the world – including the people of Japan, who they believe would put a stop to the situation if they knew the facts – and skillfully backs away from nationalist debates. This is a kind of bravery war docs rarely get the chance to celebrate, and in an era of learned helplessness, it couldn’t come at a better time.
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