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Hey, boys and girls, we at the shrine were blessed with a visit by the producer of the incredible and powerful documentary, Nanking. Ted Leonsis has lived many successful lives as the Vice-Chairman of America Online, the owner of the hockey team the Washington Capitals and basketball team, the Washington Mystics. Compelled by an obituary of the author Iris Chang, who authored the award-winning book, The Rape of Nanking; Leonsis felt haunted by her photograph to take the story Chang wrote and develop a documentary around it telling the world about the horrors the refugees of the former Chinese capital endured. It is also the story of the brave group of Westerners, who, instead of abandoning Nanking at the onset of the Japanese invasion, chose to stay and risked their lives to protect the people of that city and succeeded in saving 250,000 survivors.


MG: Why did you make this film about events that happened in 1937? It’s a subject that so few people in America know about?

TL: I don’t really have an answer that people understand. I had never made a movie and I wasn’t motivated to make a movie. I’m not Japanese, I’m not Chinese, I don’t have an agenda. I came to the film after reading the obituary in the New York Times about Iris Chang. It was troubling to me, she was a beautiful woman, she was married, she had a child, and she took her own life, so that got my attention. There was a photo of her and I felt like she was looking at me. When I threw the obituary into the garbage, her picture was up as I kept walking by it. When the cleaning crew came to take the garbage out, I was leaving the room and I literally ran back in the room and I took it out of the garbage and put it in my briefcase. I did a Google search on her, and there was a sponsored link on the side, “buy the book.” I clicked and went to Amazon and it said, “If you liked this book, you’ll like these books,” and there were two new books out called American Goddess of Nanking and The Good Man of Nanking, and the descriptions - The Good Man of Nanking was a German Nazi businessman (John Rabe) – The Good Man of Nanking. And this woman (Minnie Vautrin) was called a goddess because she saved all these girls, so I bought all three books in one day. This was in 2005. 

I would stare at pictures of John Rabe and Minnie Vautrin, trying to find what made them do what they did. That became kind of a compelling thing for me: Why would somebody who was half a world away; you’re married, you have children, there’s an invading army coming in, and you decide ‘I’m not gonna leave, I’m gonna stay’. The term “forgotten Holocaust”, stayed with me and so I just said I’m gonna tell this story. I honestly became, my wife says, like possessed. I was calling Chinese diplomats, you should have heard that first conversation, ‘How ya doin’, I’m Ted Leonsis, I own a hockey team, I work at AOL. I want your permission to go to China to make a movie about Nanking. I need your help in locating survivors.’ It’s like “What are you talking about?” Now there’s seven movies and everyone talks about it, but when we first started this, no one had ever heard about it or they atmospherically knew about it, but didn’t really understand the story, and the story’s got relevance today. I think why it’s really hit a chord with people today, because that’s what you want great art to do, it holds a mirror up and people can see in it what they think is important.  

MG: What were your goals for the film? 

TL: Well my first goal was a lot of people need to see this film. I think the subject matter is important and it’s hard to take. I was told by lots of people, ‘no one will distribute this film, it’s too tough of a subject matter to be on television, you’ve never made a movie before, it’ll get panned’. There were a million impediments. So I said, ‘All right, I want a billion people to see the film.’ So, two and a half million people have already seen it in China, and CCTV (China Central Television) now has bought it and they’re going to show it to 650 million people… It's the number one best selling documentary in China’s history. 

MG: How’s that feel? 

TL: It’s a different feeling for me personally because in business there’s a definition of what the win is; you make a good product and people use it and you make a lot of money, there’s a way to keep score. In sports, it’s first did you win a game and then did you win a championship? There’s no coming in second place. In this instance, my goal is doing good. I know that sounds almost trite, but I’m making movies to catalyse social action, to activate discussion and charitable giving - that’s the metric of success. If there any profits - any - I’m donating them all back to the survivors, to the Nanking Holocaust Museum, to the Iris Chang essay fund. The win for me with these films is, are they important? Do a lot of people see them? The other day someone said, “Your film has been pirated in China”, and they were very upset, and I said ‘fabulous!’ I said what we should do is tell people to make DVDs and give them away!  

Someone said, “You’ve just been named one of the five best documentaries by the National Board of Review”, I went, ‘sounds great, who are they?’ I knew we were on the Academy Awards shortlist. If the movie were to win an award, to me it would mean that the subject matter was important. We dedicate the film to the survivors of Nanking and their families, and to Iris Chang. And I’ll be blunt, the reason I want the Chinese community to go and see the film, I’m asking people to go see the movie is because if they don’t – whether it does box office or not doesn’t matter, I’ve already paid for everything – it will mean the film wasn’t important and the people who are trying to minimize this subject, they won! They can go, “See? It’s not that important of a subject. Even the Chinese people didn’t want to go see it. Let it go out of theatres now and case closed.” 

MG: Did you travel to China during the making of the film?

TL: I’ve been to China three times now. I’ve been on all the interviews. I’ve been to all the openings. 

MG:  For the survivors, what do you think their goal was in telling their story to you? Do you think they want the Japanese government to compensate for what they went through? 

TL: They want them to apologise, not compensate. That’s one of the things that struck me; it’s not about money and these people are really poor. We gave them a little bit of money after we did the interviews and vitamins, like vitamin C. They needed basic essential things. It was really about telling their story so something like this wouldn’t happen again. 

MG: Since the release of the film in China, have you heard from any of the Chinese survivors or the families of the Westerners? 

TL: There’s been a lot of feedback. In China, in many of the screenings, the actual survivors came and it was quite moving. At the opening, the gentleman who lost his mother, lost his brother in one horrific scene, he was there and he gave a speech. The speech in essence was, “I get a phone call from these people in America who want to tell this story and I did it and I’m very happy with the way the movie turned out. They didn’t add anything to it and frankly our government didn’t take anything away.”  

That is another thing that I have to say. Not a single word of this film was touched, edited or censored. And there I think if there are politics, the Chinese were politically astute; if they had told me or Bill (- director Bill Guttentag) we would have been screaming and hollering and that would’ve made news. And if they would’ve changed anything, it would have provided fodder for the Japanese to say, “Told you this would be a propaganda film!” 

MG: What kind of cooperation did you receive in China during filming?

TL:  We went through the embassy, then through the Minister of Culture…There’s a scene in the movie where we’re in Nanking and it’s just a slow drive-by on the walls of Nanking. That was shot Friday night at 7:00, and if you’re from Nanking, it’s like 42nd Street. Our head of production walked up to a policeman and he brought me over and he spoke to him about what we were doing and why we were there; we wanted to film this street at night. The policeman said “I understand”, and he talked to like 10 people and shut down on their own. Citizens went in the street and stopped all traffic, dead silence, so we could just slowly drive down this street in rush hour at night to get this shot. It truly was remarkable what we were able to accomplish there. 

MG: How did you get the interviews with the Japanese soldiers? 

TL: We had a very difficult time. We had two or three associate producers in Japan quit on the job. They were pressured by family members and professionals saying, “this is bad for your career, you shouldn’t be involved.” It was actually two Japanese people who made it their life’s work to capture these stories that introduced an American producer who grew up in Japan who we hired to locate and find these people. We used some footage from one woman researcher and then we interview on our own. We were only able to find a dozen. Most of them had passed away. You couldn’t make this movie five years from now, they’d all be gone. Most of the soldiers were 18 to 22, and now it’s 70 years later, they’re all in their 80’s or 90’s, and most of them have passed on. So we had to make the movie now or it wouldn’t have been made. 

MG: Ted, Nanking hasn’t yet been released in Japan. Why is that? What kind of reaction are you expecting there? 

TL: We’ve had no success in finding a distributor in Japan. The film has been sold in 18 countries to date: Germany, Greece, Turkey, Taiwan, France… but no takers yet in Japan. Which I find troubling (because) this incident happened 70 years ago; and that especially the young people of Japan, who really don’t know any of this time, they’d find this film instructive and they’d take a lot away from it and they wouldn’t internalise that they’re bad people. For whatever reason, it’s been very difficult to get traction in that market. What I might have to do is make it available to somebody to translate and show it for free on the internet. 

MG:  Do you think it’s because of the political situation? 

TL: Yeah. Today there was a story about these films and the very first line was from a noted Japanese academician who said, “I’ll tell you how many people died in Nanking, none. Zero. This is all fabricated” I’ve been living with the subject for three years, and you read that … it’s very much like Holocaust deniers. I mean there are people who speak with conviction that say not a single Jew died during the war, that it’s all for some other agenda. I’m not sure of the outcome that they want, but I do think that there's other forces as to why this film isn’t being sold in Japan. 

I don’t understand it or relate to it. I mean its 70 years ago and it’s documented; video, photos, eyewitness testimony. It’s the slippery slope – today, I had a couple of interviews – “Well, 300,000 people weren’t killed in the first month.” Okay, how many were? “Well, maybe two hundred.” There’s no politically astute answer. These two countries are great countries with great people and you can’t say the actions of an individual during wartime are representative of the actions of a people.  I don’t understand when a country tries to diminish or deny. When we showed our film at Sundance, there was a group in Japan that announced that they were going to make a film to rebut our film. My first reaction was that they should see the film before they attack it, and two, it’s absolutely the worst thing they could’ve done. It was bad politics because they sent out a press release and reacted, then China sent out a release saying, “you shouldn’t do that”, then other filmmakers ... now there’s seven films being made. The best thing would’ve been, ignore us.  

Now I have said and I will continue to say this is not an anti-Japanese movie. This is not a pro-Chinese movie. This is an anti-war film. At its heart this shows what happens to innocent people when an invading army attacks and occupies a foreign land. But more importantly, this is a film about individual empowerment and how a few people, unarmed, said ‘we have to do something good here’ and through their courage, their moral obligation, their ingenuity … There’s a part in the film where the Japanese are going to disperse the refugees, where they’ll probably be slaughtered, and John Rabe says, “I am not going to send you out, but the military has all the power and what can I, an unarmed foreigner do?” Then he goes and he negotiates and they allow the refugees to stay. That, to me is at the essence of what the film is all about, you may not think you can do anything, but these twelve people saved 250,000 lives. When you wrap you head around that – 250,000 people that have had millions of offspring - are alive because of the work of some strangers. Its agenda is universal; war is bad and individuals can do good things 

MG: It seems like there’s a lot of footage that was shot and that you uncovered in your research. Will we see any of that on the DVD release?

TL: The Reverend Magee film is a 24 minute film, at the end of our movie we show about 110 seconds of it. It’ll be in the DVD and it’ll be available on the portal site and we’ll get it out on the internet.  

MG: When will the DVD be released and what is the theatrical schedule here? 

TL: Well the DVD’s already out in China! *laughs* {In the US the DVD will be released in -} Summertime.  

It’ll open at the Film Forum on Wednesday, then in January it’ll go into many cities. If it gets nominated for an Academy Award, it’ll go really far. Now, I’ll be very, very sincere; and I’ve never asked for anything. The best thing that can happen is on the day this film opens, there’s a line around the block of people wanting to go see the movie, because that in itself would be a news story, and the word of mouth that people want to see the movie makes it important and then the theatres will keep it longer, and the longer it’s in the theatres, the more the media writes about it and it stays in the public consciousness. So, tell people it opens Wednesday at the Film Forum and they should go see it! It’s not about the money; it’s honestly about, ‘is it your Schindler’s List?’ Schindler’s List did unbelievable box office because people wanted to support the message of the movie. And I believe this film is the Chinese Schindler’s List. 


~ Mighty Ganesha

December 6th 2007



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