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Kids, I have a confession to make. MG cowers at the word “documentary”. I face the prospect with an unreasonable, and indeed, Mighty trepidation. This important and elusive art form; the telling of the truth, the seeing of things the world may otherwise never see is oftentimes the assignment I dread.  Not to say that I haven’t viewed countless films that have enlightened and delighted me, Grey Gardens, Woodstock, When We Were Kings, Hoop Dreams and Microcosmos are just a few that come to mind, and there hasn’t been one subject that Ken Burns has tackled that hasn’t been an education. It’s just that the when the eye of the filmmakers turns to subject matter that is time and again proof of man’s inhumanity to man, it’s often too much for my fluffy heart to take.  

Yet take it we must. Many times art is indeed pain, and creations like 4 Little Girls, Paradise Lost, Shoah, Scared Straight!, The Thin Blue Line, Fahrenheit 9/11, Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer, amongst hundreds of others, shine a light on people, subjects and situations that would otherwise go unheard. 

I can’t say that I was any braver when faced with the prospect of viewing the documentary called Nanking. The only time I’ve ever heard the name of that Chinese city was usually when it was placed at the end of the sentence, “The Rape of…” So when invited to see the film that promised to tell the story behind that famous and forbidding passage, I had to put my Big Elephant Boots on, however apprehensive I was.  

Beginning with black and white newsreel-type footage, we see Nanking as it was in the 1930’s, the capital of China, a modern city with universities, a thriving economy and comfortable middle class. The images of young people smiling as they ride bicycles through the streets and ice skate in the winter could be any young people from any Western town. The utter normalcy and apparent contentment of the citizens is a shocking counterpoint to the fate which is about to befall them as Japanese troops, in their quest for dominance over all China, invade Nanking. 

Told from the point of view of a handful of Westerners, in particular six Americans and one German citizen These seven people, along with fifteen other Americans and Europeans, had the opportunity to evacuate the city with the first warnings of the Japanese invasion, as had the Chinese government, other Westerners and the majority of Chinese who were financially able to leave, but they, incredibly, chose to stay at risk to their own lives and do whatever they could for the Chinese people who had no one and nothing to protect them. The stories of the mounting panic as the Japanese came nearer and the escalating violence witnessed by the seven and their efforts, sometimes unsuccessful, to save the Chinese civilians are read to us in their own letters, with a cast including Woody Harrelson, Jurgen Prochnow, Mariel Hemingway and Stephen Dorff lending their voices. Other stories of the horrors and atrocities committed by the Japanese soldiers are told first hand by a handful of Chinese survivors who endured the invasion, for many of them 70 years is not enough distance for what they’ve suffered. 

Nanking is one of the greatest films I have seen all year and very possibly one of the most important films I’ve ever seen in my life. The Herculean efforts by the Western contingent to create a two-mile wide “Safety Zone” in order to protect Chinese civilians who had nothing to do with the war other than to be in the way, is simply awe-inspiring. Filmmakers Bill Guttentag and Dan Sturman never plumb the material for drama; the letters are read sensitively but are never “acted” by the cast. There is nothing I’ve ever seen as affecting as watching an elderly Chinese man’s eyes well with tears as he tells the story of watching his baby brother killed in the arms of his mother, who was subsequently impaled by a Japanese bayonet. The matter-of-fact way a Chinese woman describes the night a Japanese soldier trespassed into the house she shared with her father and demanded to have sex with her is absolutely chilling. Her clear-headed sacrifice to save her father and herself at the age of twelve is incomprehensible. Archival footage interviewing surviving Japanese soldiers gives us some uncomfortable answers to unthinkable questions. Toward the end of the film, we are shown a few moments of the smuggled black and white home movies taken by John G. Magee, an Episcopalian priest, in which he filmed some of the victims of the invasion who were brought to the makeshift hospital he established. The images are some of the most disturbing I’ve ever witnessed, yet besides the horror of the physical torture these people endured, the prevailing feeling as one watches the grainy black and white footage is abject heartbreak, that any person could visit that kind of pain and suffering upon another innocent human being. 

Through the advance of the letters we see how the savagery around them affected the group of Western saviours; John Rabe’s story is a movie all to itself. The German businessman was a full-on member of the National Socialist German Workers' Party. Yes children, Rabe was a Nazi, yet he, like the others who established the Safety Zone was struck by the brutality visited upon the innocent Chinese people and used whatever influence his Nazi credentials held to negotiate on behalf of the Chinese civilians. Rabe made his estate a haven for 650 refugees, refusing to allow them out to suffer at the hands of the Japanese. Minnie Vautrin was the headmistress of a women’s college in Nanking and through her bravery, over 10,000 women found relative safety inside the confines of the college where the courageous Vautrin would stand before the doors against the ferocity of the Japanese armed only with an American flag and an iron will. Still, even she could not hold off the rapacious appetites of the Japanese troops for long and a Faustian deal was made between the soldiers and some of the women who found safety under Vautrin’s auspices, sacrificing their bodies for those inside the in the college. For someone who did so much for so many - over 250,000 Chinese were saved because of the Safety Zone - Vautrin could not help her decline once the invasion ended and was tragically haunted by the memories of what she’d witnessed and thoughts of those she could not save. 

For all my hesitance to see a film that was sure to be sad and disturbing, I would have missed an important, meaningful thing had I not seen Nanking. Not only have I learned about an event of tremendous magnitude virtually untaught in the Western history curriculum, but I have had a great lesson in the horrors and glories of the human soul: How very easy it is for people to lose their humanity in the bloodlust of war, and how just one spark of human kindness and courage can change the lives of thousands.


~ Mighty Ganesha

December 13th, 2007


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(Courtesy of  ThinkFilm)