The chilling black-and-white images in the archival photographs and film footage speak to the horrors of war: decapitated bodies sprawled in streets, prisoners being bayoneted by their captors, women and young girls being led off by soldiers to be raped, many of the women then murdered or turned into sex slaves.
The year was 1937. The place was Nanking, then the capital of China, now called Nanjing. It would be four years before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor would draw the United States into World War II.
The Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal estimated that 200,000 Chinese civilians and prisoners of war were murdered in Nanking during the first six weeks of the Japanese occupation and that 20,000 females, ranging from infants to the elderly, were raped. The events in Nanking still touch a raw nerve in Japan, where many people dismiss the stories as exaggerations or lies.
Amid this lingering debate comes a documentary called "Nanking." The film, which was just nominated by the Writers Guild of America for its best documentary screenplay award, is dedicated to the late author Iris Chang, whose 1997 bestselling book, "The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II," brought renewed attention to the atrocities in the West.
The film, which was produced by AOL Vice Chairman Ted Leonsis and co-directed by Bill Guttentag and Dan Sturman, opens today at Laemmle's Royal Theatre in West Los Angeles. HBO also has plans to air the movie later this year.
The 89-minute documentary features interviews with a number of Chinese who survived the massacre. In gripping detail, they tell their stories: One survivor recalls watching his mother stabbed with a bayonet and then suckling her infant after hearing the baby's cries of hunger."This was the most intense moment of their lives," Guttentag said of the survivors' accounts. "This was incredibly moving. At one point, while doing the filming, our translators stopped. We didn't know what was going on. The reason was that our translators were crying. They couldn't continue."
The film also includes rare, on-camera interviews with former Japanese soldiers, now old men, who had served in Nanking during the occupation.
"One guy in the film is sort of giggling when he talks about what it's like to gang-rape a girl," Sturman said. "We went to his house in suburban Tokyo. He lives there with his family. They had porcelain figures of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in their frontyard. His granddaughters were incredibly gracious to us. Yet, we sit down and he talks to us about some of the things he has done in his life and they were, subjectively, war crimes."
But the atrocities are only part of the story. When the invasion of Nanking occurred, more than 200,000 Chinese found refuge in a "safety zone" inside the city that was protected by unarmed Western missionaries, university professors, doctors and businessmen."They were literally saving people's lives by day and by night going home and writing those incredible letters and journals," Guttentag said.
These and other letters and diaries were culled for the film's screenplay, which was written by Guttentag, Sturman and Elisabeth Bentley.
The writings about the atrocities are delivered in the film with staged readings by actors Woody Harrelson, Mariel Hemingway, Jurgen Prochnow and others.
Among the Westerners singled out in the film for their courage was John G. Magee, an Episcopal minister who set up a makeshift hospital to take care of wounded Chinese soldiers and refugees. Magee, an avid amateur photographer, used a 16-millimeter camera to secretly record some of what he witnessed in Nanking. The footage was then smuggled out of China in the lining of a suit worn by George A. Fitch, a missionary who worked at the YMCA in Nanking. The film remained hidden in Germany until the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Leonsis, who is also the founder of Lincoln Holdings, which owns the NHL's Washington Capitals and the WNBA's Washington Mystics, said he became immersed in the Nanking atrocities after reading Chang's obituary. The Asian American author and historian from San Jose committed suicide in 2004.
"Her picture haunted me," Leonsis recalled. "It compelled me to do a Google search on her," which led him to read her writings on Nanking.
Like other well-heeled philanthropists these days, Leonsis believes that making films is a good way to advance a particular cause, and he approached two-time Academy Award-winning documentary filmmaker Guttentag, who shared an Oscar with Robert David Port for the 2003 documentary short "Twin Towers" (Sturman was a producer on the film) and shared another Oscar with Malcolm Clarke for the 1988 documentary short "You Don't Have to Die."