When U.S. author Iris Chang wrote The Rape of Nanking in 1997, she lifted a cloak of silence from one of the most violent events in modern history. On a bitterly cold day in December 1937, Chang reported, more than 300,000 Chinese civilians in Nanking were slaughtered by Japanese troops. Canadian filmmakers Anne Pick and Bill Spahic continue the story with their new docudrama, Iris Chang: The Rape of Nanking, coproduced by the Association for Learning & Preserving the History of WWII in Asia (ALPHA).
From their Toronto home, Pick and Spahic told the Straight that they first heard about the event from their son, Matt, who was working on a school project.
"Everybody else was doing the Jewish Holocaust," Spahic said, "and he said, 'I'm doing the one in Nanking, on China.'"
Intrigued by the subject matter, Spahic and his wife read Chang's book. It was the most incredible story they'd never heard about World War II: mass civilian slaughter, an international conspiracy of silence, and an unlikely cast of heroes that included a Nazi humanitarian who risked his life to save hundreds of Chinese during the war. Why had they never heard of it before?
When Chang was growing up in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois, there weren't any major works in English on the subject. She'd heard vivid accounts on the invasion from her parents who were in Nanking at the time, but the event was a minor footnote in a history of war dominated by attacks on Hiroshima and Pearl Harbor. Despite a massive number of photos, film footage, and news articles in at least four different languages (from sources such as The New York Times), the narratives remained free-floating and scattered, leaving many uncertain if the event had actually happened.
Chang's book provided valuable reference points. Most importantly, the book's American success gave legitimacy to the Chinese victims whose stories had been dismissed by the Japanese government.
Over 14 months, Pick and Spahic travelled to China, Japan, the U.S., and Germany to gather footage for their film. "It's like it happened yesterday for them," says Pick. Her crew interviewed the Nanking survivors during the month of December, the same month that Japanese troops entered their city. "You could see the breath on their faces, and the memories were coming back to them."
With grainy wartime images, interviews with survivors, and excerpts from diaries, the film traces the young author (portrayed at times by Vancouver actor Olivia Cheng) on her life's journey, alongside the story of Nanking: from Chang's arrival in Nanking and the book's publication, to the clinical depression that culminated in the author's suicide on November 9, 2004.
Beautiful and outspoken, Chang became an icon who balanced a sharp intellect with fiery passion in advocating for human rights. Watching clips of her on Nightline and Good Morning America, it's difficult to imagine that the young writer who gave a voice to millions would silence her own. As the film's interviews with Chang's close friends and family reveal, her research on the war took a psychological toll from which she never recovered.
"It's really shaken my fundamental belief that humans are basically good at heart," recalls Chang in an interview in the docudrama. She was deeply disturbed that the Japanese soldiers who had terrorized Nanking were mostly ordinary men, driven by nationalist indoctrination. Equally perturbing was the cruel aftermath of those who lived through the invasion: survivors existed in dark, cramped rooms, crippled by traumatic memories and health problems.
John Rabe, the German Nazi who organized a two-mile safety zone in Nanking to protect the Chinese from the massacre, endured poverty and ostracism after returning to postwar Germany. Wilhelmina "Minnie" Vautrin, a missionary who saved hundreds of Chinese women by keeping them in this demilitarized zone, killed herself after returning to the United States.
Chang's parents, Shau-Jin and Ying Ying Chang, speaking to the Straight from their San Jose home, expressed their excitement about the film about their daughter's work. They said that Chang tried unsuccessfully for many years to commit her story on Nanking to film. "The movie industry in the U.S. is not like the book industry," Ying Ying pointed out. "The topic at the time was too sensitive."
They, in addition to Pick and Spahic, plan to attend a Vancouver screening. The filmmakers hope their documdrama will not just revitalize discussions on Nanking, but encourage people to speak out against war atrocities that continue today. "[Nanking] has happened again, and it will happen again," says Spahic.
As Chang (played by Cheng) wearily asks in the documentary, "The voices are different, the language is different, but the story is the same”¦when will the madness end?"
Five Vancouver screenings at the Ridge will raise funds for The Peace & Reconciliation Study Tour for Canadian Teachers (2008). Details at www.alpha-canada.org/ .