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Interview with Documentary Film Producer Ted Leonsis

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Interview with Documentary Film Producer Ted Leonsis

Chinese citizens rounded up by Japanese soldiers in Nanking during World War II

ThinkFilm

The Making of Nanking and Filmanthropy

Nanking is an unusual documentary film in that it uses well known actors--the likes of Woody Harrelson, Mariel Hemingway and Jurgen Prochnow, among others--to bring to life the diaries of eye witnesses to a brutal moment in history, the murder and rape of thousands of innocent civilians by Japanese soldiers during their occupation of China during World War II.

Shortlisted for the 2007 Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature, Nankingis the first cinematic endeavor for producer Ted Leonsis, the sports impresario and former AOL executive who wants to use film as a means of doing good. He uses the term “filmanthropy” to describe his intent: philanthropic projects that raise consciousness about the world and human condition, promote changes for the better, generate volunteerism and charitable contributions.

Leonsis became involved in the production of Nanking by happenstance. While vacationing with his wife in St. Barts, he read the New York Times obit for Iris Chang, author of The Rape of Nanking, a best-seller about a wartime massacre about which little was known in the West. He found Chang’s obit haunting: she was a lovely young women who, at age 36, committed suicide, leaving her husband and two small children. and a brilliant writing career.

“I wondered what had caused her to be so severely depressed. Something made me hold on to that obit so I could find out more about her. When I got home, I read The Rape of Nanking, and everything else I could find written about Iris Chang and about the Nanking massacre.”

“I was stunned by what I found out. Chang's book fascinated me. It was about such an important historical event. I wondered why I‘d known nothing about it,” says Leonsis. “It shows such a dramatic contrast between the heinous acts and intolerable behavior humans are capable of during war--according to the 40-person, 12-country tribunal that investigated the Nanking massacre, there were more than 200,000 killed and 20,000 rapes committed by the Japanese soldiers. But at the same time, you see how a few people can be so incredibly heroic and good that they risk their own safety to save the poorest of the poor.”

What Would I Have Done?

“I wondered what I would have done--would I have been one of the dozen or so people who stayed, risking my own safety to create the Nanking Safety Zone, which took thousands of Chinese citizens into refuge, or would I have gotten on the next plane to return home to my family and my career?," questions Leonsis. "I thought so much about this that I even did a survey of my friends and colleagues to see what they would say they would have done--and to try to figure out if I believed their answers.”

MERIN: How, when and why did you get the idea of making a film? This is something you'd never done before, never studied...

LEONSIS: The more I researched the story, the more I thought I about making a film. In April, 2005, after I’d read all the books I could find and done more research, I thought of this concept of filmanthropy. With film production costs coming down and digital media more available, I thought you could use film to shine light on tough subjects, to catalyze social change, to activate volunteerism and charitable giving. This, I thought, is a subject was a worthy first attempt.

But it wasn’t until September that I found directors who fully got what I wanted to do--Bill Guttentag and Dan Sturman had won awards for their work on Twin Towers.

Field Research

Bill’s a professor and very serious, and he totally understood that we have to play this ball where it lies--and that meant our going to China to find survivors. And, how were we going to do that? “Well,” said Bill, “you’re going to have to help arrange it.” So, I went to the Chinese embassy and said, “I want to make a movie about what happened in Nanking.” They asked why. I said, “I’m not really sure, but I think it’s a great story.” They said okay.

So, we traveled through China and found 88 survivors. Then, we went to Japan, which proved more difficult because people didn’t want to work on the project and they wouldn’t talk to us. So, we fanned out around the globe.

Finding the Diaries and Other Essentials

The catalytic moment, though--when we knew this was a film--came when we found the families of the Westerners, and they gave us their documents. Someone called me and said he was faxing me a letter that I must read-- it was Christmas Eve letter written by a wealthy American doctor, a love letter to his wife and child telling them why he had to stay in Nanking. It was poetry. Who writes like this anymore? I mean, now you’d send an MSN message--be home late, tata for now. But this was a four page love letter: I can’t come home because I have work to do here, and if I came home I’d never be able to look in the mirror, and if I couldn’t do that, then you wouldn’t love me. I had to let people know about this heroism.

Then my son--he was 16 at the time, and I sent him to the Library of Congress to do research, but you have to be 18 to use the library, but somehow he talked people into helping him to do the research--found the Magee footage and brought it home. It had been sitting there, ignored, for 75 years. I showed Bill that footage and that’s what brought it all to life--because it’s awful when you describe them hacking a young girl, but when you see a young girl with her arm hacked off, it really brings the situation to life--really established the truth of it. You could say it was all special effects--but this footage was shot by John Magee, an Episcopalian priest. A reverend. It’s incontrovertible.

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