The Controversy Over Nanking's Numbers
MERIN: Although you use actual footage and quote numbers generated by the war tribunal that investigated the massacre, some people--most notably the Japanese-- are questioning your accuracy. What do you say to the detractors?
LEONSIS: We used the carefully researched and adjudicated numbers provided by the war tribunal--they were 40 investigators, many of whom were lawyers, from 12 countries. We used those official numbers--200,000 people killed. But, personally, I think arguing about numbers is a device used to distract you from the real message.
I own professional sports teams and, while we were making Nanking, I went to a game in my arena that holds 20,000 people. We were sold out. We scored a basket, everyone stood up and cheered. It was a great feeling. I was holding my wife’s hand and looking around at the crowd, and I realized that this is how many women were raped in one month in Nanking.
So, when someone says that number is exaggerated, that it wasn’t 20,000--well, how many women were raped? 15,000? Okay, so take away the upper deck. That’s just the wrong argument to make.
If an American soldier in Iraq rapes a women, it doesn’t matter if it was one soldier or a hundred soldiers that did it, it reflects badly--that’s just not what you’re supposed to do as an occupying army. But it happens. So when you make a film like this, you put your best effort forth. I have no horse in this race--I’m not Chinese, I’m not Japanese.
Actually, we worked with a Japanese woman who’d interviewed about 250 Japanese soldiers to document what had happened with them in Nanking, and she told us that very few indicated they felt remorse. Well, cultural differences might account for that. But maybe not.
My father, who’s so gentle he wouldn’t harm a fly, was a gunner on an airplane during World War II, and I asked him if he’d killed people and he answered, in a very matter of fact statement, “I’m sure I did.” That was the intent, right? Because it was war. But if he’d inadvertently stepped on a bug or a frog, it would have disturbed him. So, we have to look at it through that prism. The difficult thing for me, though, is that the Japanese soldiers talking about raping 12 year old girls, and they weren’t even saying it was because it was wartime. In the film, you see that the Japanese soldiers in Nanking had time on their hands, so they raped girls. That’s a direct journal entry by a Japanese soldier. No exaggeration. That’s unacceptable behavior.
Darkness vs. Light
China and Japan are still struggling in their relationships because of this incident. And in our own country, we’re living with this now. We have invaded and occupied a foreign land, and nothing good happens to a civilian populous when that happens.
You know, some people say the Nanking massacre never happened. That’s a slippery slope. Some people say the holocaust in Germany never happened. Man is capable of diabolically bad things in wartime.
But, what our movie shows is that man is also capable of unbelievable acts of goodness and kindness that saved thousands of people. That’s what makes the movie powerful. You know, there’s this dark side of evil, and the good side of light. That’s what we live in. We’re in constant battle, that’s why people leave the movie theater and they talk for hours about the film. It’s not a big Hollywood movie: empty calories of big car chases and CGI. It’s a film that’s become important not because it’s an historical documentary, but because it deals with very basic human dramas. I’m looking forward to finding out more about what happened in Nanking. We’re happy that there are now seven films in production about Nanking. The public can become more aware and make up its own mind.
Documentary vs. Dramatic Filmmaking
MERIN: You use actors very effectively brings the story to life. That’s a big departure from accepted documentary style. Who thought of using actors?
LEONSIS: It was Bill Guttentag’s idea. And the reason for it was very simple. We’d located 90 survivors who would be interviewed and the archival footage we’d found was amazing. But what was flat was that there was no footage of these heroic people--John Magee, Bob Wilson, John Rabe and Minnie Vautrin--who stayed to save the lives of innocent, helpless people. All we had was their words, which could not have been more eloquent. These are letters from the heart. So, Bill suggested using actors and actresses--but said let them become those people, rather than just read their letters.
We were able to convince these actors to do this documentary, working on camera for scale--just because they thought so much of the letters and the people who wrote them. Woody Harrelson read two letters and signed on, and the rest of the casting was pretty easy to do.
Getting Back to Filmanthropy
MERIN: How did you come to the idea of filmanthropy? Do you intend to go further with it?
LEONSIS: In 1983, I survived a plane crash, and it changed my live. I’m not a religious person, but when that plane was going down, I prayed very hard and I promised that if I survived, I would dedicate my life to doing good. Fortunately, I’ve done well enough in my career to have the means to be philanthropic. Filmanthropy comes from that.
I’m not sure a film like Nanking will ever prevent a war, but it does let people know it’s okay to protest, it’s okay to stand up and have your voice be heard, it’s okay to act with courage. In the voices of many of the people who helped in Nanking, you’ll hear an element of doubt: What can I, a single foreigner, do to help? Then they try. They take a stand. They‘re effective. I want to encourage people to follow their lead.
MERIN: And future plans?
LEONSIS: I’m working on another documentary. It’s about homelessness, and it will premiere at Sundance.