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Interview with Bill Guttentag, Dan Sturman and Ted Leonsis

Children of Nanking

HBO

How did you get involved with this project?

Bill Guttentag

We were originally approached to make the film by our producer Ted Leonsis, who had read the obituary of Iris Chang (author of the book 'The Rape of Nanking'). Ted sent us the book, and I found the story to be enormously powerful and moving. We then set out to make the film, which we hoped would accurately and compellingly capture the events in Nanking - the tragic events, but also the incredible drama and story of heroism.

We hoped [we] would accurately and compellingly capture the events in Nanking - the tragic events, but also the incredible drama and story of heroism.

Ted Leonsis

I was struck by the fact that such an important chapter of 20th century history had been buried. Clearly, the Japanese genocide in China had been eclipsed by Hitler's European atrocities, making the rape of Nanking a sort of "forgotten holocaust."

HBO

Most people aren't aware of the horrific events detailed in the film. Why do think that is?

Bill Guttentag

It's a great question - one I've been asking a lot myself - and I'm not sure of the answer. I do find it fascinating that I was able to graduate from college knowing all about the Nuremberg War Crimes Tribunal at the end of World War II, yet I had no idea that there was a similar War Crimes Tribunal in Tokyo that resulted in death sentences for a number of Japanese military leaders. In the process of putting this film together, I was constantly reminded about how little I was taught in high school and college about the history of World War II in Asia. Part of the reward of working on this project was the opportunity to learn about this immensely important and moving part of our shared history that has been largely forgotten in the West.

HBO

What do you think makes sexual violence so difficult for people to discuss?

At the outset of the project, we knew that the history of Nanking remains a very sensitive topic for many in China and Japan, but we had no idea just how sensitive it is.

Bill Guttentag

There is a great deal of shame around this issue. In Nanking rape was used as an instrument of war on a horrifying scale, and to this day many of the victims find it very difficult to talk about what happened to them. In fact, one woman in our film hadn't discussed her rape for nearly 70 years. As we made the film we came to see there was a second victimization of the rape victims of Nanking. First they had to endure the horror of being raped, but additionally they lived for decades with the shame. The victims were women and girls who did absolutely nothing wrong, and it's doubly tragic that they had to go through their lives not only with all of the physical and emotional scars from their attackers, but also the burden of feeling shame for something they could not control in any way. And further, they live with the knowledge that for all the pain they endured, the perpetrators were almost never punished for their crimes.

HBO

What were some of the challenges you faced in bringing this story to the screen?

Dan Sturman

At the outset of the project, we knew that the history of Nanking remains a very sensitive topic for many in China and Japan, but we had no idea just how sensitive it is. The Chinese and Japanese still don't agree on what happened in Nanking, and this dispute continues to sour relations between the two countries, regularly making front- page news more than 70 years after the event. To this day, many Japanese believe that stories of atrocities in Nanking are exaggerations and lies.

Trying to negotiate this controversy while working in Japan was quite a challenge. Many of the people we approached for interviews refused to speak with us. One of our Tokyo-based field producers quit the project, saying she feared for her safety; two others quit, citing pressure from their families. Subsequently, a coalition of Japanese nationalist politicians denounced us and accused us of being paid Chinese propagandists. On top of all that, some of us have received death threats. In the face of these obstacles, however, we benefited from the good will of a group of Japanese peace activists who helped us to collect some incredible material in Japan, including interviews with a number of soldiers who served in Nanking in 1937.

Working in China posed a different set of problems. In order to track down survivors, we relied on our very talented co-producer, Violet Feng. A native of Shanghai and a Berkeley Journalism School grad, Violet spent a month scouting and networking in Nanjing. Sadly, many of the survivors she was searching for live in poverty, and very few of them have telephones, making old-fashioned detective work a necessity. In one instance, Violet learned about a survivor who is homeless and who apparently lives near a dumpster in a certain part of the city. Violet managed to find him, and his interview is one of the most powerful in the film.

Nanking serves as a timeless statement about the terrible price paid by civilians during wartime - a message that is all too relevant some seven decades later, as contemporary wars are being fought on the streets of cities around the world.

HBO

What did you find most rewarding about telling this story?

Dan & Bill

We've had screenings of the film around the world, but nothing can match the emotional intensity of our premiere in Beijing last July. From the outset of the project, we felt a great deal of responsibility and anxiety about how we - as Western filmmakers - would be received in Asia. And it was extremely gratifying to show the film throughout China. Standing on a movie theater stage in Shanghai with one of the survivors we interviewed in the film as he acknowledged the heartfelt applause of the audience was enormously moving.

HBO

What do you hope audiences will take away from Nanking?

Bill Guttentag

This is a film about an important event in history - but it is also a film that features extraordinary drama, and moving and inspiring stories. I hope audiences will be touched by the stories and learn how a small group of foreigners in Nanking with little more than their moral convictions and their courage, stood up to a massive army and were able to save the lives of thousands.

Ted Leonsis

Nanking serves as a timeless statement about the terrible price paid by civilians during wartime - a message that is all too relevant some seven decades later, as contemporary wars are being fought on the streets of cities around the world.

Nanking