Austin Film Society Documentary Tour: 'Nanking'

... and DocuWeek at the Arbor


In 1937, during the early days of World War II, as part of its siege to conquer China, Japan invaded its then-capital, Nanking. When the city finally fell, after months of bombardment, the Japanese army unleashed a campaign of rape and murder, commonly referred to in history books as the Rape of Nanking. According to the summary judgment of the International Military Tribunal for the Far East – also known as the Tokyo Trials – "Estimates indicate that the total number of civilians and prisoners of war murdered in Nanking and its vicinity during the first six weeks of the Japanese occupation was over 200,000. Approximately 20,000 cases of rape occurred in the city during the first month of the occupation."

In the midst of the rampage, a small group of Westerners banded together, à la Oskar Schindler, to establish a safety zone where more than 200,000 Chinese found refuge. Unarmed, these missionaries, university professors, doctors, and businessmen – including a Nazi named John Rabe – bore witness to the events, while risking their own lives to protect civilians from slaughter. In Nanking, directed by Bill Guttentag and Dan Sturman, the story is told through interviews with Chinese survivors, archival footage and photos of the events, and testimonies of former Japanese soldiers. The film includes a stage reading of the Westerners' letters and diaries, featuring Woody Harrelson, Mariel Hemingway, and Jürgen Prochnow.

Amazingly, 70 years after the invasion, what actually happened in Nanking remains controversial; the Chinese and Japanese still don't agree, and the dispute continues to sour relations between the two countries.

"To this day, many Japanese believe that stories of atrocities in Nanking are exaggerations and lies, and the conflict is often front-page news in newspapers throughout Asia. Some of the people we hired in Japan actually quit the project, citing pressure from family members who disapproved of the subject matter. One of our Japanese associate producers quit because she said she feared for her safety," says Sturman, adding that "two days after our premiere at Sundance [it won the Documentary Editing award there], a group of conservative politicians and activists in Japan held a press conference announcing plans to rebut our 'fictitious' film with a $2 million documentary entitled The Truth of Nanking."

In China, on the other hand – where it was one of only 20 foreign films allowed to be screened each year – Nanking was the highest-grossing documentary in the country's box-office history.

DocuWeek at the Arbor

This October means a delicious surfeit of documentary offerings: The Regal Arbor Cinema @ Great Hills (9828 Great Hills Trail #800) is taking part in the Independent Documentary Association's 11th annual DocuWeek: a multicity rollout of new docs that helps the films qualify for Academy Award consideration.

The lineup for Oct. 7-10 (find descriptions on the International Documentary Association's DocuWeek website,

The Price of Sugar (D: Bill Haney)

Nanking (see left)

Protagonist (D: Jessica Yu)

Larry Flynt: The Right to Be Left Alone (D: Joan Brooker-Marks)

Chops (D: Bruce Broder)

A Promise to the Dead: The Exile Journey of Ariel Dorfman (D: Peter Raymont)

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