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Meet the DocuWeek Filmmakers: Bill Guttentag and Dan Sturman--'Nanking'

By Tom White

Over the next week, we at IDA will be introducing our community to the filmmakers whose work will be represented in the DocuWeekTM Theatrical Documentary Showcase, August 17-23. We asked the filmmakers to share the stories behind their films-the inspirations, the challenges and obstacles, the goals and objectives, the reactions to their films so far.

So, to continue this series of conversations, here are Bill Guttentag and Dan Sturman, directors of Nanking.

Synopsis: A powerful reminder of the heartbreaking toll war takes on the innocent, Nanking tells the story of the Japanese invasion of Nanking, China, in the early days of World War II. The city was subjected to months of bombardment, and when it fell, the Japanese unleashed murder and rape on a horrifying scale. In the midst of the rampage, a small group of unarmed Westerners banded together to establish a safety zone, rescuing over 200,000 Chinese.

IDA: How did you get started in documentary filmmaking?

Bill Guttentag: I was hired to write the proposal for an HBO documentary film, and once HBO decided to make the film, I was then asked to work on the project. I found myself completely fascinated with the power of hearing first-hand the stories of real people and true events--something that continues to this day.

Dan Sturman: I took a college class from Robb Moss, which turned out to be an inspiring and transformative experience. For our class project, we filmed a 16mm documentary in which we followed Gary Hart on the campaign trail in New Hampshire as he tried to recover from the "Monkey Business" scandal.

IDA: What inspired you to make Nanking?

BG and DS: The film is a Schindler's List story about a handful of Westerners who risked their lives to protect Chinese civilians from marauding Japanese soldiers during the infamous Rape of Nanking in 1937. The intial idea for the film came from producer Ted Leonsis, who had read an obitruary of Iris Chang. He then contacted us and asked us to get involved. We were moved by the great power of the story and then set out to find an innovative way to tell it.

IDA: What were some of the challenges and obstacles in making this film, and how did you overcome them?

BG and DS: We wanted avoid making a typical historical doc--the kind that features talking head academics and long moves across still photographs. Instead, we wanted our audience to have a visceral feeling for the drama and emotion of the story we were telling. Since none of our main characters were alive to be interviewed, we crafted a stage reading from the words they left behind in diaries, letters, etc. We then assembled a first-rate cast of actors and filmed them together on a soundstage. These performances form the narrative spine of the film and bring our main characters to life.
We also faced a wide variety of practical and logistical challenges. Our efforts in Japan, for instance, were complicated by the politically sensitive nature of the subject matter; the Chinese and Japanese still don't agree on what happened in Nanking nearly 70 years ago, 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.

IDA: How did your vision for the film change over the course of the pre-production, production and post-production processes?

BG and DS: Our vision for the film remained fairly consistent throughout the process. However, we did a series of interviews in Japan--with students, academics and politicians--that we ultimately decided not to include. Some of our interview subjects deny or minimize the scope of Japanese involvement in the Nanking atrocities, and although we think this Japanese material is fascinating, we felt it threatened to turn our film into a 60 Minutes segment.

IDA: As you've screened Nanking--whether on the festival circuit, or in screening rooms, or in living rooms--how have audiences reacted to the film? What has been most surprising or unexpected about their reactions?

BG and DS: We knew this was an emotional subject, but the extent of the feelings we have seen in our screenings has been overwhelming for us. Some of the stories in the film are just so heartbreaking, and some of the archival footage is just so disturbing, that after each screening, we always see people in tears.
In early July, we had the odd and fascinating experience of traveling to Beijing to attend the theatrical premiere of Nanking. Apparently, China only allows 20 foreign films a year to screen in theaters, and these releases are staggered every couple of weeks. Our release window was between Pirates of the Caribbean and Transformers. Sitting in theaters in China, watching with audiences there, and seeing the reaction was extraordinary.
And, although many seem to like the film, we've also had our share of negative reactions. Two days after our premiere at Sundance, 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.

IDA: What docs or docmakers have served as inspirations for you?

BG:The Times of Harvey Milk, The "Up" Series, When We Were Kings, Hearts of Darkness, Mad Hot Ballroom.

DS: Gimme Shelter, Dont Look Back, Hoop Dreams, American Movie, One Day in September, The Devil Came on Horseback, The Staircase, Sherman's March, Control Room, Crisis.

Nanking will be screening at the ArcLight Hollywood.

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