Danny Peary Talks to ‘The Girl and the Picture’ Filmmaker Vanessa Roth

Xia Shuqin and Vanessa Rothfrom "The Girl and the Picture"
Xia Shuqin and Vanessa Roth, Photo: USC Shoah Foundation

Having received my masters in Cinema at the University of Southern California, I am especially proud of the USC Shoah Foundation, which was founded by Steven Spielberg to record audio-visual eyewitness testimonies by survivors of the Holocaust and other genocides.

Among its 55,000 subjects is the remarkable Xia Shuqin, who as a child survived the Nanjing Massacre by Japanese troops in December 1937 that took up to 300,000 lives. So I wasn’t going to miss a documentary about her, The Girl and the Picture, when it played at the recent Tribeca Film Festival (TFF).

Writer-director Vanessa Roth’s splendid and essential 39-minute short is being presented by the foundation and I hope it finds a huge audience.

The synopsis from the press notes: “In 1937, an orphaned Chinese girl and an American missionary with a camera came face-to-face in a moment that shaped history….At age eight, Xia Shuqin and her younger sister witnessed the murder of their entire family in what became known as the Nanjing Massacre. In the days that followed, an American missionary named John Magee documented the horror, taking in the little girls and filming them in front of the remains of their family home, creating evidence of the carnage and binding his family and theirs forever. The Girl and the Picture brings together direct descendants of this history as Madame Xia, at 88, shares her memories with her granddaughter, her seven-year-old-great-grandson, and with Chris Magee, the grandson of the missionary who captured her image eight decades earlier. It brings to light the power of memory to connect generations and create a shared legacy of family, loss, and survival.”

Watch the trailer:

Vanessa Roth has made a career of writing, directing, and producing personal films that have been shown around the world and have had strong social impact. She has won a number of awards, including an Oscar as the producer of the devastating 2007 documentary short Freeland. Prior to The Girl and the Picture’s first screening at the TFF, I had this conversation with the personable, dedicated filmmaker about her latest contribution to history.

"The Girl and the Picture" filmmaker Vanessa Roth at Tribeca Film Festival
Vanessa Roth at Tribeca Film Festival, Photo: Danny Peary

Danny Peary: Vanessa, where does this film fit into your career?

Vanessa Roth: I had just finished a 4-part documentary series I made in India, Daughters of Destiny [which can be seen on Netflix]. I’m always trying to find human stories we can connect to, and I came upon the story of Madame Xia Shuqin. After following five Indian girls for seven years to be shown in four hours, it was definitely a welcome challenge to do a short that is under 40 minutes long in three months.

DP: Until I did research on your movie, I didn’t know that the USC Shoah Foundation recorded stories other than from Holocaust survivors.

VR: When the foundation approached me about doing this documentary, it had been working with Madame Xia on a new project called New Dimensions in Testimony. So it has been expanding its work to include genocides and massacres around the world. Nanjing in 1937 is regarded as a forgotten genocide. As with the Holocaust survivors in its archives, many of the first-hand witnesses who haven’t died off are in their eighties and nineties. Xia is 88.

DP: In doing research, I was struck by how much denial there is, primarily in Japan, that the Nanjing Massacre ever happened. Were you surprised by this?

Xia's grandaughter and her grandson
Xia’s grandaughter and her grandson, Photo: USC Shoah Foundation

VR: Yes. I knew so little about this moment in history when we started making this film that everything I learned was new information. From my understanding, there has been a long history of debate between Japan and China over such things as the number of people killed. Madame Xia herself was brought into the debate by some Japanese writers and scholars who claimed she was a false witness. It is incredible to me that when she was in her late seventies that she went to Japan and stood up for herself, telling her story after a lifetime of not speaking about what happened. She became a major spokesperson for the truth and her story. That’s why I was so drawn to her.

DP: It isn’t until late in your movie that we learn that this tiny elderly woman became an activist and won a suit over the deniers in Japan who insisted she was lying. Was that when she first became an activist?

VR: It was earlier, when the Nanjing Memorial Hall was reaching out to find survivors of the massacre and got in touch with her through some of her family members. She was reluctant to even tell her story because when she grew up she felt shame about it. When she started to speak is when she was attacked by the Japanese she later sued. But she explained to me that she doesn’t hold all of Japanese people, history, and culture responsible. She loves visiting Japan and has befriended a lot of people there. She still feels the loss of her family but hasn’t turned that occurrence into a political agenda. Here’s someone who had to do it on her own since she was eight. She had to be resilient no matter what. She is just an amazing example of grace and fortitude.

DP: You used the word “ashamed.” Many Holocaust survivors have guilt that they lived while their families and so many others perished. Is that the same thing she felt?

VR: I could tell she had guilt, but she talked more about the shame of being an orphan. As a child she felt people laughed at her because she had lost her parents. What I saw with Madame Xia and her family, and noticed doing other projects, is a generation trauma—as you say, with Holocaust survivors, too—and how that feeling of loss is passed down to family members. In the film, Madame Xia tells her story to her grown granddaughter Xia Yuan and great grandson Li Yuan, and her granddaughter really seems to feel the pain of her grandmother. That was passed down to her even though when she was growing up, her grandmother didn’t actually say anything about what she had experienced.

Xia speaks with her granddaughter in "The Girl and the Picture,"
Xia speaks with her granddaughter in “The Girl and the Picture,” Photo: USC Shoah Foundation

DP: Watching Xia Shuqin, even when she is smiling and seems to be happy, I felt her pain. When you were with her, did you?

VR: Yeah. But one of the things I love about Madame Xia is that she always seems to have joy in her life, spending time with her family. She also is tired after telling her story so often and that’s an angle we wanted to take while making the film. Instead of having the film with me as a journalist interviewing her, we wanted to make it a family story, with Madame Xia, her adult granddaughter and her young great grandson exploring what they wanted to explore. I would have had an outsider’s perspective and we didn’t want that.

DP: I’ve interviewed a lot of ballplayers who fought in World War II, and their wives or widows, and it amazes me how reluctant they were to speak about their war experiences, including to their families. Some never said a word to anybody. Xia Shuqin never even told her daughter, Xia Yuan’s mother.

VR: Older people who are asked about their pasts think, “Why do you care about this?” They don’t understand how important, or unique, or profound, or interesting their stories are. She told her story when she was very young and then didn’t talk about it again until she was in her sixties. She had two daughters but didn’t tell them. It wasn’t until her grandkids went to school and learned history that she felt it was time to talk.

DP: Was she at all reluctant to speak to you when you first met, and to be the subject of your movie?

VR: Madame Xia has been interviewed so often over the years that she no longer wonders why people want to interview her. She knows what people want to ask her about.

DP: Talk about the picture that John Magee, a real hero, took of eight-year-old Xia and her four-year-old sister, with the elderly lady who rescued them.

VR: John Magee, a missionary, stayed in China and risked his life to document what he saw with this small wind-up camera he owned. When I talk to people about this image, they, in the context of today and what we see on social media, expect to see a full documentary. But that one image of them standing in front of their house with all the bodies of their family lying there represents what happened in Nanjing. This image goes with the letter Madame Xia wrote about what she remembered and what John Magee, who took the testimony of survivors, wrote in his own journal about her story—which he shared with the Tokyo war tribunals.

DP: A great moment in your movie is when John Magee’s grandson Chris Magee goes to the Nanjing Memorial Hall and holds that Bell & Howell camera that documented the Nanjing massacre. He calls it a “national treasure.” I was thinking that your movie is also a very important document and also illustrates the power of film.

VR: This film to me was always about bearing witness. It is one more way of passing down the story of what happened, adding to how John Magee told the story with his camera. His testimony, the letter, Chris Magee taking photographs himself eighty years later, Madame Xia walking through what happened with her granddaughter and great grandson, this film—it’s all about how we bear witness to history.

Chris Magee in "The Girl and the Picture"
Chris Magee in “The Girl and the Picture,” Photo: USC Shoah Foundation

DP: So you’re correctly thinking the entire time that what you’re filming could be significant?

VR: Of course. To me, the history is important to never forget and to learn from. Also, there’s something we often forget: elderly people have a lot to share about their lives and children are very curious and have questions to ask them. Those of us in the middle sometimes forget about this wealth of both knowledge and curiosity. Putting those generations together was important to me for how we see history and understand ourselves.

DP: As with war veterans who didn’t tell their kids of their experiences, Xia didn’t tell her own kids, so maybe it’s the grandkids and great grandkids who get them to talk.

VR: That seems to be the case. There is a special relationship between those generations.

DP: Xia may realize that the story of Nanjing isn’t being taught today, so she needs to tell it.

VR: I don’t know what she thinks, but it did feel that when her granddaughter sat down with her and her great grandson had questions to ask her, she was willing to share what she saw as being family history much more than a big historic moment. She says in the movie that when she was eight, she knew only that her family was killed, not that there was a massacre throughout the city.

DP: You include in your movie striking images of atrocities that took place in Nanjing, including shots of brutalized bodies. You want your film to be positive, as Xia is herself, so were you concerned about showing too much?

VR: Yeah, we never wanted to gloss over or sugar-coat anything, but we kept in mind that it’s a short film that isn’t meant to be a full excavation of that moment in history. We kept focusing on telling Xia’s personal story. Because John Magee’s personal story was told through his historic footage 95% of the archival footage we used was his. We used a small amount of archival footage about the war itself, but for the rest we stuck to what John Magee filmed. Because we have this young boy in the film, Xia’s great grandson, I always intended it be a movie that youngsters and teenagers can see. I wanted it be accessible and not too terrifying. There are other films about the Nanjing Massacre so people can explore what happened in its entirety.

"The Girl and the Picture" movie poster
USC Shoah Foundation

DP: Did you facilitate the meeting between Xia and Chris Magee?

VR: Yes, we wanted to do something with one of John Magee’s two grandsons. Chris lives in Australia and is actually a cameraman, so we reached out to him. We asked him if he knew of John Magee’s Nanjing footage. He did and was very moved by it and had always wanted to go to Nanjing. He’s now actually working with the Nanjing Memorial Hall on putting together a photographic exhibit on Nanjing then and now.

DP: How did you feel seeing Xia and Chris Magee meet?

VR: It was very sweet. He’s a very earnest man and was very moved being there. I don’t know if it comes across in the first viewing, but he apologizes to Madame Xia because his grandfather wasn’t there in time to save her family. We carry our parents and grandparents’ wounds.

DP: It’s the same as Schindler feeling guilty because he didn’t save more Jews.

VR: He internalizes it, as if he was the one who didn’t save her family eighty years before.

DP: Xia looked happy to see him.

VR: She’s a great hostess. She’s the voice of survival of this massacre and is happy to meet people interested in her story, and she was happy to meet him. She remembers John Magee and told Chris that he had the same face. It was very sweet.

DP: Did you ever hold her hand?

VR: Yes! I’m so glad you asked that question because I love hands and since I don’t speak Mandarin and she doesn’t speak English it was important that we had that connection. I wanted there to be a comfort level and trust in our collaboration so she’d know that I wanted to tell her story and not my own. When I held her hand I remembered my own grandmother, who was the most important person in my life when growing up. Feeling Madame Xia’s hands, holding hands—I felt she was this beacon of strength and survival.

Statue honoring Xia Shuqin
Xia Shuqin’s statue at Nanjing Memorial Hall, Photo: USC Shoah Foundation

DP: You begin the film with her saying how Xia wants to pass along history to her great grandchild and you end it with the message that he needs to know the history of Nanjing and his great grandmother.

VR: She wants to pass along the history to her granddaughter and great grandson so it’s never forgotten–and for peace. She says to him that she wants him to learn to get along with other people. She wants him to understand others’ points of view and not be judgmental. She says, “Play nicely.” It’s simple but profound, a good lesson for all of us to follow.

***I hope everyone will pick up a copy of my new book with Hana Ali about the origins of her father’s most famous quotes: Ali on Ali: Why He Said What He Said When He Said It. (Workman Publishing)

Danny Peary has published 25 books on film and sports, including Cult Movies and Jackie Robinson in Quotes.


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