I recently had the chance to talk by phone with Academy Award winner Vanessa Roth about her new short documentary, The Girl and the Picture, that played at the Newport Beach Film Festival. The film tells the story of Madame Xia, who as an eight year old girl survived the Nanjing Massacre (sometimes referred to as the Rape of Nanjing). In that massacre she saw her family murdered by Japanese soldiers. She was seen on film made by John Magee, an American missionary in Nanjing at the time. In The Girl and the Picture, Madame Xia recounts her story for her granddaughter Yuan and great-grandson Yuhan. The film also follows Chris Magee, grandson of John Magee, on his trip to Nanjing to find a new connection with his grandfather, and to meet Madame Xia.
We spoke a bit about the idea of bearing witness, which is central to the film. She recounted about Xia telling her story long ago to John Magee, who recorded this in his journal and diary and later testified at a war crimes tribunal.
She then went on: Later we have Madame Xia telling her story to her granddaughter and great-grandson. And then we also have this stirring witness of her granddaughter writing her grandson who then can pass that down as well. So as much as it’s very specifically about this horrible moment in history of the Nanjing Massacre and this day that her family had been massacred. It is also very much about bearing witness and storytelling itself.
How did you come to this project?
I’d been approached by the USC Shoah Foundation in this past summer. They’d been working with Madame Xia on another project that they were doing with her about testimony. Madame Xia is one of only a hundred living survivors of the Nanjing Massacre left. So it’s very urgent to get as much firsthand storytelling of that moment in history as possible. The Shoah Foundation wanted to expand the work they were doing with the Nanjing Massacre and with Madame Xia in particular to have a film. So I think what I brought to it was that I wanted to do something different than had been done before. Madame Xia didn’t speak about her experience at all until she was in her sixties. But then since then she does speak about it a lot and has been interviewed by a lot of journalists. But I noticed in the footage I’ve seen, what she tells is the moment of the massacre which was very important, but what I really wanted to get into was the idea of family storytelling and legacy and history and how the much more much more personal kind of exploration of what historic moments mean to people.
That family storytelling, I think, is interesting because you structure your film that way coming from a couple different directions. With Madame Xia sharing with her granddaughter and great-grandson, and then with Chris Magee, the grandson of John Magee going back to where his grandfather was. I think the sharing shifts if you’re sharing a story with the world and if you’re sharing the story with your family.
Exactly. I think in families you’re able to ask different questions that a stranger is able to ask or a book is able to get at. Personal moment becomes relatable because we all have relationships with family that I think it’s given that there’s a certain human condition, no matter where we’re from or what generations we’re from, and that’s the kind of thing that can come out in storytelling like this. Grandchildren have different questions of the grandparents because that’s their grandparent. They’re not just looking at it with a lens of “tell me about this one moment”, but as a grandchild, a great-grandchild, you have a certain investment, because it’s you—your own story really. You’re hearing about your family.
With Chris it was a personal journey that he took into the footsteps of his own grandfather. The special think about Chris Magee is he’s actually a filmmaker himself. He’s a cameraman. I wonder about these family connections. How much do we carry with us—our own ancestors’ essence without knowing it. It’s just interesting to me what drove him to become a cameraman himself. He was able to go back to Nanjing and try to see more about his own grandfather.
It’s interesting his perception. For him John Magee was the grandfather. When he gets to Nanjing he is a great hero to be celebrated.
Actually that’s how Chris Magee had grown up, knowing his grandfather actually in that way. He’d been told as he grew up that his grandfather had all these historic films and knew his grandfather, John Magee, had testified at the war tribunals. And he’d known him in this way. And actually what was interesting is when he went back to Nanjing, that’s when he actually connected with him more on a personal level in an interesting way, where he’d kind of only known him through his films. Then when he went to Nanjing and walked in those same footsteps, I think he felt more affected. Then whe he met Madame Xia, I think that it made it even more personal.
How did you find and connect with Chris Magee?
There’s a woman in Canada named Linda Granfield who’s been working on the history of the Magee family. The Magee family is fascinating. She’s been working on that for years and years and years. So she’s really the historian of historians on the Magee family. Then the Magee family archives are actually at the Yale Divinity School. We reached out to both of them and said, “Who down the line in John Magee’s family would be somebody that we could speak with?” I specifically wanted a grandchild to talk to. So we’d been put in touch with one of John Magee’s sons—the last son still living, Hugh Magee. And Hugh put us in touch with Chris and said, “I think Chris is the person that would be a wonderful addition to this film because he’s a cameraman himself. He’s always been very interested in the Nanjing films. He has a deep connection to wanting to know about history and wanting to know Nanjing.”
In the process of making the film is there somewhere you had your own sense of growth or discovery?
Anytime I make any film. This film in particular I set out to make something that was to personalize a moment in history, For me, I really didn’t know about that history at all. I had to do a lot of research to even understand the context of everything. And also it’s another culture, another language. There’s always the self-reflection and the growth that has to has to happen. I wanted to make a film that anyone could relate to, that’s very personable, and to feel that the people in the film, that it was their voice. So for me that was just an extension of the positions I ended up putting myself in with the films I make, being in a culture and language very different from what I know or have known, and to make sure that I’m open to telling the story that presents itself to me and not the story that I go in thinking it will be. The main thing is that it all cemented even more with what I hoped I would have gotten out of making the film, which is this idea and conviction I have that we are all relatable to each other if asked the right questions and we’re able to tell our stories and asked to tell our stories, and to kind of shatter this idea of otherness that gets created too often.