What did the past taught us? What were those lessons we think we learnt so we could become better human beings? What is the impact of a memory that holds both sweet and unpleasant part of our life? What we should never forget is who we were so that our next generation can be more prepared to fight against what we have done. That means acknowledging the fact and knowing how terrible and inhumane what we did was, so that the future will find its way to not return back to our animalistic core.
During the Tribeca Film Festival that took place in New York, I had a chance to chat with the director Vanessa Roth who gladly talked about her deeply moving “The Girl and the Picture” that one day can be used as a great source in learning our past we must never forget.
MOVIEMOVESME: What motivated you to make this film?
Vanessa Roth: I was really motivated by Madam Xia herself. She has such a compelling and painful and moving life story. You know she was only 8 years old when her family was massacred during the Nanjing massacre of ’37 and only herself and her sister who was only four years old at that time survived. She now 88 years old and standing up and telling her story and making sure she’s bearing witness to everything she experienced as a child and then living through that.
MOVIEMOVESME: What is it that you would like us, the viewers, to concentrate on as we follow Madame Xia’s story?
Vanessa Roth: So what I was most drawn to was really this idea of how do we understand things like massacres, things like genocides, historic events that we sometimes understand only theoretically and numbers and dates and things like that in history books, but what I wanted to make sure that there is the understanding about the human story, the individual story and the family story. And so the way that we made the film was one where it’s really a family story passing down that legacy of loss and memory. And the idea of Madam Xia sharing the story with her granddaughter and great grandson, my hope is that we understand a little bit about her specific life, but really understand this idea of connection between generations and how important it is that we ask questions of our elders and they have so much to tell and that young kids and people have a lot of questions. And they want to know, that they’re curious and it’s a nice way to start understanding history if you really understand it as a family story.
MOVIEMOVESME: From where I am from, we usually do not trust the history books. For me it has to be read between the lines. So can you talk about the structure to have them walk hand in hand through your film?
Vanessa Roth: Thank you for that and I agree that obviously history books and text books have certain scholar’s ideas about things, but the real way to immerse ourselves and really understand the people, the humanity behind moments in history is to be able to take advantage of these moments. With Madam Shah who’s still here and can tell her story, she in a film is able to take her grandchild and her granddaughter and her great grandson to the places where she lived and where she experienced these things. And to me what was so beautiful about the time she spends with her great grandson who’s just 7 years old is that because he’s a child, he’s able to ask her things about her childhood and grownups might not think of asking things like he asks. You know he asks, “What did you play here as a child?” And she tells him and she shows him that she did this hopscotch games and suddenly there’s this connection between this little boy and his great grandmother in way that history books can never express.
MOVIEMOVESME: How did you decide what footage needed to be part of your film? Because it’s always about the right thing to put into the film to justify and prove what’s been part of history. The one that should never happen I would say.
Vanessa Roth: Yeah, I mean so we have this other very special gift to us in the film which is the story of John McGee who was a missionary in China in the 1930s. And he escaped back in the Nanjing when he could’ve left and he chose to stay to really risk his life in order to document the atrocities that he was witnessing. Because of that he had his home film camera, 16mm camera that he documented what he saw and so the film that we made uses those films as a way to describe and show and again bear witness to what Madam Shah speaks about herself of her own life. The film combines the storytelling from the witnesses, the people who were there, combined with the film footage that John McGee captured at that time. Which really was one of the only original documentation of everything that happened over those six weeks.
MOVIEMOVESME: Yeah which pretty much will be able to say that it never happened, what actually did happen.
Vanessa Roth: Exactly.
MOVIEMOVESME: It did happen in one case. I can see that you like talking about social issues. Have we human beings learned something from what we have done back then?
Vanessa Roth: Yeah, I think that in my work in general, my very first thing is the idea of shattering this idea of otherness and for everyone no matter where they live in the world, to understand that there is common humanity and I think that this is moment in history is one of the example of certain humans and their worst behavior and humans at their worst. But there’s also this story of Madam Shah, of John McGee and their ancestry, their relatives, but then also the show the best in humanity and the bravery and courage it takes to stand up and to be a voice and to make sure that justice is served and that the experiences is passed on through generations so we don’t repeat history.
MOVIEMOVESME: It’s always good to retain that kind of copying for the future generations and your film can also be used as a historical fact because you have Madame Xia there with the John McGee video as well that he filmed. Lets say sometime in the future, a century after, people obtain the copy of your film to watch it which shocks them due to its concept asking themselves,”oh my goodness, what did we do back then.” I don’t know what will happen 100 hundred years later, but what is it that you want from the future generation to benefit from this massacre?
Vanessa Roth: I think that you’re absolutely right and we thought about this very deliberately about the film itself becomes another way of bearing witness of historians passing that history down. So you have the camera and the footage of John McGee, you have his grandsons who goes and takes photos of Nanjing now. And then traces the footsteps of his own grandfathers and speaks about it. You have Madam Shah speaking and you also have her granddaughter film who you know in the film ends up writing a letter about all the things that her grandmother shares with her which is past down to her son which then, like you said, that piece of the letter and the film itself will be passed down and passed down, and so hopefully this becomes a time capsule of both storytelling and history all at once from an individual and family’s perspective.