Leonsis' 'Nanking' looks to right a wrong

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BEIJING -- "Nanking," AOL vice chairman-turned-producer Ted Leonsis' documentary about the Japanese army's 1937 massacre of civilians in China's pre-war capital, will premiere Tuesday in Beijing.

Back in China's capital for the first time since AOL set up a research and development office here in April, Leonsis said Monday that he made the film with no profit motive and as a part of the "filmanthropy" mission he set out for himself when he stepped down from active duty at AOL in the fall.

Leonsis said he observes three Chinas: the poor agricultural interior of China that few in the West know about; the "formal" and governmental China represented by China Central Television and the Shanghai Media Group; and the new "rock 'n' roll China" of the Internet and Web 2.0, that is "more capitalistic than America now."

"My intentions are pure," he said. "What China can do for me is make sure that one million people see this film by any means necessary. Free on the Internet, even on pirated disc."

"Nanking," which was bought for distribution by ThinkFilm and Fortissimo at Sundance, was made with more than $2 million of Leonsis' own fortune. It first showed in China at the Hong Kong and Shanghai film festivals in March and June, and, just in the past few weeks, was picked up by the state-run China Film Group for a rollout in more than 100 Chinese theaters starting Saturday, Leonsis said.

The film's mainland release comes in the run-up to the 70th anniversary (in November and December) of the events that still cause regular diplomatic rows between Beijing and Tokyo. In Japan, a small group of conservatives, including filmmakers working on a project to counter "Nanking," deny that the massacre ever happened.

CCTV will air the documentary to China's 136 million cable households in 2008, when the world's eyes will be on China as it hosts the Olympics for the first time.

"Nanking" distills 500 hours of found footage and survivor interviews to tell the story of the Japanese army's systematic slaughter as they beat a path from Shanghai to Nanjing, and of a group of expatriates -- including a Nazi businessman and an American Christian missionary -- who rallied to save their Chinese neighbors.

Leonsis says it's an anti-war film but that he did not intend for it to become a political flashpoint.

"At a time when Americans are not well-liked around the world, the story of many Americans helping the Chinese could help," he said. "It's a kind of 'Schindler's List.' "

Leonsis was inspired to make the film, his first, after he read the "The Rape of Nanking," the best-selling book by the late Iris Chang. The film was co-produced in China by CCTV with logistical help from Leonsis' fellow Georgetown alumnus Peter Loehr, the head of CAA here.

Woody Harrelson, a CAA client, dramatizes the American missionary whose diaries about the killing he witnessed are read from in the film. Harrelson participated for free, Leonsis said.

"The metrics of 'Filmanthropy,' " as Leonsis refers to his goal of making movies that "make a difference," will "turn filmmaking on its head," he insists.

"The film business is so thoroughly broken in its current state that as a businessman I wouldn't get into it. I made this movie to right a wrong," Leonsis said, adding that the Chinese he has spoken to say this likely will be the biggest foreign documentary China has ever seen.
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