Among the films presented at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, one documentary short greatly stood out: The Girl and the Picture, by Academy Award-winning director Vanessa Roth (Freeheld, No Tomorrow), commemorating one woman’s extraordinary experience surviving the 1937 Nanjing Massacre, during which the Imperial Japanese Army invaded China and brutally slaughtered over 300,000 Chinese civilians. Presented by the USC Shoah Foundation, which was founded by Steven Spielberg with a mission to record eyewitness testimony of the Holocaust and other genocides, The Girl and the Picture made its New York premiere at Tribeca on April 27, 2018. The movie has also received the US Special Jury Award from the American Documentary Film Festival.
By Jennifer Parker
The Girl and the Picture is a portrait of a survivor; it’s Vanessa Roth’s non-fiction biopic about the 88-year-old Madame Xia, who tells the extraordinary story of how she survived the Nanjing Massacre of 1937, and how sharing personal history is about bearing witness to world events so that the past is not forgotten. There were less than 100 survivors of the massacre of 300,000 and though Madame Xia has taken valiant efforts to make her story publicly known, there was a void that the filmmaker saw in her storytelling. Like many survivors of atrocities, Xia found it difficult to communicate the events to her immediate family. However, Xia was able to successfully sue the government of Japan to prove that she is the girl in the picture. There was no shame in surviving; she too had physical scars that belied comprehension, yet she had difficulty expressing in words the horrors of her past.
Just two weeks after the massacre occurred, an American missionary, John Magee, visited China and started filming with his 16mm camera home movies of what he saw to show the world what horrors had occurred in China. Magee sent the films and images of Xia Shuqin as an eight-year-old girl to governments around the world, Life Magazine, and the first international war tribunal for crimes against humanity.
Madame Xia became a nameless symbol; the girl in the picture became the indelible memory for the collateral damage of genocide. The film brings the descendants of Madame Xia and the missionary together to reconcile a collective memory so that the past is never forgotten. Throughout the 39-minute film, interviews with Xia; a tender, intergenerational reunion with Xia and the grandson of the missionary, Chris Magee; and historical footage is peppered with scenes of her granddaughter writing a letter to her son in Xia’s words so that one day the seven-year-old will understand what his great-grandmother endured with the hope that millions more would not. She tells her grandson that to remember the past is to have peace so that there will be no more war. Amen.
For more information on the film and upcoming screenings, visit sfi.usc.edu/tgatp or follow on Facebook. (Also use #thegirlandthepicture.) To learn more about the USC Shoah Foundation and its mission, visit sfi.usc.edu or follow on Twitter and Instagram.
Jennifer Parker is a Manhattan-based writer and editor-in-chief of StatoRec. Her film criticism, author profiles, and poetry have appeared in Fjord’s Review, the Los Angeles Review of Books, Quiet Lunch, and Pank Magazine. She has also contributed photography to At Large Magazine. Follow her on Twitter and on Instagram at @jenparker12345.