John Gillespie Magee was an eye-witness to history. He helped officiate FDR’s funeral and served as a chaplain to his successor, but Magee is most remembered for documenting the atrocities of the Nanjing Massacre in still photos and 16mm film while in-country as an Episcopal missionary. Xia Shuqin is his most famous subject. Magee’s photo of her and her four-year-old sister put a human face on the horrific tragedy. It happened eighty years ago, but “Madam Xia” has forgotten nothing and she insists the rest of the world remembers it too in Vanessa Roth’s short documentary, The Girl and the Picture (trailer here), which screened during this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.
Xia was truly cursed to live an eventful life. She and her little sister survived by hiding under the corpses of their murdered family—parents, siblings, and uncles. Unfortunately, Magee arrived too late to do anything but document the crimes. Many times, he was able to stop the Japanese amid their war crimes, simply through his commanding presence and the authority of his collar, but such was not the case for Xia’s family. Soon thereafter, a beloved uncle took custody of Xia and her sister, but they would face considerably more adversity. They lost everything thanks to the invaders’ scorched earth tactics. Incidentally, the Cultural Revolution was no bed of roses for them either. Yet, she persisted, even becoming an unlikely activist on behalf of Nanjing survivors.
Madam Xia now lives with her granddaughter Xia Yuan and her seven-year-old great-grandson. How to explain the horrors his great-grandmother endured is a question that preoccupies her granddaughter. Remembrance is also a concern for Chris Magee, who has come to China on a kind of pilgrimage, in tribute to his revered grandfather. Indeed, this film is all about honoring memory, which presumably made it a perfect editorial fit for the USC Shoah Foundation.
Yet, this is not a dry assemblage of oral history. Madam Xia is still very actively engaged with the world and a rather lively screen presence. Likewise, the scenes with Magee’s grandson are no mere travelogue. When he carefully handles the missionary’s 16mm camera (treated like a religious relic at the Nanjing memorial museum), we can see the emotional connection it represents. When he finally meets Madam Xia, it is a heavy moment.
These are, in fact, two rather remarkable families, connected by fate. The film doesn’t even mention one of Magee’s sons was John Gillespie Magee Jr., the Royal Canadian pilot who died during WWII, but is still remembered for his poem “High Flight” (Pres. Reagan quoted it in his Challenger disaster speech). Roth helms with a sensitive touch, but she never lets it get slow or maudlin. To the contrary, this film is just bursting with humanity. Very highly recommended, The Girl and the Picture should have a considerable festival run and hopefully Oscar consideration after its New York premiere at the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival.