You have a knack for making international films that court controversy. Talk to us about your highly-acclaimed film, John Rabe — the Chinese-French-German biopictorial film on the wartime experiences of German businessman John Rabe.
John Rabe was a tricky project because the massacre of Nanking by the Imperial Japanese Army forces, who brutally murdered hundreds of thousands of people. Rabe, used his Nazi party membership to establish a safety zone in Nanking and saved over 20,000 Chinese in the city of Nanking (or Nanjing). The story is based upon his wartime diaries. The Chinese and Japanese government do not have a common understanding of what happened, whether it was a massacre or not. But again, that’s the reason I wanted to make the film. Hundreds of thousands of people were killed. And while there is no apology or recognition from the Japanese government, the film did not sit well with the Chinese. I think it is because we showed that they were victims of the Japanese, that makes them look weak; and that’s the perception that the Chinese government of today doesn’t want the world to have because they see themselves as pretty strong.
So your films have some political undertones to them. Let’s highlight in particular your nerve-shredding thriller, Colonia, also known as The Colony. It film not only received the world’s attention because of its heartwrenching tale, but also because of the strength of its cast (Daniel Brühl and Emma Watson).
A lot of people were not happy that we were telling this story. The film is set during the Chilean coup of 1973, and it is based on harrowing true events about one woman’s efforts to rescue her boyfriend from a secret cult. Daniel (Daniel Brühl) is arrested by the secret police and transported to the notorious interrogation camp located beneath the infamous Colonia Dignidad; a German sect under the lead of the sinister Paul Schäfer. The film reveals the wrongdoings and mistakes of Germany, throughout many years. In Chile, however, the opposition to the film was stronger because it shed light on the Pinochot regime (military dictatorship of Chile) and what they did. And just as with the John Rabe film, I received a lot of letters citing I was blaming them for something they didn’t do. It is my belief that it is important to make sure that if people have suffered and have been killed, at least their pain gets acknowledged and people know about it. How else are we going to improve anything or how are we going to know who we are if we have no idea about the past? So, these two movies really tried to create awareness about important chapters in history that otherwise might have been forgotten.
You had a crash course for your 100 members crew for the film, Shadows of Time for the Bengali language. What was your thought process in making this decision?
I had a radio interview with a little girl who was working as a child labourer in a cupboard factory — at the time I was in Germany. She had this incredible voice, as sweet as a bell. The story put in me some crazy emotional roller coaster — I had to tell her tale. The motivation here was partially to make people look at what these people go through, that they are human beings and they are forced to work in horrible conditions, as children.
In Africa, there are plenty of chapters in history that have been whitewashed and haven’t been told by our own people. Are there any African stories that have stood out for you that you may, in the future, think about documenting?
There is a big African story that is an important story for Germany, that has not been dealt with. This is the genocide carried out by Germany as a colonial power at the beginning of the previous century. Again, tens of thousands of people were murdered and of course now there is discussion about whether there should be financial compensations and so forth. Germany as a colonial power murdered a tribe of about 50,000 people and many are not aware who they were or what they did. It’s usually summed up in one paragraph in children’s history textbooks. Germany hasn’t been the biggest colonial power in Africa, but Tanzania and Namibia have been German colonies. I think we like to forget about and of course we have so much wrongdoing and guilt to deal with from the Third Reich and second World War, that it’s easy to forget the other things that we did before. But I think it’s a chapter that needs to be looked at openly and honestly and apologised for. You have to take responsibility for the things you do, don’t you?