A propagandist or a truth teller?

By Li Jingjing Source:Global Times Published: 2015-7-1 19:53:01

Controversial director turns lens on Japanese war crimes

Director Chris D. Nebe (Center) stands with producers Chen Xiaoxia (Left) and James Osbun. Photo: Courtesy of Chen Xiaoxia

A German working in Hollywood as a director, he is now regarded by many as a "Chinese propagandist."Such is the reputation that has haunted Chris D. Nebe since his documentary Diaoyu Islands: The Truth caused quite a buzz last year. In the documentary, he presents the facts and history of how the Diaoyu Islands have been a part of China for hundreds of years. He later produced a documentary titled Tibet: The Truth, which used historical research to show how Tibet has been an integral part of China since the Tang Dynasty (618-907).

Rising to fame in China almost overnight, he became a recognizable and appreciated figure in the eyes of many Chinese, as well as becoming a target of criticism in Western media.

However, the director cares little for such fame or infamy, instead dedicating himself to revealing more facts and forgotten history of China due to his belief that "China receives unfair treatment from Western media" and his desire to "promote a different image of China."

In an exclusive interview with the Global Times, Nebe revealed his next ambitious work Unit 731, which will bring the horrifying history of the Japanese military's behavior in China during WWII to Western audiences.

During the war, the Japanese military's Unit 731 secretly carried out biological warfare and testing on living human subjects in China's Northeast provinces. One of history's most brutal and horrifying war crimes, most people, even younger generations of Chinese, have barely heard about it.

"These are the facts, you just have to see them. But unfortunately, in the West, people either ignore the facts, are not aware of them or don't care. But I do care," Nebe told the Global Times.

'Didn't get any Chinese money'

"China was an allied nation during WWII, but laowai (foreigners) don't talk about it, they forget about it," Nebe said. He felt it shocking and unfair that the Japanese military's actions in China and the sacrifices of Chinese during the war are rarely mentioned and seems to have become almost forgotten.

Originally only possessing a general idea about that part of history, Nebe and his crew spent six months researching and gathering historical records for the documentary. They went to the Harbin, Heilongjiang Province, where Unit 731 was based, to investigate, as well as poured through the massive amount of historical records that could be found online. According to Nebe, production on the film is already finished and is set to release in July.

"I have to say, while it's a political film, we all did it ourselves. We didn't get any Chinese money," said Nebe, adding that he made sure he appeared in the documentary so audiences would know who was responsible for the film.

Objective criticism

When talking about China during our interview, Nebe easily touched on the philosophies of Laozi and Confucius and going into the history of China in particular detail. Some people might find such in-depth understanding of Chinese culture from a German filmmaker quite surprising.

Having always felt drawn to Asia, Nebe never imagined that decades into his career as a director he would become so closely connected to this land.

His company, Monarex Hollywood Production, began its relationship with China by making tourist films for certain areas of the country, such as his first China film, Marco Polo's Shangri-la, which he was invited to make by Yunnan TV.

He continued to make similar films such as Holy Mountain, which introduces Wudang Mountain in Hubei Province, and Dali - Love at First Sight. These films soon made up a series that became known as Mysterious China.

But the idea of focusing on political issues was inspired by riots in the Tibet Autonomous Region in 2008.

Before the Olympic Games were about to start in Beijing, several riots occurred in Lhasa, Tibet. Nebe together with his colleague James Osbun made a short film showing people a different perspective on the riots. The video went viral on YouTube, and Nebe ended up on the receiving end of harsh comments and  even death threats. However, this only motivated him to do more.

"You feel shocked as a Westerner, because you grow up to believe something about Tibet. You were never told any facts. You just have it in your head that China invaded Tibet. That's what you know," said James Osbun, the vice president of Monarex and also the producer for Nebe's documentaries.

An American, Osbun confessed that he knew almost nothing about China except the negative images he has seen in the media. However, when he began collaborating with Nebe in 2006 and began to access more information, he was totally shocked by what he discovered. Osbun told the Global Times that so far everyone they have shown Unit 731 was appalled at what they saw and asked why they had never heard about it before.

Alongside the sensation that Diaoyu Islands: The Truth brought also came a wave of criticism. One of the main complaints is that the film is full of subjective opinions. Nebe told the Global Times that while it's true that the film contains his opinions, "they are all based on facts."

"He has his opinion. He's saying it very clear and that's fine, that's him. But that film itself, we are very strict with ourselves that we are only presenting facts," Osbun added.

Nebe and Osbun make no attempt to hide their opposition to what they see as Western media's negative stance towards China, nor their opinions on Western political systems.

Osbun mentioned how he found it interesting that whenever he tells someone in the US about what he does in China, even though some of them are successful businesspeople, they tend to reply with an inherent bias that "China is going to take over the world." However, when he presses them on what China has done to make them think that way or what they know about the history of Tibet or the Diaoyu Islands, they are quickly rendered speechless.

"Western media did a great job telling you what to think and not telling you why," Osbun said.

This has driven Osbun to dedicate himself further to make films with different voices, showing another side of the story to Western audiences and encourage them to be critical of their own countries.

"Making these political films is interesting because they are all fact based. We are not twisting things," Osbun said. "As a film maker, it's really enjoyable, because it's the subject that really matters."

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