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AOL vice chairman, Washington Capitals owner and philanthropist Ted Leonsis has seen his share of business ventures, but producing the feature length documentary Nanking - he was inspired after reading Iris Chang's bestselling 1997 book The Rape of Nanking - might be one of his most surprising career turns.

By Ted Leonsis


Nanking’s award winning editing
Nanking's award winning editing mixed archive footage with modern day actors reading letters that were written during the siege.

Of all the many adventures I've had in my life, few can measure up to being at the Sundance Film Festival. My family and I were there for the premiere of Nanking, a documentary I created, funded and produced about the Japanese invasion of Nanking, China, in 1937, and the efforts of several brave Westerners to save the lives of more than 250,000 Chinese. To make the movie, we collected their original diaries and letters and hired top actors to play their parts. We interviewed 88 massacre survivors and talked to Japanese soldiers who participated in the invasion. It is, in short, the largest collection of materials related to this tragic event.

Getting Nanking accepted to Sundance was an achievement. The festival received more than 7,500 films, nearly a fifth of which were documentaries. In the end, they picked just 42 documentaries.

There is nothing like the experience of watching others watch a film you have worked so hard to make. At our first screening in Sundance, the lights dimmed, and suddenly 500-plus people were sitting in rapt attention. Some gasped, some started to cry, as the documentary unfolded. When it ended they applauded, and applauded and applauded. Many of them hugged each other. My wife and daughter were in tears. On the street afterwards, several people came up and hugged me. All told, we screened our film six times at Sundance. During the week, Nanking was purchased for international distribution and received glowing reviews.

There were lots of other little moments my family and I will cherish. The air at Park City, Utah, was crisp and clear. The location was breathtaking. There were stars galore, and I had the chance to meet several of them, including Teri Hatcher, Heather Graham and Bono. My good friend Peter Barris and I went on a bobsled ride at the U.S. Olympic Park - we pulled 5 g's and finished the mile-long course in 53 seconds! My daughter made a cameo appearance on Access Hollywood with former Washingtonian Billy Bush. There was an absolute blur of meetings and press interviews. We even went to a gifting suite.

At the end of the festival, I learned that our film won the Documentary Editing Award. What a rush! We were humbled to be in the company of so many creative and giving filmmakers. I am so grateful to everyone who made this project such a success - directors Bill Guttentag and Dan Sturman, co-producer Michael Jacobs and Woody Harrelson, Mariel Hemingway, Jurgen Prochnow and the other fabulous actors who lent their talents to this picture.

The nine days spent at Sundance were exhilarating, emotional and exhausting. It was a wild ride that I will never forget. Now it's on to Cannes!


Mark Ein, Lynn Leonsis, Ted Leonsis, Jimmy Lynn and Raul Fernandez at the premiere of Nanking
Mark Ein, Lynn Leonsis, Ted Leonsis, Jimmy Lynn and Raul Fernandez at the premiere of Nanking





Director Rory Kennedy's film turned heads and stomachs at Sundance and ignited a heated Q&A during its February 12th Washington premiere. She took a moment to speak to WL about her politically charged film


A photo of prisoner abuse from Ghosts of Abu Ghraib
A photo of prisoner abuse from Ghosts of Abu Ghraib

Washington Life: What do you think the long-term effect of Abu Ghraib will be for America's international image? Rory Kennedy: It's already done enormous damage, and it's not just Abu Ghraib. It's a whole range of other foreign policies that have been put into place over the last three or four years since 9/11 going back, not just to the Geneva conventions from the 1940s, but all the way to the American Revolution when George Washington was faced with a situation where the British were treating American prisoners of war and soldiers horrendously. When he was asked, "How do you want to treat British prisoners of war?" he said, "Treat them with respect and dignity." Once we lose that moral direction we've lost what we're fighting for, and we become our own enemy.

WL: Thoughts on the definition of detainees as "unlawful combatants?" RK: Once you start having a foreign policy that says it's okay to treat anybody inhumanely we start going down a road that is very dangerous. As one of our experts, Alfred McCoy, says in the film, "You can't have a little bit of torture. It's like wildfire." I think that a policy saying that enemy combatants can be treated inhumanely is a policy of disaster.

WL: Where in the chain of command does this begin? RK: When you have the vice president arguing for torture in front of Congress, these messages come down the chain of command. They were in the mainstream media. I'm sure there were more direct commands, but until we have the full investigation we're not going to know. The film points to that lack of information.

WL: How much intelligence do you think was gleaned from Abu Ghraib? RK: Not much. A lot of studies say that information gathered through torture is not very effective, and that was consistent with what I was hearing in the field.

WL: How did the film affect you personally? RK: This was the hardest film I've ever made. It's very hard to live with these images day in and day out. What I learned in talking to some of these MPs and soldiers is that they are likeable. I was taken aback by this because I had judgments about people who could treat others this poorly. To sit across from them and to see the humanity in their eyes and then to try to come to terms with the fact that they had committed these pretty horrific acts was a difficult gap for me to bridge. What I felt at the end of this was that many more of us than we would like to believe are vulnerable to this type of abuse if we're thrown into [a similar situation.] The Milgram study states that 100 percent of the people were willing to electrocute someone they knew to be innocent just because they were told to do so by a man in a white overcoat in a position of authority. When people were asked if they would electrocute innocents, 98 percent said, "No, I wouldn't, I would never do that." There is a disconnect between what we think we would do and what we actually do when we're in the situation. That's a frightening idea. But what it says to me is that it's really important that our government is responsible, and that laws are in place so we don't lash out when we're scared - especially in times of war.

*Ghosts of Abu Ghraib begins with archival footage of Stanley Milgram's experiments which measured the willingness of study participants to obey an authority figure who instructed them to perform acts that conflicted with their personal conscience. His findings were first published in a 1963 article in the Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology.




By Norman Dreyfuss

La Misma Luna
In La Misma Luna unexpected circumstances drive mother and son to embark on journeys in an attempt to reunite.

Before Sundance, Norman Dreyfuss was best known as the man who directed the development of Leisure World adult communities in Maryland and Virginia. But when his Hollywood agent son Brian asked him to put up more than half of a Spanish Language film's cost (a sum in the "seven-figure range") that all changed.

Never had I ever experienced such nervous anticipation: The theater lights were dimmed; a music score began to build; the (long-shot) foreign film I had invested in started to fill the screen.

My son's client's first feature-length film was about to be viewed by an audience of 450 at the Sundance Film Festival. Our fledgling film company - really just a handful of us - didn't know what to expect. We had slapped up posters at the last minute, hastily arranged red carpet interviews for our Mexican actors, and dragged agents and buyers to the viewing. My nerves were turning into heart palpitations. When our film, La Misma Luna (The Same Moon), came on the screen, it signaled the conclusion of an unusual saga that began many months ago in Mexico City. My son, Brian, the agent for the director, had lured me there to back a film by a young Mexican director, Patricia Riggen. Before I knew it, I was the principal investor - the executive producer, in Hollywood terms. What followed was my (fringe) involvement in trying to follow the filming, the multiple re-takes, viewing the "dailies," and even a bit part for myself in a crowd scene. It was worlds away from my day job as chief operating officer with The IDI Group back in Washington.

Brian urged me to come to Sundance for a "lifetime experience." I postponed meetings and persuaded two colleagues (and investors in the film), John Cecchi and Patrick Rhodes, to join me. Jammed into a rented townhouse, our little film family lived and ate together. Our director's husband and director of photography, Checko, even did the cooking. We did party at the ESPN Zone - and spotted stars Anthony Hopkins, Teri Hatcher, Joe Piscopo and Christian Slater. We hosted a dinner party hoping to attract potential buyers for our film, and an après film premiere party replete with a Mariachi band.

Back at the premiere, the audience seemed completely focused, absorbed in our love story about a youngster trying to travel from Mexico to Los Angeles to find his mother. During one song, people clapped spontaneously to the rhythm. When the movie ended there was instant applause. When the lights came back on, a standing ovation started that lasted ten minutes. Quickly, Sony Pictures Classics, the Weinstein Companies, Fox Searchlight and other studios said they wanted to buy the rights. A bidding contest started. Harvey Weinstein showed up unannounced at our townhouse to push his bid. We sold La Miasma Luna for domestic and international distribution. We made money. Even my colleagues, who said they'd invested for the fun of it, said they'd take the cinematic gamble again. It was an absolute thrill - once my nervousness and heart palpitations disappeared.


John Cecchi and Patrick Rhodes join Norman
John Cecchi and Patrick Rhodes join Norman Dreyfuss and young actor Adrian Alonso at the La Misma Luna après premiere party.




EVERYTHING'S COOL WL Take: Global Warming is here, so why are the naysaying lobbyists still attempting to create a debate? Who should watch it: Philip Cooney, former chief of staff for President George W. Bush's Council on Environmental Quality - he is a former energy industry lobbyist and current Exxon Mobil employee. hmm...

NO END IN SIGHT WL Take: A comprehensive examination of the Bush Administration's conduct during the Iraq war and occupation. Who should watch it: Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Bremer for recollections of life in the Green Zone and Gen. David Petraeus, the new commander of U.S. troops in Iraq, for homework.

THE FUTURE IS UNWRITTEN WL Take: A captivating journey through the life of punk rock icon Joe Strummer (you know, the guy from The Clash.) If you want to start a band this is the manual on everything you should avoid. Who should watch it: Hungarian Ambassador András Simonyi.


The Future is Unwritten
The Future is Unwritten


KING OF CALIFORNIA WL Take: Michael Douglas reigns in yet another suburban L.A. working class hero story. Oh, Crash, where have you gone? Who should watch it: District residents who wax nostalgic about quaint Virginia and Maryland-area Walmart strip malls but would never be caught dead at one.


1968 Democratic Convention
Sundance opened with the 1968 Democratic Convention documentary Chicago 10.

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