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Exclusive: Interview with Oscar-winning filmmaker Vanessa Roth on the debut of her new film ‘The Gir

Director Vanessa Roth and Madame Xia taken by Sam Rutan

Filmmaker Vanessa Roth premiered her new documentary film, “The Girl and the Picture,” at the documentary film festival AmDocs in Palm Springs, California on April 10, 2018. This busy, Oscar-winning filmmaker sat down with me immediately after her screening for this exclusive interview about her career path and her latest film.

Vanessa Roth grew up in Del Mar, California. Her father’s family were veterans of the movie business and Vanessa‘s father is four-time Oscar-nominated screenwriter Eric Roth, who won an Oscar for writing the screenplay for “Forrest Gump,” in 1994. Her mother was a story-teller in a completely different way. She was an anthropologist, specifically telling the stories of Native American tribes in the San Diego area. Vanessa claims to have had a mostly Hollywood-free childhood with fond memories of her father spending hours at his typewriter.

When it came for Vanessa to pick her own career, she headed to Columbia University to study for her graduate degree. She completed her studies with a major in social work and a minor in law. She knew that she wanted to tell the stories of the disenfranchised. So, in her own way, she took what she learned from both parents and her coursework at Columbia University to forge a career in documentary filmmaking.

According to Roth, “My social work degree gave me an inside to systems, places and people who we don’t know and the stories we don’t hear about. It taught me how to interview and bridge that gap between people’s lives and the policies and systems that they live inside of. I think documentary filmmaking is such a great forum for that.”

Vanessa went straight to work directing documentaries after grad school. When her friend Cynthia Wade asked her to help her with a documentary project she was working on, she accepted. She knew this was an unique story and one that needed to be told. The project became the short film “Freeheld,” which told the story of Laurel Hester, a New Jersey cop that was dying of cancer while she was fighting to leave her pension to her life partner Stacie. Vanessa helped to produce the short, which in 2008 garnered Wade and Roth an Academy Award for Best Documentary Short. It also inspired the feature film that starred Julianne Moore.

USC’s Shoah Foundation asked Vanessa to make a film for them about Madam Xia – one of the last surviving members of the Nanjing Massacre that took place when Japan attacked China in 1937. Haven’t heard about the Nanjing Massacre? Well, until the request from Shoah, neither did Vanessa Roth, and neither did I until seeing her moving film.

Nanjing, the capital of China in 1937, was invaded by the Japanese. It was part of Japan’s goal to control and dominate all of Asia at the onset of World War II. The rich inhabitants of Nanjing were able to escape the town before the Japanese invasion, but the poor, disabled and elderly populations were left to face the Japanese attack. Over 300,000 people were killed during this brutal invasion.

Surviving this horrific ordeal was a young girl and her little sister. Known today as Madam Xia, she was severely injured when a Japanese soldier stabbed her three times with his bayonet. The Japanese killed all of Madam Xia’s family except for her and her little sister. The orphans hid from the Japanese and fended for food in the night to survive. It is this amazing and courageous story that Roth has featured in her film “The Girl and the Picture.”

Also featured in the film is the grandson of missionary John Magee. It was Magee that was the only witness of these events to capture this horrific time on film, which he did with his home movie camera. Father Magee took a picture of Xia when he discovered the girls. He then provided them safety from the Japanese. He was also able to help many Chinese people escape the massacre and today he is considered to be a town hero. This film also captures Magee’s grandson, Chris Magee and Madame Xia meeting for the first time.

Keeping with her own perspective on life, Roth didn’t want her film to be a straight interview of Madam Xia. It has been done before and she wanted to a more personal look at her life. So she has taken a family approach to the movie and filmed Xia with her granddaughter and great-grandson, while Xia tells them of her own memories of the Nanjing Massacre. Roth explained, “This makes history less theoretical and we become more connected to it and it is my hope is that in a bigger way that the film is about this moment, it’s about this woman, it’s about this incredible bravery she’s had in her life and the man that filmed her – but it is really about passing that down to the next generation.”

East and West come together in this story that proves that even when the worst time of our lives comes to meet us, there is someone who still cares.

Roth finished “The Girl and the Picture,” just last week. So, her time now will be busy as the film hits various festivals. I have no doubt that her documentary will become a favorite very soon.

Roth has a few things in development and she is still doing outreach for her Netflix documentary series titled, “Daughters of Destiny.” It is a series that took seven years to film and is definitely worth seeking out on Netflix right now.

Vanessa Roth is a dynamic and warm filmmaker that has a spirit and desire to change the world around her through the work she does. I have no doubt that she will continue to bring worthwhile stories to the forefront and in turn let her audiences expand their look on the world and have more empathy for those around them.

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