Mar 12, 2008 at 12:00 am

It's true that our current moral vacuum has ushered in a golden age for documentaries. Now that political leaders have absolved themselves of moral outrage (unless, of course, it's gay marriage), religious leaders obsess about moral trivia (see gay marriage) and the news media has abdicated its role as an ethical watchdog, it falls to filmmakers to tackle important topics like social injustice, political corruption and genocide.

The past year has produced many must-see docs on everything from wartime incompetence to the shameful inadequacies of our health-care system to mass killings in Darfur. Last month, the Oscars chose the superlative Taxi to the Darkside as its documentary of the year. A methodical and hard-hitting examination of U.S. policies on torture and detention, it was an unlikely choice for a glitzy evening of Jon Stewart one-liners and celebrity fashion statements. Still, it was the right choice in a year boasting numerous worthy choices. One of these is Bill Guttentag and Dan Sturman's haunting Nanking, which was short-listed for an Oscar but ultimately overshadowed by the final five.

Four years before Pearl Harbor, Japan was already flexing its military muscle, invading China and seizing its capital, Nanking. In six horrific weeks that bridged 1937 and 1938, Japanese soldiers systematically looted, massacred, and raped an innocent population, killing nearly 200,000 civilians and committing upward of 20,000 sexual assaults. Though the Japanese government has officially "recognized" the event, the public remains divided between those who acknowledge it as a massacre and those who dismiss it as a wartime "incident."

The story of the "Rape of Nanking" went untold for many decades until Iris Chang's same-titled 1999 book garnered international attention, not only inspiring the doc, but encouraging the filmmakers to try a unique technique to tell its story: A staged reading of first-person accounts from the 22 foreigners who set out to create a "safety zone" for the city's refugees to protect them from the predatory Japanese.

It's an awkward mix of theatre and reportage that takes some getting used to. Culled from diaries, letters and journals, the words of these brave people — mostly missionaries — are brought to life by Mariel Hemingway, Woody Harrelson, Jürgen Prochnow, Stephen Dorff and John Getz, among others.

These celebrity-cast testimonials are clumsily intercut with shocking archival footage and stories from actual Nanking survivors (now in their 80s) recounting horrific tales of rape, murder and mass execution. It's a questionable choice and the initial effect is off-putting. There's no getting around that these are Hollywood actors whose larger-than-life celebrity distracts. Nevertheless, the gravity of the topic and the words of the brave survivors win out. Each has a personal perspective that draws you in, the most fascinating of which is Nazi businessman John Rabe. Appalled by the slaughter and certain that der Führer would never approve, he explains why he decided to remain in China.

"There is a question of morality here," he wrote, "and so far I haven't been able to sidestep it." You know things are bad when a proud Nazi becomes the voice of morality and ethics.

The real power of Nanking, however, rises from the survivors. Watching these elderly Chinese choke back tears as they describe neighbors burned alive, infant siblings skewered on bayonets or 12-year-old girls split in half as they resisted rape is enough to break your heart. More disturbing are the interviews with aged Japanese soldiers who committed the atrocities. Showing little or no remorse, they candidly describe (even chuckle about) what happened. It's shocking to see the pain of these victims so casually disregarded, even 70 years later.

Watching a documentary that confronts the worst of human nature in all its brutality and depravity can be bitter medicine. After all, who wants to sacrifice their free time to a topic as depressing as wartime atrocities? But art should do more than just entertain, shouldn't it? Maybe if films like Hotel Rwanda and documentaries like The Devil Came on Horseback and Nanking were as popular as, say, the latest Will Ferrell piece of crap, we wouldn't have to proclaim "never again," after Bosnia, Rwanda, Darfur ... and whatever new act of inhumanity awaits us.

Showing at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit) at 7 and 9:30 p.m. Friday-Saturday, March 14-15, and at 4 and 7 p.m. Sunday, March 16. Call 313-833-3237.

Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].