Xia Shuqin was only 8 years old when most of her family was killed in the Chinese Nanjing Massacre of 1937. A profound photograph of the event by the American missionary John Magee shows Shuqin and her younger sister surrounded by the devastation. In The Girl and the Picture, Shuqin, now 88, passes her story along to her granddaughter and great-grandson, ensuring that her memories of the tragedy will not be forgotten.
Despite the painful history that serves as the film’s backdrop, director Vanessa Roth creates a poignant examination of family, mortality and shared history that finds inspiration amidst the destruction. Shuqin’s granddaughter sets out to learn all she can about the family’s history, so she can share it with her own 7-year-old son in a letter she writes over the course of the film. Meanwhile, Chris Magee, grandson of John and whose grandfather’s photographs and videos served as crucial historical documentation of the massacre, makes his own pilgrimage to Nanjing, China. Chris is able to meet with Shuqin, a powerful reminder of how tragedy has linked the two families on different sides of the planet.
Roth’s filmmaking relies on sensory imagery to turn a tragic historical event into something more personal. It opens with a close shot of Xia’s granddaughter’s pen on paper, writing to her son who she says is not yet old enough to understand. In one of the film’s most powerful moments, the 7-year-old is encouraged to ask Shuqin about her scars from the massacre. As the boy, who is about as old as Shuqin was at the time, touches his great-grandmother’s stab wounds, he is touching a piece of his family’s history. The boy becomes overwhelmed with emotion, clearly beginning to grasp the weight of Shuqin’s story. Similarly, Chris, who himself is a photographer, is able to hold the camera that his grandfather used to document the massacre. The physical element of this story is crucial to the film and emphasizes the importance of preserving history before it is forgotten.
The Girl and the Picture manages to handle a heavy topic with a delicacy that highlights, rather than diminishes, the personal impact of the tragedy. Roth is appropriately absent from the film, allowing the familial relationships to shine through. As a result, a film that could have been weighed down by melancholy is instead an intimate work that is bursting with life.