Published: 15:57, June 21, 2024
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Documentary shines light on heroic wartime saga
By Wang Xin and Zhang Kun
Descendants of the war prisoners on the Lisbon Maru, at the premiere of The Sinking of the Lisbon Maru on June 14, 2024. (PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

The Chinese-made documentary The Sinking of the Lisbon Maru celebrated its world premiere on June 14 as the first film of the 26th Shanghai International Film Festival.

Directed and produced by Fang Li, the film spotlights a human story between British prisoners of war and Chinese fishermen during World War II (1939-45).

The Lisbon Maru was a freight vessel that was converted into an armed troop carrier by the Japanese Army. In October 1942, it was carrying more than 1,800 British POWs from Hong Kong to Japan when it was torpedoed by the US navy, sinking off the Zhoushan Islands in East China's Zhejiang province.

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As the ship sunk, nearby fishermen carried out a great humanitarian rescue, saving 384 prisoners from drowning.

Even though survivors and rescuers in the Lisbon Maru incident have passed away, the kindness of the Chinese fishermen has never been forgotten. Their stories have been passed on from generation to generation, both in China and in England.

Tony Benham, a Hong Kong-based British historian, wrote the book The Sinking of the Lisbon Maru: Britain's Forgotten War Tragedy, which provided a solid foundation for the documentary.

"When I started writing that book more than 20 years ago, nobody was interested apart from the families themselves and the survivors. I found it was a forgotten story. I would never have dreamed that this journey would take me to Shanghai 20 years later. The small book I wrote … has turned into one of the most emotionally draining documentaries I've seen in my life," says Benham after the film's premiere in Shanghai.

This unknown story shocked Fang as well, making him instinctively seek out survivor families and dig into the story's details.

Fang, also a veteran marine technology expert and geophysicist, spent years studying the incident and decided to make the documentary after successfully locating the sunken ship in 2016.

"There are so many touching stories about love, family affection, friendship among comrades, and more. It was a disaster and carnage that happened at our doorstep and a heroic feat by the most ordinary of Chinese people … of course, the story should be told by us Chinese," said Fang after the premiere.

Vince Andrew Hawkins Davies (right) visits the memorial hall in Dongji islands, Zhejiang province, on June 18, 2024. (PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

Brian Finch, who was commissioned into the UK's Middlesex Regiment in 1960 and served with one of the survivors of the Lisbon Maru, has helped Fang in contacting soldiers' relatives for the documentary.

He told China Daily in an interview earlier this year: "Everyone who knows about the story remembers it and the relatives are very keen to participate, but the vast number of people in the United Kingdom do not know about it. We need to give the story maximum publicity within the UK and internationally to get the story widely known."

This echoes Fang's expectations. "I hope everyone can remember Lisbon Maru as they remember the Titanic. Also, we hope the brave and kind acts of the Chinese people during the war will be remembered," says Fang.

Gathering at the film's premiere, a group of family members of the British soldiers who survived or lost their lives in the Lisbon Maru incident visited the Zhoushan Islands for memorial events from Sunday to Tuesday.

Vince Andrew Hawkins Davies, a 46-year-old family member of a Lisbon Maru survivor, is also hoping the story will become better known worldwide with the release of the film.

Davies' great uncle was among the prisoners rescued by the Chinese fishermen. He managed to make his way back home to the UK years later and lived until 2014, passing at the age of 94. His voice appears at the beginning of the film.

"He told his stories many times before he died, saying everybody was so friendly and kind to help look after him. I wanted to come, meet the people and see the site where it all happened," says Davies.

Nyree Penycate, whose grandfather was a survivor on the ship, brought her 14-year-old son George Penycate along on the trip.

"For people my age, it (the film) might sound boring but the majority isn't. It is quite good and worth watching," says George, who first heard the story when he was five.

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"I suppose the main message is that war is not good as it rips families apart and ends generations. It is far happier to get along with everyone — be kind and look for the good in everyone," Penycate adds.

Davies shared similar sentiments: "Don't hold an opinion or judge or blame (when watching the film) — just watch it and see what people can do to help each other. It is natural human instinct that comes through. People are different all around the world but maybe deep down, we are all very similar."

Benham agrees to put the focus on the individuals and families, regarding it as "a different type of history" and a very powerful story.

"The big history is great for teaching textbooks in school but for people to understand what the experience means, we have to focus on the individuals. That's such an approachable human way of explaining history. I think it has far more power than any big Hollywood blockbuster creation," says Benham.

Xing Yi contributed to this story.