Recently I was contacted about reviewing Canadian director Leon Lee’s new film, Letter From Masanjia. For those that don’t who Lee is, I’ll let his IMDb page brief you:
Leon Lee is an award winning film director and producer who explores thought-provoking stories related to modern China that could not be told within Chinese borders. His Peabody Award-winning documentary Human Harvest, about illegal organ harvesting, has been viewed by an audience of over 10 million and broadcast in over 25 countries worldwide. His recent narrative feature The Bleeding Edge, starring outspoken Miss World Anastasia Lin, was the recipient of a 2016 Gabriel Award and 2016 Leo Award. Lee also received an RBC Top 25 Canadian Immigrant Award for his work exposing organ harvesting in China.
Needless to say, I jumped at the chance. Letter From Masanjia is a gripping documentary about a man as brave and strong as they come. It tells the story of Sun Yi, a practitioner of Falun Gong, an outlawed spiritual movement that incorporates Buddhist and Taoist teachings, emphasizing truthfulness and compassion—obviously a big no-no for the Communist Party of China. During a 2½ year stint in Masanjia, one of the country’s most grueling labor camps, Sun writes a handful of SOS letters and secretly manages to send them out of the country. In a shocking twist of fate, years later one of the letters turns up in Damascus, Oregon. For more about the film, check out my review here.
What follows is a transcription of a phone interview I had with Leon following my viewing of the film.
The first thing I want to say is congrats on the movie, it really moved me.
Thank you, I appreciate that.
Moving on, my first question is regarding the project’s origins. How soon after the initial news broke did you realize this was the story you wanted to make your next film about? How did you go about contacting Sun Yi?
As soon as I read it on the news I wanted to look into it right away, because the name Masanjia really stood out to me. As someone who has been following human rights issues in China for a while, I knew the significance of Masanjia. This is one of the most notorious labor camps in China, and for somebody to survive Masanjia alone is already a miracle. To manage to hide letters, there had to be an amazing story behind it. So I contacted Julie Keith, and she was on board right away. I interviewed her several times over the years. Then the real challenge was to track down Sun Yi. Because of my previous films, I had developed this underground network of dissidents and journalists, and I put the word out. Three years later, one day somebody told me, “I think I found your guy.” And then we had the initial Skype call—part of it was in the film—and it turned out Sun Yi had seen my previous work. So he trusted me, and that’s why I think he agreed to tell his full story.
Branching off of that, like you said we see the Skype call in the movie—what was it like having to be secretive? Did he periodically send you footage? I’m curious about how that whole process worked.
Right. Once he was on board, we wanted to make the film. The only problem is I couldn’t go back to China because of my previous films, and he did not know how to use a camera. So we worked it out mostly via Skype. I sent him a list of the gear he needed to acquire and trained him in multiple sessions. Then he would shoot something, compress it, encrypt it, and send it to me, and I would review it and discuss with him. Once in a while he would then put all the raw footage on a hard drive, encrypted, but of course we couldn’t risk using Fed-Ex. So we basically relied on different people to pass hard drives to me. Sometimes it would take one to two months to receive it. Once I had the hard drive in hand, he would then tell me the password. That was how we worked. We had four hard drives.
You mentioned your previous work. I actually had a question about this movie compared to Human Harvest. That was more of an info-doc so to speak, while this one had a more humanistic element, I guess because of the story and how personal it was. Was that a conscious effort on your part as a filmmaker? Did you want to tell a more personal story, or did that just unfold naturally?
For Human Harvest, my goal was to put the viewer in the position of the investigator, so he or she could face all the allegations and evidence and make up their own mind on whether this was happening. So it was more of an investigative piece. And there was just so much evidence to present. Whereas in Letter From Masanjia I really wanted to follow Sun Yi’s journey, to take viewers through his daily life so they could feel what it’s like to be a human rights defender in China. I actually interviewed other survivors of the labor camp and also experts who could talk about the history of the development of the re-education through labor system, but in the end we found the current structure works more effectively because it’s not really about the historical background—it’s about why should we care? And I think Sun Yi’s journey, together with the connection to Julie, who becomes our gateway for the average viewer, is more powerful than any experts could tell.
A decent portion of the movie is animated, and you know there are shots of Sun Yi drawing some sketches. Was that his idea or yours?
I had always been thinking about how to recreate what happened to Sun Yi back in the labor camp. I think one time he casually mentioned he kept a sketchbook. And I had no expectations until I saw his sketches. It turned out he had been a big fan of Chinese graphic novels since he was a little boy, and he would often practice drawing on the margins. And later he became an engineer, so he learned how to draw from that. Apparently he became quite good, and after he came out of Masanjia he wanted to draw all these sketches so he wouldn’t forget. So eventually we decided on animation for reenactment, and it’s all based on his sketches and concept art.
One thing I was really interested in—the revelation at the end. When I found out Sun Yi had passed away it really affected me. I knew he was living a tough life and was on the run, but I guess I didn’t really expect that it would end that way. So I was wondering what it was like for you, having worked with him over the years, to receive that news?
It was very hard. One day I received a notice he had been hospitalized and was in critical condition. I tried contacting him, but he didn’t remember me at all at that point. I had learned prior to that he had been contacted by someone who we suspected to be a Chinese secret agent. That person essentially warned him not to continue with the project or to speak out. He of course declined—and right after that we were working on getting him a visa to either the U.S. or Canada, but it was too late. Very shortly after, he passed away.
It was so weird because over the years I had really gotten the chance to know him well. Although we only met in Indonesia, I had been staring at his face on the computer all the time. Whenever I had something to verify, I’d quickly send him a message. So even after I learned of Sun Yi’s death—one time I was trying to find out what kind of stool they were using at the labor camp, and I still had the urge to send him a message. Unfortunately I realized there would be nobody answering anymore. It was certainly devastating. Sun Yi had said to Julie that when he was young he had a dream of sailing around the world. Julie said if he ever came to Oregon she would take him sailing. So we all had plans for him when he came over. But imagine screening this at Capitol Hill or parliaments around the world and having Sun Yi coming to the stage, how powerful that would be. It’s the last thing the Chinese regime wanted to see, for him to really be able to tell his story.
It’s truly a remarkable story. The odds are one in a million.
If you think about it, Sun Yi wrote twenty letters in his dark cell, yes? What happened to the other nineteen?
Yeah, I was wondering about that too. Where did they go, are they still out there…Only one of them was found.
Yes, and Julie could have simply disregarded the letter, thinking it was a hoax. Or even after she contacted Human Rights Watch.
Right. She could have given up once they initially turned her away.
Well anyway, those were pretty much all the questions I had. Let me see if I can think of something else before you leave…Actually, something just came to me. Your previous film, Bleeding Edge, was a narrative feature about similar issues. Do you see yourself continuing to make both documentaries and narrative features?
Yes, I like to make both. I’m actually working on a narrative feature now, production will be next year. It’s about how during the peak of the prosecution of the Falun Gong there was a group of students who risked their lives to reach out to foreign media. It’s based on a true story. Two reporters actually won the Pulitzer Prize for their reporting on Falun Gong issues with the assistance of these students. Two of them now live in the U.S. and I got in touch with them to get permission to make the film. I’m also working on a stop motion film about orphans in China.
That’s awesome, I look forward to both. And before you go I just want to say thank you again for the opportunity and thank you for making the movie.
Thank you for your help getting the word out. We have little to no money for advertising, so we rely on reviews and interviews like this to get people’s attention. Thank you for your time.