OTTAWA—The award-winning documentary “Letter from Masanjia” moved viewers to tears at Bytowne Cinema on Sept. 3. A true story that changed history in China, it tells of a man’s extraordinary courage and hope despite the unimaginable horror he endured as a prisoner in a Chinese forced labour camp.
What also hit close to home was the film’s exposé of the human suffering behind products produced by forced labour in Chinese prisons that end up on store shelves in countries like Canada and the United States.
“This is the most difficult film I’ve made so far,” Vancouver-based director Leon Lee told the audience after the screening in a Q&A session that drew several rounds of applause and a standing ovation.
“Partly because I was unable to return to China due to the previous films I made and, on the other hand, Sun Yi did not know how to use a camera, so we two had to pull this off mainly through Skype. But really it was his courage, his determination, that really made this film possible,” Lee explained.
Sun Yi, the film’s protagonist, is a practitioner of the Falun Gong spiritual faith that has been the target of violent persecution and hate propaganda in communist China since 1999.
The documentary highlights a labour camp called Masanjia in northeastern China, where Sun was held for 2.5 years from 2008 to 2010 and where inmates were forced to work 15-hour days seven days a week and suffered torture and abuse by guards.
‘The Most Notorious Labour Camp in China’
The film begins with an SOS letter from Sun being found by an Oregon woman in 2012, hidden inside the packaging of a Halloween decoration she had bought at Kmart.
When Julie Keith publicized the letter, headlines drew intense worldwide attention to the gross rights violations within China’s decades-old “re-education through labour” system, which consisted of over 300 camps where people could be held for up to four years without trial. The flood of criticism led to an announcement by the regime in early 2013 that the system would be abolished by year-end.
Lee, who said he knew Masanjia to be “the most notorious labour camp in China,” managed to track down Sun after a three-year search. It turned out Sun had seen Lee’s previous films on human rights issues in China. He trusted Lee and felt that making a film would be an opportunity to tell his full story “to expose the evil of Masanjia Labour Camp.”
Lee trained Sun, an engineer, over Skype on how to use a video camera so that he could shoot live-action footage secretly in China. Lee also used Sun’s “very skilled sketches” as a basis for recreating his experience inside Masanjia, developing them into illustrations and then animation.
‘Shows How Brave People Can Be’
“Very moving, very powerful, and shows how brave people can be,” said Lorrie Heron, who attended the screening. “It’s amazing what [Sun Yi] went through and survived, and his dedication in getting the truth out.”
“What bothers me the most is that he’s just one person of many that are suffering like this. It’s wrong.”
She said she feels very bad that she has decorations at home similar to those Sun Yi was forced to make. “A lot of people do,” she said. “You don’t realize where they are coming from.”
“I hope other people come to see it,” said Jean Good. “They will spread the word … not enough people know about what’s happening in China.”
“As Canadians, we take a lot for granted, such as our freedoms,” said Mike Chen. “It’s very courageous for Sun Yi to tell his story. He experienced family struggle and a big sacrifice for his belief.”
Despite telling a harrowing story, the film portrays Sun Yi’s calm strength and peaceful determination, as well as his kindness toward others, even his former torturers.
The film also noted that Jiang Tianyong, the lawyer who had defended Sun Yi, was arrested in November 2016. Lee said Jiang was sentenced to two years in prison, and that recent reports indicated he was forced to take unknown medication that caused him to suffer great memory loss.
“This is a known tactic used by the Chinese authority, so that the lawyers … when they leave the prison, they would be no longer able to continue their work,” said Lee.
Seeking Release of Canadian Citizen Sun Qian
Despite ongoing severe rights abuses in China, “[the film shows] the united strength of Sun Yi and Julie Keith in helping to bring about the next step in ending the labour camp system,” said Lee.
They both persevered in the face of difficulties so that Sun’s story would be widely told, and they never gave up. “So I think the lesson, at least for me, is whatever small action that you could take [when you see injustice], it may lead to a good change that you never imagined.”
Noting the power of a letter, Lee has a campaign on the film’s website encouraging readers to write to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to urge him to press the Chinese authorities for the release of Canadian citizen and Falun Gong practitioner Sun Qian.
Sun Qian, no relation to Sun Yi, has been held in China since February 2017 for her belief. During her detention, she has been shackled, handcuffed to a steel chair, and pepper-sprayed in the face, among other abuses.
“Over the years, I think Falun Gong is the most persecuted group in China now,” Lee said.
“This kind of film will have a huge impact on people,” said former cabinet minister David Kilgour in an interview after the screening. “It should be seen by all MPs and senators,” he added.
Kilgour, along with Winnipeg-based human rights lawyer David Matas, co-authored several books on their investigation into reports of forced organ harvesting of prisoners of conscience in China. The two Nobel Prize nominees were the subject of Lee’s film “Human Harvest,” which won the prestigious Peabody Award.
Lee said he hopes more people can understand the story of the Chinese people by understanding Sun Yi’s story.
“The true Chinese spirit is what we see in Sun Yi,” he said.
The film ends with Sun Yi’s comment that even though millions of people in China are still being persecuted, “in the end, justice will prevail over evil.”
Following the documentary’s four-show run in Ottawa on Sept. 3–6, locations of upcoming screenings include Los Angeles and New York as well as Calgary, Alberta, and Lunenburg, Nova Scotia.