For human-rights watchers, Masanjia Labour Camp is the bleakest symbol of China’s totalitarian regime. In the country’s vast network of labour camps, it was always the most feared.
“Letter from Masanjia,” a new documentary by Vancouver director Leon Lee premiering at the Hot Docs film festival in Toronto on April 27, tells the unlikely story of how one prisoner’s handwritten “SOS letter” found its way to America and put an international spotlight on China’s labour camp system.
This story began in 2011 when Julie Keith, a mother of two living in Oregon, opened a package of Halloween decorations purchased at a local K-Mart. Inside the package she found a handwritten note in Chinese and broken English which read, in part, “If you occasionally buy this product, please kindly resend this letter to the World Human Right Organization. Thousands people here … will thank and remember you forever.”
The note outlined the gruelling working conditions in the Masanjia Labour Camp and referenced the torture and abuse experienced by detainees.
The writer was Sun Yi, a Falun Gong prisoner of conscience detained in Masanjia who often hid letters in the Halloween decorations he was forced to produce and package.
Persecuted for his faith, Sun was abducted by police in 2008 and sentenced to two and a half years of forced labour. Seeking an opportunity to communicate his plight with the world, he crafted letters while feigning sleep in his overcrowded cell. He would hide them in packages of Halloween decorations bound for export when opportunity arose.
When Keith found the letter, she took it to her state newspaper and the story became international news.
Sun came across the story and his letter on the internet after he was released from Masanjia. Surprised and encouraged, he decided to use the publicity to further expose Masanjia by making a documentary about his experience. He made contact with Lee and solicited advice on how to best capture his story on film. He assembled a crew and, with great risk to his safety, set about documenting his experience. He then spirited out the footage to Lee who made it into a film.
Dark Den of Evil
In 2013, China shut down—at least in name—its network of re-education-through-labour camps, where all forms of torture were administered outside the rule of law. Of these camps, Masanjia was regarded as the worst. It was known among Falun Gong practitioners as “a dark den of evil.”
Masanjia was ground zero for the persecution of Falun Gong practitioners, with a notorious reputation for rights abuses. The 2014 film “Above the Ghosts’ Heads: The Women of Masanjia Labour Camp” exposed the more heinous crimes perpetrated against female prisoners, including various kinds of sexual torture.
In China’s prisons and labour camps, Falun Gong practitioners can secure preferential treatment or release by renouncing their faith through signing a “guarantee statement” that is coerced through torture.
Sun endured an extended period of intense torture in Masanjia, including being “strung up” from a bunk bed day and night for over a year, yet he never succumbed to demands to renounce Falun Gong. As one of his prison camp guards says in the film, “He has a lot of backbone even though he looks like a frail scholar.”
Human Cost of Totalitarianism
Sun’s story is a microcosm of the persecution of Falun Gong, also called Falun Dafa, a traditional meditation practice handed down from ancient China. The campaign was launched by the Chinese Communist Party in 1999 and saw tens of thousands of adherents arbitrarily thrown into the labour camp system or given harsh prison terms.
Family members who don’t practice are persecuted by association, which results in fractured families; the pressure commonly leads to couples divorcing. This sad story plays out in Sun’s life and it’s heartbreaking to see his stoic but ill-fated marriage fall apart. The interview footage of Sun’s wife is some of the most moving in the film. It’s clear she cares deeply for her husband, but she’s faced with an impossible set of circumstances.
As much as “Letter from Masanjia” is a criticism of China’s labour camp system, it is also a story of how a husband and wife, good people who just want to live a normal life, are torn asunder by the fear and intimidation of a corrupt police state.
One might expect Sun to bear some resentment toward his captors, but instead he comes across as calm and generous. The plight of China’s dissidents is poignantly humanized through Sun’s humble force of character.
Getting the story right
Lee’s Flying Cloud has become the de facto film production company for exposing the crimes of the Chinese regime. Films like the Peabody award-winning “Human Harvest” have earned the company a reputation as a fierce and credible advocate for human rights.
Lee and his team would have struggled under the weight of getting this story right. They had to make difficult decisions, knowing that the film could put Sun’s connections in China at risk. Lee was entrusted with the responsibility of doing justice to Sun’s journey, and with “Letter from Masanjia” he hit the mark.
The film itself is a bit of a miracle. Most of the footage was smuggled out of China by Sun over the course of production. It’s rare for this type of candid documentation to escape the country’s tightly controlled borders and even rarer for it to receive this level of production.
Shot by amateur filmmakers, the footage depicts the immediacy of Sun’s circumstances in a way that keeps the film fast-paced and suspenseful. It was up to Lee and his team to assemble it into a cohesive narrative.
The film is augmented with dystopian animation of the stark realities of Masanjia and the torture methods used on Sun—not graphic but designed to get the point across. The original sketches were hand-drawn by Sun, adding an element of authenticity to the animation.
A Crack in the Foundation
One might expect a happy ending and a just resolution, but Sun’s journey does not end in triumph. His ultimate sacrifice makes this story all the more important to tell.
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s seminal “Gulag Archipelago,” a stark account of the Soviet-era labour re-education system and the impact it had on society, laid bare the ideological pathologies of Marxism. The three-volume exposé is regarded as a key document in the fall of the Soviet Union. Knowledge, combined with desperation and a weariness of oppression, turned an already disaffected public against the communist doctrine the country had once embraced.
China is at a similar crossroads. Persecution and intimidation make a population distrustful and rebellious. Sun’s inspiring story may not single-handedly bring down the Communist Party that rules the country with an iron fist, but it will surely widen the cracks in its foundation.
At just over an hour in length, “Letter from Masanjia” is a pointed criticism of totalitarianism as well as a celebration of the human spirit. The authenticity of the plight of Sun and his family speaks volumes about the state of China’s regime. It’s not a pretty picture.
Fully aware of the suffering his family endured because of his convictions, a resolute Sun says, “I believe doing something to change the system is the best way to make it up to my family.” And make it up he has.
“Letter from Masanjia” will screen at Hot Docs on April 27, April 29, and May 4 at TIFF Bell Lightbox Theatre, with director Leon Lee in attendance plus special guest Julie Keith who found the letter. The festival runs from April 26 to May 5.