Festival Audience Award - Letter from Masanjia

Festival Audience Award - Letter from Masanjia

Letter from Masanjia won the Audience Award at the recent Newburyport Documentary Film Festival. The film played to a full house at the Firehouse Center. For those that didn’t make the showing, here is brief synopsis:

When an American mom discovers an SOS note stashed in a package from Kmart, she never imagines it will lead to the closure of Masanjia, China’s most notorious labor camp. When news of the note goes viral, the writer, a Chinese engineer who had been jailed for his spiritual beliefs, fears for his life and his family’s safety. Realizing the spotlight is a chance to further expose the brutality of the Chinese regime, he decides to make a film about the harsh reality of being a human rights defender in China, risking his life in the process.

For over a year, Sun Yi, the SOS writer, details his entire story on film as he revisits his torturous past at Masanjia and is hotly pursued by authorities. Secret-camera footage and harrowing glimpses of his personal life offer a rare look inside China’s terrifying police state through the lens of a political dissident, showing us a true modern hero who will stop at nothing to expose the truth.

Leon Lee with Joanne Morris
Film maker Leon Lee with Festival Director Joanne Morris

Attending the festival coming in from Vancouver, Canada was film maker Leon Lee and some of his answers to audience questions were simply mind-blowing. Here are some of the highlights:

  • It took a lot of time and effort for Leon to track down Sun Yi. For obvious reasons Sun Yi feared for his safety and didn’t leave an easy trail to follow.
  • Sun Yi was eventually tracked down through Leon's network of secret collaborators
  • Leon wasn’t able to go to China to make the film - or in his own words, he could go to China but unlikely to come back.
  • Leon taught Sun Yi what equipment to buy and how to operate the camera through Skype video calls to Canada.
  • Getting the film out of China during the project was never easy; film couldn’t go through standard couriers or mail and had to be passed from hand to hand by networks of trusted agents.
  • Film,as it was shot, was saved onto one of four encrypted hard drives with a new password each time - any wrongly entered key would instantly wipe out the content.
  • On occasion a companion film-maker was required to capture shots of Sun Yi; that person remains in China and could not be named or shown on film.
  • Sun Yi was constantly followed by police and secret agents with his own life, and that of his wife and her family, under constant threat.
  • When Leon was asked if he felt any danger to himself, he dismissed the possibility by saying that what he was doing by bringing the story to the world outweighed all other considerations.

Sun Yi was imprisoned for practicing Falun Gong, or Falun Dafa. This is a Chinese spiritual practice that combines meditation and qigong exercises with a moral philosophy centered on the tenets of truthfulness, compassion, and forbearance. Leon described as similar to Tai Chi. There are Falun Gong groups across the world including in Boston, Saugus and Worcester.

Is Sun Yi's an isolated incident? 

In March 2017, Christel Wallace found a piece of paper folded up at the bottom of a new purse purchased from one of Walmart's Arizona stores. The note was written in Mandarin Chinese and translated it read:

Inmates in China’s Yingshan Prison work 14 hours a day and are not allowed to rest at noon. We have to work overtime until midnight. People are beaten for not finishing their work. There’s no salt and oil in our meals. The boss pays 2,000 yuan every month for the prison to offer better food, but the food is all consumed by the prison guards. Sick inmates have to pay for their own pills. Prisons in China cannot be compared to prisons in the United States. Horse, cow, goat, pig, dog.

A lenthy story "You buy a purse at Walmart. There’s a note inside from a “Chinese prisoner.” Now what?"was written in VOX which you can read here

Further Information

What is Falen Gong?

Recent story in the Economist

Why would a person be imprisoned for practicing Falun Gong?

Read a story from Public Radio International

What does the film maker say?

Hear a BBC interview with the film maker and Julie Keith - the person who found the SOS letter

Watch the film trailer