The SOS was hidden in a tombstone. It was a pretend grave marker, made of Styrofoam and purchased at a Kmart an ocean away from where the desperate message had been written. It sat in its box in a storage shed in Damascus, Ore., for about two years, until Julie Keith dug it out in the fall of 2012 for her daughter’s birthday party, which the then-almost-five-year-old requested be Halloween-themed. Out fell a note, handwritten in English and Chinese.
“Sir: If you occassionally (sic) buy this product, please kindly resend this letter to the World Human Right Organization,” began the letter, written from a Chinese forced-labour camp. “Thousands people here who are under the persicution (sic) of the Chinese Communist Party Government will thank and remember you forever.”
Keith didn’t have luck when she tried to connect with a human-rights organization, so she contacted The Oregonian newspaper. The note soon attracted worldwide media attention. Through international pressure, the story effected historic change in China, with the closing of labour camps such as the one where the novelty tombstone was made – the notorious Masanjia.
Now, for the first time, the full story is being told in English, in a documentary that reveals the letter writer’s true identity. In his new documentary, Peabody Award-winning Canadian filmmaker Leon Lee collaborated with the man who wrote the note – Sun Yi – and an anonymous filmmaking partner in China. Letter from Masanjia has its world premiere at Hot Docs this weekend in Toronto, before screening at DOXA in Vancouver next weekend.
Mr. Lee, who was born in China and now lives in Surrey, B.C., has an interest in telling stories about contemporary China that can’t be told from China; his documentary Human Harvest – about illegal organ harvesting – received the prestigious Peabody in 2014. After he saw news reports about the letter, he reached out to Ms. Keith and tried to find the person who had written it. Finally, in 2016, Mr. Lee tracked down Mr. Sun, with the help of dissident journalists who are members of the Chinese underground.
An encrypted Skype call was arranged. Mr. Sun had been working on a book about his story, but he felt a film would be more powerful. Mr. Sun, however, didn’t know how to make a film or even operate a camera. And it is not safe for Mr. Lee to return to China, given his previous films. “We two had to pair up to pull this off,” says Mr. Lee, 37.
Over Skype, Mr. Lee trained Mr. Sun in the art of filmmaking, told him what kind of equipment to buy and instructed him to find a trusted partner for the project. Mr. Sun sent compressed footage through an encrypted drop-box-type service, Mr. Lee checked the footage and offered feedback, and periodically the footage would be sent through underground networks on an encrypted hard drive. Once Mr. Lee received the hard drive, Mr. Sun sent him the password. “It was set up in a way that if I input the wrong password, then the hard drive would be permanently locked and all the footage would be gone,” Mr. Lee says.
In this way, Mr. Sun and his anonymous partner documented his story about joining the Falun Gong movement, which was later outlawed; the horrific torture Mr. Sun underwent at the labour camp; and his clandestine letter-writing campaign – about 20 SOS notes stuffed into Halloween decorations bound, he figured, for the West, given the English used in the packaging.
By the time one of those notes made headlines, Mr. Sun had been released. He eventually managed to escape China for Jakarta, where he claimed refugee status. Finally, Mr. Sun and Mr. Lee could meet in person.
“By that time I have been communicating with him frequently, it was more than a year, he was like an old friend. I knew him inside-out,” Mr. Lee says. “But meeting him, I kept wondering how such a gentle and quiet man possessed such strength.”
Ms. Keith also travelled to Jakarta and their meeting is documented in the film.
Letter from Masanjia also includes interviews with two of Mr. Sun’s former labour-camp guards, who are not identified by name. While Mr. Lee expressed concerns for their safety if they appeared in the documentary, Mr. Sun advocated for their inclusion, telling Mr. Lee, ” ’This is not only going to help the film, but it’s going to help these guards,’ ” Mr. Lee recalls. “Because he knew how remorseful they were. Which turned out to be true; he told me after the interview they were very relieved. For the first time in their life, they had done something right.”
Mr. Lee, who has lived in Canada since 2006, says China’s economic power has made it difficult for his previous work to be distributed. “Many distributors and businesses in this industry rely on China now because it is such a large market, so many people have told me in private that they love the film, but can’t distribute it.”
Despite this obstacle, Mr. Lee hopes Letter from Masanjia is widely viewed and that its message provokes further action.
“Sun Yi wrote about 20 letters; this is the only one that came out. If Julie just gave up or didn’t really care, then nothing would happen. Tens of thousands of people … might still be locked up in labour camps all over China. I guess what I’m trying to [express] in the film is if an ordinary woman through her small action can do this, what if more people stand up and do something?” he says.
“Hopefully, after learning about Sun Yi’s incredible story, people will feel inspired and encouraged to do something about the injustice they see. Quite often people are thinking how [can I] make a difference? It’s such a complex problem, whatever it is, and being one person, what can I do? Now, from this story we know that everybody can do something and you never know what this might lead to.”