Leon Lee makes films about human-rights abuses. His debut documentary, Human Harvest, about organ harvesting in China, won a Peabody Award. His documentary Letter from Masanjia told the incredible story of a U.S. woman finding an SOS note packed in Halloween decorations, placed there by a political prisoner in a forced labour camp in China.
In 2018, when Lee was making that film, he was told there was someone he needed to meet: a man living outside Detroit who had a different horror story to share about China. The man told Lee that he had been tortured and imprisoned for more than eight years because he was a member of Falun Gong, which the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) banned in 1999.
“Very quietly, he shared his story. I was just blown away,” says Lee, who was born in China and lives in Vancouver. “Here you are sitting in front of this person who has experienced so much in life, who is not broken, who is still very hopeful. He shares his story with you as if it’s somebody else’s story. All the pain, all the suffering – at the same time the sense of responsibility.”
It took the man many hours to explain what had happened. “I remember I sat there for a while and neither of us said anything for a moment,” Lee says. “And then I told him: I’m going to tell your story.”
The result is Unsilenced, a narrative feature based on the true story of the persecution of students for defying the ban on Falun Gong (also known as Falun Dafa). The film has a limited release in Canada beginning Friday.
In the film, four students at Tsinghua University in Beijing who practise Falun Gong – which involves meditative exercises and preaches truth, compassion and tolerance – are shocked by the government crackdown. They take part in early, peaceful protests – and find themselves targeted. A U.S. journalist – back in China after being expelled for his reporting on Tiananmen Square – starts to follow the Falun Gong story. The journalist character is a composite, but the students are based on real people.
Making this film was filled with obstacles – not just because of COVID-19, but also politics and fear. While interior scenes could be shot in Vancouver, the exteriors were shot in Taiwan.
“I went in thinking Taiwan is a democracy – of course they will support a project that reviews the human-rights atrocities in China. The very fact that the film can be made in Taiwan demonstrates the value of democracy, demonstrates why the world needs to protect Taiwan. I was naive,” Lee says with a laugh. “It didn’t work that way.”
Everything was tricky: finding locations, crew and cast. “Understandably, every Chinese-speaking actor wants to develop their career in China one day,” Lee says. “As soon as people heard about the subject matter, they politely declined to even come to an audition.”
Most of the people who worked on the film in Taiwan are identified in the credits as anonymous or with an alias. Even the Vancouver postproduction studio used an alias, as did many of the postproduction staff.
The same issue arose with locations. There were times, Lee says, when crew would be doing set decoration for filming the next day and the location would suddenly pull out. Often this news came at the end of a long, 12-hour production day. Exhausted but determined, they would head out to scout a new location. “There was a sense that the more obstacles we meet, the more important the story is and we have to tell it,” Lee says. “I can feel the energy right on set.”
In one scene meant to be on the China/Myanmar (formerly Burma) border, a Chinese patrol boat chugs by. During filming, Taiwanese authorities saw this boat with its Chinese flag and intercepted it. Production had to be stopped while things were sorted out.
Parts of the film are difficult to watch – one torture scene in particular. It was a closed set, and Lee says every effort was made to make the actor comfortable and ensure the crew was informed. “We got everybody on set and told them the real story behind it, why we had to do this,” Lee says. The Taiwanese crew “were really moved by how we respected the actor and respected the story itself.”
Lee puts himself on the line telling these stories, and says he has faced some interference from China in the past. Not this time, though. Not yet. “I think the CCP feels [if it] leaves me alone as an independent filmmaker there’s only so much damage I can do,” he says. “Anything they try to do to me will only become more publicity for the film. And that’s the last thing they want to see.”
Unsilenced opens Feb. 25 at select theatres. Lee will attend postscreening talks after early evening screenings at the Yonge-Dundas Cineplex in Toronto on Feb. 25; and at SilverCity Riverport in Richmond, B.C., on Feb 26.
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