Last week, Leon Lee and I won a Leo Award for screenwriting on our documentary Letter from Masanjia. I was unable to attend the awards ceremony, but have been so heartened to see the continuing success of the film. One day, when circumstances permit, I hope that the China-based crew is able to share in the recognition for the project.
I began work on Letter from Masanjia about three years ago, when I first pitched director Leon Lee on the idea of a film about China’s notorious Masanjia reeducation-through-labour camp. Over the years I had interviewed a number of refugees who experienced torture at Masanjia, and read the testimonies and accounts of dozens more. The initial idea was to conduct on-camera interviews with as many former Masanjia inmates and guards as could be found living abroad, and piece together the history of the camp through their testimonies. In the mean time, we set about trying to locate the former inmate who smuggled SOS notes out of the camp, setting off a chain of events that culminated with the abolition of the reeducation-through-labour system.
Finding Sun Yi wasn’t easy. He was interviewed by CNN and the New York Times in 2013, but he’d concealed his identity. By the time I approached Leon about this project, he had already been looking for Sun Yi for a couple years without success. There were probably no more than a half dozen people in the world who knew his real identity or where to find him. But we did, and the rest was history. The expansive narrative I initially set out to tell about Masanjia couldn’t compare to the story and the character of this one, remarkable man.