Letter from Masanjia: A Story of Resiliency
Storytelling has long been a part of the human experience. Although the mediums and technologies have changed, their immense power to impact us remains. Documentaries are a particularly powerful form of storytelling. They have the power to appeal to our humanity, awaken our sense of empathy, and touch our souls. Letter from Masanjia does just that. Through the lens of activist Yi Sun, in the midst of an oppressive communist regime in China, we are brought into a shocking new reality. Director Leon Lee expertly weaves together Yi Sun’s story of resiliency, both inside and outside of Masanjia, the most notorious labor camp in China, in order to expose egregious human rights violations. It is not only a story that captures your heart, but it also makes you realize how far we still need to go.
Letter from Masanjia has won numerous awards at film festivals around the world, and it’s easy to see why. Without giving too much away, a desperate SOS letter scrawled in secret inside Masanjia sets in motion a chain of events that eventually led to the abolition of China’s decades-long labor camp system. The documentary lays out the history and Yi Sun’s personal experience leading up to and through his imprisonment and captures the international-level aftermath of this letter in a way that feels personal and authentic.
Letter from Masanjia is not solely set in China. The events that take place in the unassuming town of Damascus, Oregon add a whole other dimension to this story and, for me, made it hit closer to home. In 2012, Oregon-resident, Julie Keith, found Yi Sun’s cry for help in a box of “Made in China” Halloween decorations she had purchased from Kmart two years prior, exposing her to the brutal reality of Chinese labor camps. Despite running into responses that she knew did not do this man justice, Julie remained determined to ensure Yi Sun’s truth was shared. After contacting an Oregon newspaper, this story became front page news, and set this documentary in motion.
During filming, Julie traveled across the world to meet the man who she said “changed her life,” and you can tell the feeling is mutual. Being able to witness these two people whose stories have become so intertwined, connected by not just words in a letter, but by all that it represented, is one of the most touching moments in the film. While it is difficult to even fathom the dark reality of the Chinese labor camp system, we can relate to Julie Keith. Julie mirrors many of us, whether it’s having our eyes being opened to the human rights abuses we cannot believe still exist or the overwhelming desire to do something, anything, to make a difference for freedom and give a voice to the voiceless. Her boldness and persistence is an inspiration that we can all take to heart.
While there is no way to film the atrocities that Yi Sun faced in Masanjia, Letter from Masanjia brings that dark reality to the screen in a surprising way. Utilizing Yi Sun’s own drawings of what he endured and transforming them into animations helps drive the narrative home. These animations not only brought the darkest parts of the story to life, but allowed us to glimpse into Yi Sun’s memories and bear almost a secondhand witness to what he experienced.
Yi Sun’s story is truly one of resiliency. A former inmate guard at Masanjia, who oversaw much of Yi Sun’s torture, shared with remorse that “no matter how you tortured him he would persevere.” When asked about the risk he took by sending the letter that Keith later received, Yi Sun simply said, “Although it’s risky, I think it’s important to take the chance.” Again and again, in the face of immense adversity and pain, Yi Sun persevered and his spirit remained unbroken.
Yi Sun leaves us with this: “I’d like to tell the world, millions of people in China (are) still suffering (from) persecution. But, in the end, justice will prevail over evil.” The heartbreaking reality is that, although the labor camp system was abolished, abuse and oppression is still alive and well in China, and around the world. Letter from Masanjia is a poignant reminder of the power of speaking out and sharing your story and how important it is to keep doing it, because the fight for justice is far from won.
About the Author
Jacquelyn Chauviere Buss is a Diet Dr. Pepper addict with a deep love for people, especially babies. She recently graduated from Texas A&M University with a degree in Business Honors and a minor in Psychology. She is passionately hopeful to see slavery eradicated in her lifetime.