Local filmmaker finds freedom to relay information

Leon Lee is presented with the Peabody award for Human Harvest.| Photo by Ilya S. Savenok/Getty Images for Peabody Awards.

Leon Lee is presented with the Peabody award for Human Harvest.| Photo by Ilya S. Savenok/Getty Images for Peabody Awards.

Leon Lee never expected to become a filmmaker, but an article from an independent Chinese language newspaper started it all.

After reading a story in the local media about forced organ harvesting, information he says he could never have learned about in China, he realized that independent media were crucial to a strong and free society.

“For me, coming to Canada meant having intellectual, political and spiritual freedom, something that people in China don’t have. I was so grateful,” says Lee, who was one of the RBC Canadian Immigrant’s Top 25
Immigrants recipients in 2016.

A changed outlook on life

Filmmaker Leon Lee.| Photo by Ali Bordbar.

Filmmaker Leon Lee.| Photo by Ali Bordbar.

In 2006, shortly after Lee arrived in Canada, he read about a hospital located about 400 km
north of his hometown, that had harvested organs from Falun Gong practitioners and sold them to foreign transplant tourism patients.

“I couldn’t get that off my mind and kept thinking, ‘could this be true?’ Why had I not heard about it before? Living people, thousands of cases, brutally targeted only for their belief in truthfulness, compassion and tolerance?” says Lee.

He looked into the matter further and met human rights lawyer David Matas, senior legal counsel of B’nai Brith Canada and former Edmonton MP David Kilgour, who was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for investigating this issue. Lee documented Matas and Kilgour’s work. Eight years later, the film Human Harvest was produced. He hopes his film will impact China’s organ harvest traffic trade.

“Unfortunately, sources in China say the practice has not stopped nor decreased yet, but I’m hopeful that with more public awareness, people will demand that China account for their actions, the perpetrators be brought to justice and that illegal organ trafficking will end forever,” Lee says.

Championing human rights

Lee says if he tried to make his films in China, he would be arrested, possibly thrown into labour camps and persecuted and tortured like many other human rights activists, lawyers and anyone who didn’t toe the Communist party line. He says that Canada and China’s attitudes are so different from one another.

“Here, they not only protect human rights champions, they award them. It’s completely the opposite from where I come from,” says Lee.

Human Harvest (2014) won many accolades internationally – more than what Lee was expecting. One of those awards included the Peabody award, a highlight of Lee’s career. He was the first Canadian to receive this honour in the past 10 years.

“It has aired in over 20 countries and over 10 million people have seen it so far. It’s been screened in parliaments around the world including the UK, Taiwan and Sweden, where it helped changed legislature. I never imagined it would have that impact,” he says.

Next move

Of the projects Lee has on the go, the next one that will be released later this year is called Avenues of Escape. It’s about three women who meet when they are fleeing to escape persecution from China to the Burmese jungle.

“Armed with only a road map and a desire for justice, they must rely on their wits, courage and the compassion of strangers to navigate a treacherous passageway out. Staying behind means certain death, but the road ahead holds no guarantees.The story is a gripping thriller, but it saddens me to think it really happened to those interviewees, who are such kind and gentle people,” explains Lee

For Lee, being a former CEO of a medical device company and being a filmmaker have a lot of the same skills. Both roles need a strong vision that motivates people. Running a company and making a film need to be done with a team.

“When eye-opening stories are told from the heart, they move people and change the world like nothing else can,” says Lee.


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