An immigrant from China shares his personal odyssey, from 20-year-old CEO to award-winning filmmaker looking to inspire.
Leon Lee was once, unexpectedly, the 20-year-old CEO of a medical-device firm in northeast China. Now he makes movies. From his new base in Vancouver, in fact, he’s working on his second documentary (his third film), and just beginning to taste the success that he has worked so relentlessly to achieve since emigrating eight years ago.
Getting a mass audience for a serious documentary about human rights atrocities is never easy. Doing that as an outsider — both to the West, and to the documentary film business — is even tougher. Lee achieved both after submitting his premiere documentary, Human Harvest (also known as Davids & Goliath), to the Viewster Online Film Festival (VOFF) and other festivals worldwide. Viewster is an online-movie platform founded in 2007 that attracts 40 million visitors per month.
In the VOFF, his film went up against hundreds of others for votes by the public, finally making a shortlist of ten. A panel of experts selected the winners.
Human Harvest won the grand prize — an accolade that came with $50,000. The film also won Best Picture, Documentary Feature, at the Flathead Lake International Cinemafest, Best Documentary at the 2014 Hamilton Film Festival, Best of Show at the 2015 Indie Fest, and the Grand Prize, Humanitarian Award, at the 2014 Global Film Awards.
Lee, for all his 34 years, has faced tougher odds. One day in 2000, the phone rang in his quiet dorm room in New Zealand where he was living as an undergraduate exchange student. “Come home. Now.” That’s all he was told. He caught the next flight back to China, and upon arrival, found that his mother had died suddenly in a car accident.
“They didn’t tell me over the phone that she’d died, because they were afraid I couldn’t take it,” he said quietly.
His mom was head of the family firm, a medical-device distributor. And it was now on Lee’s 20-year-old shoulders to run it. “About a week later, I took over the company,” he said.
During the next five years, he brought the business from a small mom-and-pop operation with no branch offices to an exclusive representative for over a dozen Western medical brands, supplying 100 hospital distributors.
The most rewarding facet of the job, Lee said, was learning to work with and understand the long-term employees, friends of his parents who’d been at the company since the beginning.
This basic sense of empathy and ability to see things through the eyes of the other person guided him through the shoals of the complex and new world of moviemaking.
Lee’s empathy machine started to get a workout in 2006 when shocking reports started popping up in the overseas Chinese press. The stories said that the Chinese security forces and military hospitals were maintaining a blood-typed database of detained religious prisoners, then killing them on order to harvest their organs for transplant tourists. The organs would be sold for upwards of $100,000 each. Some reports said that the victims were not even dead when their organs were removed — that it amounted to extracting organs from living people.
“I knew right then that I wanted to tell this story,” Lee said.
It was his compelling exploration of this topic that won Viewster’s fourth online video contest last year. The judges wrote that the documentary was “well-focused and chooses well-informed individuals with a firsthand knowledge of the dire situation in China, putting their cases forward in a clear and gripping manner.”
How did the CEO of a medical-device firm become an award-winning documentarian? The opportunity to change careers came in 2006 and 2007 as he was emigrating from China, marrying his Canadian-Chinese partner, and relocating to Vancouver. Then there was study. And practice.
“I systematically taught myself everything I could learn about film: production, screenwriting, cinematography, directing.” He attended courses in Los Angeles and Vancouver, took online programmes, read books, spoke to experts, and slowly honed his skills.
So far, Lee’s documentaries and his first feature film have all drawn from the same source material: the astonishing persecution of practitioners of Falun Gong. Falun Gong is a traditional Chinese practice of meditation and moral improvement that teaches adherents to live their lives according to the principles of truthfulness, compassion, and tolerance. In 1999, it became a political target.
“The thing about the persecution of Falun Gong is that it’s one of the most serious persecutions in the world — the scope is so major, its aspects so vast — and yet there are so few works that reflect the true face of the persecution,” Lee said.
It’s the stories of compassion, kindness, bravery, and the resilience of the human spirit in the face of brutal persecution that he is now working so hard to tell.
Lee’s next production is another storytelling documentary about Falun Gong: Jing Tian’s Escape, the journey of a Chinese woman who in 2000 was sentenced to 10, then 13 years in prison for her beliefs. Her whole family was destroyed: Jing’s younger brother was hit with a 10-year prison sentence. Her younger sister got 13 years. Her mother was thrown into a forced re-education camp for three years, dying shortly after being released due to injuries sustained from torture.
“Jing Tian escaped China through the jungles of Burma, then went to Thailand as a refugee, then came to Vancouver. This is the kind of story I want to tell. It’s incredibly moving, but people don’t know about it.”
How did Jing Tian get a 10, then 13-year sentence, and is now outside of China? “That’s why it’s called Jing Tian’s Escape — you have to wait to see the film!”
Photography by Milos Tosic