Leon Lee Breaks the Silence with Unsilenced – Interview

Human rights are rights worth standing up for. It’s right to do so in order to prevent those rights from becoming wrongs. Over in China, it seems like everyone is struggling while trying to fight for human rights. There are all kinds of things happening there, and one particular thing is how media is controlled. Fortunately, Leon Lee has found a way to let the whole world know about this problem, in a form of a thriller movie called Unsilenced. The film focuses on Chinese students and a western journalist who fight against censorship and oppression in a country that refuses to allow people to think so freely. Already getting great reviews, Unsilenced is ready for a theatre run in Canada, and I was ready for a long worthwhile chat with Leon to learn about this film as well as media in China. It’s vastly different from here, I mean I’m a pretty chill Senior Editor on this site myself.


HNMAG: Unsilenced focuses on an important subject regarding journalism and oppression. Have you worked in journalism before or did you do research to have a better understanding of it?

Leon Lee: I came from documentary making, so this is really close in terms of the subject matter and telling stories based on real life events. They are not new to me, I did spend quite some time interviewing victims of the persecution in China, as well as Western reporters who were stationed in Beijing at the time. The story in the movie itself is based off those real life experiences.


HNMAG: As it was based on true events, how was Unsilenced altered to tell a slightly different story from the original?

Leon Lee: The story has two storylines: One is from the perspective of the students. One university student named Wang participated in campaigns against the government’s propaganda and was later sentenced to 8 years in Chinese prison. As for the other storyline focusing on Western reporters, the Western reporter Daniel is a composite character. Partly because the media outlets did not grant me permission to use their names. I wanted this reporter to experience more events. We have the reporter being from Washington Post going to China to investigate victims and found they were not following practitioners. We had reporters being pressured by the Chinese regime over sensitive subject matters. So in this film, Daniel incorporates all these real-life experiences, but he’s a character.


HNMAG: What kind of message do you feel it will deliver to viewers?

Leon Lee: Well, I hope a few things will come across, and based on our release in the US, it seems it did come across. One is the inspiring story of the students and the Western reporter standing up to a totalitarian regime when censorship and persecution is really putting lives in danger, and how they found the creative ways to let their voices be heard. I think the 2nd thing is the value of truth and I think this will resonate with viewers worldwide. If you think our society needs truth, if you think it takes courage to speak the truth, then this film will hopefully give you the inspiration to do so.


HNMAG: And what are plans for a Canadian release?

Leon Lee: We will have a limited theatrical run in Canada, starting from February 25th, we’ll be in ten markets all across the country. This is good timing, it seems that they have lifted capacity limits in cities. 


HNMAG: Did it feel strange to do a film on news as opposed to being covered by the news itself?

Leon Lee: It’s interesting. I think more and more people realize that journalism can never be silent. The role of honest journalism that plays in society especially a rising society that we’re facing. By seeing the story, I hope that one sees what happens when you no longer have unbiased journalism. For example, in the extremist case of China, where all media is controlled and everything is the government’s mouthpiece. Secondly, when journalists speak up and are allowed to do their work, what kind of impact in can create. I think this is something that everybody will find interesting to learn more about. 


HNMAG: So you mentioned you had a background in documentaries, how does a film that is based on a true story differ from a documentary that covers a true story?

Leon Lee: A good example to illustrate in that regard is my previous documentary, Letter from Masinjia, where it tells the story of a SOS letter discovered by a woman in Oregon, in a package of Halloween decorations. Now the letter turned out to be written by a political prisoner in a Chinese labour camp. The discovery and International exposure forced the Chinese regime to close to abolish its decades long labour program. Now if you were to make a film about the story, most people would find it far-fetched. But because it was a documentary, and people believe it and they were really moved by it. I think that’s the advantage of telling stories through documentaries. No matter how unbelievable it is, it’s a real story. But on the other hand in terms of narrative filmmaking, you have a creative license which allows you to tell the story that would resonate in a way with viewers even more. For example, it allows you to have a composite character. In this narrative story form, we are able to incorporate many historical events in it so that the film feels more meaningful. 


Leon went on to explain that the screenings of Unsilenced in the United States ended with standing ovations, which moved him. People were sending emails and messages to him and his crew members saying how inspired and moved they were as well. If it had been a documentary, Leon said he and the crew would’ve been limited to what they could say and it would not have been impactful.


HNMAG: So will you be making more films like this, possibly exploring other genres, or perhaps you will stick to documentaries?

Leon Lee: Whenever I came across a story, I evaluate the format and try to find the best way to tell the story. For example, I made a short film called Ragdoll. That was a stop-motion animation and I felt that it would be the best way to tell a story from a child’s perspective. The story I’m working on now will be a narrative film is about how oversea Chinese find ways to punch a hole on the billion-dollar Chinese firewall. This again will be based on a true story but I think it’s more impactful if you make a narrative film.


HNMAG: I also hear China tried to interfere with the production of the film. How did you overcome any issues from them?

Leon Lee: Well, it’s not news to me. But every time it’s still created so much problems. This film was partly filmed in Vancouver and partly filmed in Taiwan. In Taiwan, both cast and crew members backed off days before production even after signing the deal memo. Some were due to concern of their career and safety. Some received pressure from different authorities. Even in Vancouver for example, our post-production facility decided to remain anonymous. They used an alias in the end-credit roll. I believe they are concerned that they may have other projects that have to do with China. While I certainly am grateful for everybody’s support and it takes enormous courage to participate in the production, but at the same time it demonstrates the potential risks that people face in doing something like this. 


HNMAG: So are you still having issues with China for your movie? Specifically distribution?

Leon Lee: Well, we certainly won’t have official distribution in China, but I was happy to learn that some of my greatest films were on the pirated political films list in China. (laughs) I often receive messages from viewers in China who would circumvent the firewall and tell us how eye-opening the movie was and how their family and friends gathered together to see my films. That was really great.


HNMAG: How long did it take to film Unsilenced?

Leon Lee: Production for this film was about 2 months. It’s probably longer than your average indie films. It was very challenging, and I think the key creative team only had one day off. Because almost after every day, we had to have emergency meetings to do with cancellations, cast and crew members who had backed out, and various other issues coming up which made it really painful. Every film is difficult to make, but this one in particular was the most difficult film I made. 


HNMAG: Where there any other particular problems on set?

Leon Lee: There were some interesting stories when we were filming in the middle of Taipei. One of the scenes had two Chinese police cars with the Chinese police logos rushed by, and the bystanders who took notice called the Police station. But of course, we had permits and explained to them that we were just filming but the residents of Taipei were still paranoid, they had sent officers to the film set and they had to explain to people what was going on. We ended up on the news the next day. On the other occasion, we had a scene where a boat carrying a Chinese flag passes by, it was a border patrol boat. Again we were intercepted by Taiwan officials. Now this is all happening with escalation between China and Taiwan of course and the endless harassment from China’s fighter jets invading Taiwan’s airspace. So understandably people are worried.


HNMAG: Seeing as this was also shot during times of COVID, was it difficult to work in the environments you had, or easy?

Leon Lee: We were really fortunate in that regard, because at that time Taiwan had almost no local cases for months. I was in Taipei for 6 months altogether. Filming was still allowed, only under strict protocol. We followed diligently and were able to get the film done. The same went for Vancouver, we followed production guidelines and it was alright. I think in the beginning, people were concerned but once people got used to the protocols. They actually felt safer on sets.


HNMAG: What are other plans for the film’s current run?

Leon Lee: Once we release the theatrical release in Canada, I guess the next step is to put it on additional platforms. So far, we haven’t had any conquered plans yet, I hope that some streamers will pick it up, but also for my previous films that is not easy because I was actually told by one streamer that they were developing their business in China. I hope somebody will pick it up, as I feel it’s an important film based on the audience feedback so far people really resonate with the story.


HNMAG: And will you make other films about journalism or what do you have in mind for the next films?

Leon Lee: I have a few projects in the works, one is the firewall film, how a couple of Chinese software engineers were able to punch a hole in the great Chinese firewall from a garage, and how Chinese people were able to gain information. I’m working on a film that focuses on Chinese lawyers as you probably know that many of them were arrested by the government for the simple crime of defending their clients. There is a lot of stories from China and very few people are telling their stories. But these are the stories that really are great for the big screen and they are really inspiring stories to tell. Fortunately or unfortunately, nobody seems to be competing with me now. 


I can’t wait to see what Leon does next, and I can’t see where Unsilenced is going to go. If it’s getting such a good response, it could be headed for awards next. The current plan is that it will be opening throughout Cineplex and Landmark theatres all around Canada on the 25th, perfect timing since theatres are looking to get back to full capacity and we can all go out and play as of today (with masks, that is). In the meantime, check out the trailer for it and see some small samples that show just how good it truly is.

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