Winnipeg human rights champion's work behind acclaimed documentary on China's savage organ harvest from political prisoners
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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 06/06/2015 (2621 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
The Peabody Award-winning film Human Harvest has a premise that seems lifted from the most outlandish science fiction/horror/conspiracy thriller. It tells of how thousands of men and women, imprisoned for their beliefs, have their organs harvested, bought and sold in a clandestine, government-sponsored medical marketplace.
In fact, the movie is a documentary and while the activity takes place on the other side of the globe, its veracity can be confirmed close to home… in the Winnipeg law office of human rights crusader David Matas.
Matas, 71, has been on the case for years when it comes to exposing China’s practice of killing tens of thousands of prisoners of conscience, mostly practitioners of the Falun Gong religion, to harvest and sell their organs and body parts from state-run hospitals.
In May 2006, the Coalition to Investigate the Persecution of Falun Gong in China, an organization headquartered in Washington, D.C., asked Matas and David Kilgour, a former MP and Canadian minister of state for Asia and the Pacific to look into claims of organ harvesting from living Falun Gong practitioners. Their investigation and subsequent report inspired the film by Vancouver-based filmmaker Leon Lee. The film won the prestigious Peabody — the U.S. media prize awarded for distinguished or meritorious public service — on May 31 and will air Tuesday, June 16, at 7 p.m. on the CBC Documentary Channel.
Matas and Kilgour received the 2009 Human Rights Award from the German-based International Society for Human Rights and were nominated for the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize.
From his tiny downtown Winnipeg office, Matas says he hopes the film will illuminate the issue beyond his own purview of books, conferences and court work.
“That work gets a certain audience, but not everybody,” Matas says. “People who make documentaries can reach a much bigger audience. And the more people that know about the violations, the less likely they are to continue.”
The film’s claims, backed by interviews with survivors, surgeons and transplant recipients, are sometimes so grisly as to defy belief. Some witnesses testify prisoners had organs removed while they were alive, without anesthetic. A surgeon claims one “executed” prisoner had been deliberately shot on the right side of his chest so he was still technically alive when his liver and kidneys were removed.
“It’s difficult to tell the story, partly because it’s so hard to believe,” Matas says, “and partly because it takes a certain amount of time to get through all the evidence.”
“My initial reaction was disbelief,” admits Lee, on the phone from his home in Vancouver. Lee emigrated to Canada from China 10 years ago. “I thought I knew a thing or two about the Chinese political situation and current affairs,” he says. “But this was too much for me.
“So I read the first edition of the two Davids’ report and I started looking into it myself, getting in touch with the two Davids,” he says. “And here we are, eight years later, with Human Harvest.
“The film makes it more digestible for somebody who’s not willing to engage in the time and effort to do the research that I and other researchers have done,” Matas says, adding he is doubtful the film will be seen in China, as any stories critical of the government rarely get seen.
Even news of the film’s Peabody Award has been suppressed.
“The Xinhua News Agency, the official Chinese news agency, has reported the Peabody awards in great detail over the past years, but this year, they didn’t report them at all,” Matas says.
Matas was on hand with Lee in New York when the film was awarded the Peabody last Sunday, alongside fellow winners John Oliver of HBO’s Last Week Tonight With John Oliver and astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, accepting for the Cosmos TV series. (Matas admits the only celebrity he recognized was Tina Fey.)
In Winnipeg, he will take to the stage again Tuesday night for the launch of his book Why Did You Do That? The Autobiography of a Human Rights Advocate.
The book is a tell-all about why Matas undertook the battles he’s fought, arguing 19 different human rights cases in the Supreme Court of Canada and his activism in Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, B’nai Brith, the International Commission of Jurists and the International Helsinki Human Rights Federation.
It also explains why Matas, who maintains a gruelling schedule with frequent trips to Europe and Asia, stayed in Winnipeg, conveniently located between the two continents.
— With files from Carol Sanders
In a way, Randall King was born into the entertainment beat.