A documentary about China’s shocking illegal organ harvesting industry, directed by Vancouver filmmaker Leon Lee, has won the prestigious Peabody Award.
Human Harvest, a documentary that follows Canadian Nobel Peace Prize nominees David Matas and David Kilgour as they investigate how state-run hospitals in China have killed tens of thousands of prisoners of conscience, mainly Falun Gong practitioners, to harvest and sell their organs.
Falun Gong, which is banned by the Chinese government, is a spiritual practice with millions of followers. The Communist government banned the discipline in the late 1990s and imprisoned thousands connected to the discipline that combines meditation and philosophy.
The evidence uncovered by the investigators suggests that between 40,000 and 65,000 Falun Gong practitioners have been killed to supply an ongoing illegal organ transplant industry worth billions of dollars a year, said Lee, in an interview with The Vancouver Sun on Thursday.
The film documents the nightmarish ordeal that prisoners have endured, the torture and suffering as they had their organs removed while they were still alive, and without anesthetic, according to witnesses.
Lee interviewed organ recipients, the majority of whom live overseas, Falun Gong prisoners and witnesses, including chilling phone conversations of doctors admitting they have organs from Falun Gong practitioners. One witness included a surgeon, who claimed to have performed an organ transplant in the 1990s on an executed prisoner, who was strategically shot to the right of the chest so the person was still alive when the kidneys were removed.
Recently released Falun Gong practitioners also testified that the government is still doing blood screening on all prisoners, which makes investigators suspicious that the harvesting continues, said Lee.
Many of the organ recipients from overseas waited only two weeks from the time they filled out an application to receiving an organ, he said.
“To find a matching organ without coming from a relative in such a short time frame, the only logical conclusion is that there is a large, live organ bank that anybody can just come and find a match and get an organ.”
It was heartbreaking for Lee to interview transplant recipients after they learned about where the organ may have come from, and he said they would have rather died.
China announced earlier this year that it would stop harvesting the organs of executed prisoners, but Lee said he is skeptical about that pledge.
“In the beginning (the Chinese government) denied that they were using any organs from executed prisoners, and then they changed position. So they did respond to the international pressure, but we haven’t really seen any progress. To stop this we need to bring those who committed these crimes to justice.”
The United Nations, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have expressed their concerns over the allegations of organ harvesting in China, but Lee said international agencies are limited in what they can do because there’s no smoking gun.
“After the crime, all that is left is an ordinary operating theatre, the victims are cremated and the doctors are unlikely to confess. And it’s difficult to conduct an investigation in China.”
Lee first read about the allegations of organ harvesting in China in 2006 in Matas and Kilgour’s report Bloody Harvest.
“I didn’t have any problems when we were filming, but when I first heard about this I couldn’t sleep. I just couldn’t conceptualize or understand it. I thought I can’t make a film about this. But then I realized, what if it’s true? Something has to be done,” he said.
The film will be released in Canada sometime this summer. Lee is also in post production for a movie called The Bleeding Edge, about a Western entrepreneur heart recipient who learns the donor was murdered.
The Peabody Awards, which do not include a cash prize, were established in 1940 to recognize distinguished achievement and excellence in broadcast and media production.
“Winning the Peabody is a great honour and the highlight of my career so far,” said Lee. “My hope is that the attention this film receives can help shine a light on the terrible crime of organ harvesting.”
The 74th annual Peabody Awards will be hosted by comedian Fred Armisen on May 31 in New York and televised on Pivot TV.