Ai Qin Lin
Nick Broomfield’s latest film will come as a surprise to many admirers who associate him almost exclusively with documentary films in which he himself appears as a slightly bumbling presence.
Ghosts, which dramatises the lives of Chinese immigrant workers in the run up to the Morecambe Bay drownings of 2004, is a very straightforward reconstruction of an easily-forgotten tragedy – filmed using immigrant workers rather than trained actors.
Initially when you think of Broomfield you think of films like Aileen: Life And Death of A Serial Killer, where Broomfield’s passion for injustice becomes part of the fabric of the film, or Kurt and Courtney, a film about how difficult it is to make the film you’re watching. He has a unique ability to slide beneath the skin of his subjects, whether they are dominatrixes or white supremacists. But there is none of that direct connection in Ghosts, and some may find that hard to accept.
What you get instead is a film that goes back to Broomfield’s earlier documentary skills and puts them to cinematic use. It has a fantastic opening scene as a group of hunched cockle rakers fail to spot the oncoming waves as darkness falls. He shoots the water like a living thing, with foam-tipped tendrils reaching out to devour what they touch, changing from angle to angle to build up a picture of this lonely and threatening environment.
Finally we see a small group huddled on the roof of their van, which shifts under them, bombarded by the waves. Their leader tells one girl to ring her mother in China and say goodbye before they try and swim to shore – she can call half way around the world, but doesn’t know how to alert the rescue services locally it seems. We listen to her croon a dissonant lullaby to her child and then cut to her life in China, not knowing if she lives or dies.
From there the film follows a completely linear path; the 6 month journey in lorries and vans and by foot that delivers her to her new life as part of a work gang, sharing a house with a dozen other illegals, working shift after shift at a variety of production plants and farms, packing bacon or gutting poultry.
Broomfield wants to remind us that our bargain food don’t just have a cost to animals, it has a cost to humans, and he shoots a large part of the film in a very naturalistic style with a drab palette and flat lighting. The film is prefaced by information about the reliance of the food and hospitality industries here on illegal immigrants willing to work 12 hour shifts for a few pounds, and rounded off with the news that the families of the 21 workers who died are still facing threats from criminal gangs to pay off the loans that took their partners and children away to die in a foreign land.
It’s a worthy cause, and Ai Qin Lin, a former illegal immigrant who plays the central character Ai Qin, is luminous on screen despite having no formal acting training. Nor is the film all doom and gloom – there are moments of sharp humour in the interplay between characters, and the script overall (by Broomfield and Jez Lewis) is spot on.
But there is something lacking in the pacing and, if you analyse it scene by scene there are occasional parts that seem neither necessary nor particularly interesting. In trying to express the numbing monotony of Ai Qin’s ‘dream life’ in England, I’m afraid the film becomes bogged down and risks the viewer’s mind wandering, but once she and her friends are on their way to Morecambe the tension returns. A retread of the opening sequence takes up the story again, putting it into context, and this time, of course, instead of faceless figures you now know the people desperately clinging to the van, and know that most if not all are about to die.
It’s a very simple structure, and a very effective one. Some may find the moralising a little preachy and some will find the pace rather slow. But it remains a very refreshing film, made for the right reasons, with occasional moments of startling beauty.