‘Ghosts’ uncovers the inner workings of modern slavery
"Ghosts" looks and feels like a documentary. The film’s director, Nick Broomfield chose to highlight his subjects in natural, often unflattering lighting and feature first-time, untrained talent in long uninterrupted takes typical of a non-fiction film.
But while the film is based on the true stories of Chinese migrant workers in England, the scenes are scripted and while actual Chinese migrant workers portray most of the parts, they are acting. At the Sundance Film Festival, "Ghosts" is a contender in the World Dramatic Competition.
Broomfield comes by his documentary style honestly. Until this film, he has chiefly focused on documentary films. His previous work includes "Heidi Fleiss: Hollywood Madam" and "Biggie and Tupac." Perhaps most notably, his documentary, "Kurt and Courtney," about the marriage between Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love, was ejected from 1998’s Sundance Film Festival after Love’s lawyers reportedly threatened the festival with a copyright-infringement suit.
"Ghosts," so titled after the English translation of the Chinese epithet which refers to the pale skin of Englishmen, is based on a tragic incident on Feb. 5, 2004, when 23 Chinese migrant workers combing the shores for cockles drowned at Morecambe Bay, England.
Ai Qin Lin stars in the lead role of the same name. Her story begins when she chooses to leave her poverty-stricken family in Fujian, China to seek her fortune in England and support her son, Bebe from abroad. Armed with a cell phone she is able to contact her family throughout her journey as an illegal migrant, from her six-month journey hidden in truck containers to her arrival in England and her eventual employment harvesting scallops, packaging ducks at a factory and combing the shores for cockles.
"Like everyone my age I have to leave to make a living," she tells her mother before her departure.
Written across the screen, the film confirms "there are an estimated three million migrant workers in the United Kingdom who are the backbone of the food supply system, the construction, hospitality and health industries." Another fact: Rural workers like Ai Qin earn only 30 pounds a month, about $40.
Once in England, Ai Qin, lives in a slum crowded with mattresses, and discovers while shopping at a supermarket that she cannot even afford the food she works so hard to harvest. She also learns she earns less than half of the Caucasian woman she works with. She regrets that she ever left China, but does not have the means to go back.
The film is based on Ai Qin Lin’s real-life experience of being smuggled into the United Kingdom. Some of the footage includes her real family members and her son, whom she was estranged from for five years.
Originally, Broomfield says he cast an actress to play the part, but when she arrived from China covered in Gucci and wanted to stay in the most expensive hotels, he realized it wasn’t going to work.
"Ai Qin had lived that life, had been in England as an illegal for eight years Emotionally she was my anchor going through the film. If I kept in touch with Ai Qin’s emotions, I knew I was OK," Broomfield explains. "There’s something about her performance in the way that it happens that you just know that it’s real I think it was very painful for her."
Though "Ghosts" has been dubbed as Broomfield’s departure from the documentary genre, in his first narrative film, he chose to remain close to the style of the non-fictional medium. In part he felt film audiences have become more sophisticated, he says, and the old, tried and true ways of shooting a film seemed dated.
"I just think nowadays it’s possible to make films in a very different way with the advent of HD and so there’s less a need to use so-called professional actors. I think normal people are much more powerful and convincing if you’re making this type of a film," he told The Park Record.
"I also didn’t really want to shoot in that style that in a sense is comes from having big old film cameras where you shoot a close up and a wide shot in that very static way. I wanted to do something that was much more longer-take and would also enable non-actors to get into their parts. I think if you keep interrupting people and get them to re-do every little sentence from three different sides, it’s boring for the actors and it’s hard for non-actors to be consistent."
Broomfield met Ai Qin at a Chinese Church in London’s King’s Cross. Before shooting "Ghosts," he went undercover for background research with Ai Qin, pretending to be a South African, working various jobs, side-by-side. Throughout the process, for research purposes, he used a camera hidden in his glasses.
"Ai Qin was a very good and a very efficient worker. They always wanted to keep Ai Qin and to get rid of me," he recalls. "I was really bad at it because I was filming as well. Not only was I terribly slow at what I was doing, but I also looked slightly sub-normal, because you have to move your head quite delicately with the camera. I think everyone thought I was of below-average intelligence."
Scenes were staged during the filming, but the actors improvise much of the dialogue, including the singing, which occurs throughout the film something Broomfield says happened without his prompting. He couldn’t even understand what was sung — he doesn’t speak Mandarin or any Chinese language for that manner.
While directing, Broomfield worked with translators who simultaneously translated as he filmed.
I actually enjoyed working in a different language, because you tend to try and tell your stories as much as possible in a visual way rather than relying so heavily on dialogue to tell your story. As film is a visual medium, I found that a rather healthy thing to do," he said.
Broomfield says he set out to make a film about modern slavery and hopes "Ghosts" affects audiences in the same way that working on it affected him.
"I hope that an audience will go to a supermarket and ask themselves, ‘how was this produced? Where did it come from?’ And put pressure onto more legislation that actually makes supermarkets responsible for the way in which their food is produced," he says. "You need to make the person with the money responsible and then things change."
"Ghosts" will be shown at 9 p.m., Jan. 19 at Tower Theatre in Salt Lake City.
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