The British film-maker Nick Broomfield is well known for his documentaries made in the teeth of adversity, his working practice often being to get into someone’s face and then stay there while they duck and dive (see The Leader, His Driver and the Driver’s Wife, the 1991 doc on South African white supremacist Eugene Terre’Blanche). Either that, or he “dead chairs” – as news people called it when an interviewee doesn’t or won’t turn up – his subject and makes a documentary about the documentary he’s trying to make (see Tracking Down Maggie: The Unofficial Biography of Margaret Thatcher). In fact he’s made something of a specialty out of these two practices, to the point where his basic skills as a documentarian are often overlooked (see his two films on Aileen Wuornos – The Selling of a Serial Killer and Life and Death of a Serial Killer).
All of this might seem like a long and unnecessary preamble to Broomfield’s debut as a fictional film-maker. But his documentary skills and stylistics are to the fore in his exposé of the hidden story behind the Morecambe Bay cockle-pickers disaster of 2004 – the day when 23 migrant workers drowned on a beach while gathering shellfish, because they were unaware how fast the tide came in. Most of the victims were Chinese, and Broomfield makes Ghosts the story of one of them, Ai Qin, whom he follows from Fujian province in China. She’s a pretty girl who wants to find a better life in the west, to send back money for her son and parents, though her parents don’t want her to go – “We don’t want you to go,” they say in the extremely functional dialogue that marks out the film. Well, at least it makes the story easy to follow, as Ai first signs up to the onerous debt agreement, then spends six whole months being transported across borders until she winds up in Thetford, a market town in Norfolk, England, where she works for a series of bullies in white vans, who take her and her fellow illegal aliens to one agricultural “picking” job or another. This central, Thetford section of the film is tough going, because Broomfield isn’t sure how to hold our interest while depicting the drudgery of daily life, the meanness of the aliens’ existence, the lack of light and shade in the lives of these Chinese slaves. Though we do learn that “ghosts” is what they call white people, because of the skin colour. The irony being that these poor doomed souls are in fact now the ghosts, entirely invisible.
It might be a bit of a trudge, but Broomfield makes telling points as he goes – how the cheap food we enjoy relies on underpaid illegals such as Ai Qin. Who eventually finds herself in February 2004 out on the cockle beds on the vast shallow beaches of North West England, a long way out from the shore and unfamiliar with the fast-moving tides.
Broomfield shoots in the real locations, uses former illegal aliens (including Ai Qin Lin, who plays Ai Qin) for all the key roles and has found a gaggle of British extras who really add to the authentic feeling of a film which he seems to let build at its own pace – this, surely a skill learnt from putting together a coherent, exciting documentary without a shooting script to follow. And his grim intertitles at the end of his sombre film tell us that the families of the dead cockle pickers are still paying back the $25,000 fee to the gangs who arranged for the journey of their now-dead children to the UK.
© Steve Morrissey 2006