There’s a danger that calling Nick Broomfield’s Ghosts haunting might seem trite, but the director’s take on the account of the death of 26 Chinese cockle pickers in 2004 is a powerful tale of economic migration.
The story is based on real events and partly inspired by Hsiao-Hung Pai’s Guardian articles. And the title is from the term the Chinese use for white westerners, but could refer to themselves, gaunt and dazed as they are, living in a twilight world of low-skilled, low-paid work, ignored or overlooked. Then there’s the legion of illegals who populate the fringes of the economy. And, after all, the story is something of a memorial.
Broomfield follows the well-worn track of authenticity -shooting undercover, using non-actors, that verite feel with the camera -but that on its own doesn’t hold a story together, and even the most worthy of tales could disintegrate just by ticking those boxes. Instead, you have fine performances and a restrained lack of intrusion which builds up a deeply personal journey, and could teach those real ‘reality’ programmes a lesson or two.
Broomfield follows single mum Ai Qin (an unselfconsciously restrained Ai Qin Lin in her first role) as she leaves her Chinese home, and embarks on the six-month journey to the UK only to find herself even more trapped in a world of gangsters, poorly paid work and the looming threat from the human traffickers in the UK and back at home in China. She becomes part of a household employed in the food industry. After losing their base in Norfolk, the crew heads up to Morecombe in search of work picking cockles, and are pushed further to the margins.
This country has an often overlooked tradition of strong, socially aware documentary making, one of its strengths being the creation of a narrative without imposing a story, and Broomfield carries if off with aplomb, stepping over that thin line from documentarian with great effect.
So the next time you buy cheap food, or read the latest story of illegals and you get that cold shiver running down your spine, ask yourself, is Ghosts haunting? You betcha.
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Posted by Cptn