Review by Tom Huddleston
Posted on 12 October 2006
Source Beyond Films 35mm print
Features: The Times BFI 50th London Film Festival
The tragedy in Morecambe Bay in February 2004, in which 23 Chinese cockle pickers lost their lives, served to throw the British immigration crisis into sharp relief. Working for pittance wages, forced to live five to a room and subjected to vicious, often physical abuse by the local community, these workers came to this country to give their families a chance, and found themselves struggling to survive. The tragedy served to highlight the plight of immigrants working all over the United Kingdom, the men and women who prop up our ailing economy by taking the jobs nobody else wants.
Unusually for Nick Broomfield, Ghosts is not a documentary. But neither is it fiction—it’s best described as a dramatic recreation of actual events, as often as possible using real people to play themselves. It’s factual filmmaking without the comforting remove, and without Broomfield’s own invasive, sometimes grating presence. The result is a film that feels honest, emotive and harrowingly real.
Ai Qin Ling stars as herself, an abandoned Chinese mother who pays her way to the UK, borrowing money against the wages she expects to receive at the end of her gruelling six month journey. She finds herself in the care of selfish but essentially decent crew boss Mr. Li, working in a foul- smelling meat factory and sharing a room with three men in a suburban house in darkest Thetford. Following a police raid for overcrowding, the crew transplant to Morecambe to work in the cockle trade. Forced to go out overnight to avoid the violent attentions of local workers, they find themselves trapped on a sand bank with the tide coming in.
It’s a textbook immigration story, a tale we’ve seen before in news reports and investigative human interest shows, newspaper and magazine articles. Perhaps that’s why Broomfield chose the dramatic approach- we’re inured to these peoples’ plight, we already know the facts. We need to get into the characters, to understand the reality behind the statistics. And it is a harsh, unrelenting reality, people treated little better than cattle, forced from a cramped container on the cross- channel ferry to a life of helpless servitude. But this is Broomfield’s genius: as a documentary, Ghosts would have been all but unwatchable, a steady downward progression from disaster to disaster, the outcome already familiar. But as a drama it’s human, even funny, the characters rounded and relatable, their desperation painfully understandable.
Despite its focus on foreign nationals, Ghosts feels more British than any film in recent memory. It’s dour, grey, small-minded and suburban, strewn with rubbish and empty beer cans. The harsh truth that these people are working to produce food they can’t even afford to buy is bluntly presented in the dialogue, but it’s reinforced visually throughout the film: the characters subsist on a diet of super noodles and Tesco Value lager, bribing the secretaries in the job agency with fancy chocolates and oversized cartons of Marlboro. They’re almost paying to work.
For one sequence in the middle of the film, Broomfield allows himself the luxury of capturing beauty. The workers wander through a lush apple orchard, their faces lit with lambent evening sunlight. For a moment this is the England we’re familiar with on screen, country houses and cups of tea. But soon work ends, and the trees are torn down—we see the destruction of the orchard in a series of frozen moments. It’s a profound and illustrative sequence—this old England is a lie, built on the bones of the unwanted. Our luxury is sustained only by their labour.
This sort of cinematic subtlety will be unfamiliar to those used to Broomfield the bullish documentarian, but such moments recur throughout Ghosts. In dialogue scenes the camera is expectedly lithe and confrontational, capturing faces and expressions, movement and truth. But there are moments where the motion stops, and the camera is allowed to take in the fullness of a scene, whether it be a slow sunrise over the Thetford streets, or the wind whipping the deadly tide onto the sands. There is an eerie beauty to the film that lifts it above the level of a polemic, into the realm of real art.