[Ai Qin Lin in Ghosts]
Nick Broomfield has directed 24 films, almost all of them investigative documentaries of one sort or another, some of them lightly fictionalized. Ghosts [trailer], which opens at the Roxie this Friday night, is in the latter group. It follows the story of Ai Qin, a young woman from Fujian province who pays a snakehead $25,000 to be smuggled into the UK. Once she finally gets there, she finds herself trapped in a situation where she has to do the worst jobs almost without respite. Her ordeal comes to a climax when she gets trapped by the rising tide with a crew of Chinese cocklers in Morecambe Bay, and nearly drowns there — as did twenty-three of her fellow workers. The film is based on Ai Qin’s actual journey, and all of the people who appear in it are non-actors who either were formerly, or currently still are, illegal immigrants. It’s a fascinating and moving film.
Last Friday we had a chance to sit down with Mr. Broomfield and talk about Ghosts a little bit. We discussed the undercover research he did, the unique challenges he faced in casting and working with non-actors, and the relief fund he has set up to aid the families of the victims at Morecambe Bay, since they are still liable to ruthless loan sharks for the huge debts the victims incurred in order to be smuggled to the UK. As Broomfield told me, “the family left behind in China, which is generally the very old and their children, are held as hostages, as a kind of surety for the loan. So if they default, they take it out on the family. It’s been known for them to get the kids and sell the kids, do awful stuff. So the people in England, they’re just literally working around the clock to fulfill these things, and they’ll do any job that comes along.”
The interview begins below and continues after the jump.
SF METBLOG: So, this film is something of a minor departure for you: it’s a narrative film, but it’s based on a great deal of hard research. How did you approach the research?
BROOMFIELD: Well, I personally worked undercover for a couple of weeks, living in a Chinese house. I was pretending to be an Afrikaner, because you get Afrikaners who do that kind of thing. Ai Qin and I paid some kind of introductory fee to these snakeheads, and they gave us the name of a gangmaster in Birmingham.
So we went up there and lived in this house for a couple of weeks. It was like ten people to a room, and we’d get up at 4:30 in the morning. It was very hard work. But I was able to at least get a basis to work from, first-hand knowledge of what the people were like and what the work was like, and to try and make something that was as real as possible.
[In addition] I had some Chinese students working for me. We’d go undercover and get statistics such as how much they were being paid per hour, how much tax they were having to pay the [recruitment agency], because they have all these recruitment agencies, these labor agencies, that are also very corrupt. [Certain individuals who worked there] would charge people some 42% tax, and they’d just pocket the money themselves. I wanted to document that kind of stuff as much as possible, and also to be able to name some of the people who were doing it, which we did in the film.
Really? I didn’t realize that. I assumed that all the individuals apart from Ai Qin were invented.