Film: "Ghosts" at the Roxie, Nov 21-26

Ai Qin Lin

[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.

Some of them are real. And obviously the supermarkets — Tesco’s, Saintsburys — that was all based on first-hand experience. We were able to prove that all these things were happening.

I read that you picked onions for Tesco’s, posing as an Afrikaner.

I did, and afterwards you’d stink like a spring onion, because you’d get all this onion under your fingernails. It’s very hard work. You have to pick so many spring onions to make like two quid, about four bucks. They’re very exacting, actually. You have to put eight spring onions into a bundle, and then you have to cut the roots off, you have to strip the first layer of the spring onion down, and you have to cut the tops off so they’re all [the same length], and then you have to put them in a rubber band. And then I think you had to get 45 bunches per box, something like that. You were paid by the box, and it would take really a long time to get a box done.

One of the most interesting things about this film, for me, is that you used only non-actors who had been through that life, and in fact a large number of illegal immigrants were in it.

Yes. The casting was done with great care, to find people who were very close to the characters in the script. And then to allow those people to bring some of their experiences to the film. Ai Qin, who is the lead in the film, had a journey very similar to that, and left her son behind in China. We met her through the Chinese church in King’s Cross, as the pastor there helped a lot of the illegal immigrants. She was working as a waitress. She didn’t even want to be in the film! At first she thought we were going to make a porn film.

We would wander around Chinatown trying to find people, and of course they all thought we were mad. No one really wanted to be in the film. It was kind of soul-destroying. We ended up having to put adverts in Chinese papers and do stuff over Chinese radio.

One of the difficulties, if you don’t want to cast in a normal way, is that all the casting agents are set up with books of actors with their head shots and so on. You’re throwing all of that away by saying “actually, we want real people.” In the end we got a casting director who specialized in getting non-actors, and it became much easier from there.

How did you come to the initial decision to use only non-actors? Even though some of the performances were not very polished, it had a very powerful overall effect. Many of them were just sort of reciting their lines, but it was clear that they were drawing upon these deep reserves of feeling and experience.

Well, I was determined to make something that really felt real and authentic. And we probably wasted a lot of time doing really desperate and crazy things, like trying to cast the film in Chinatown. But I was convinced that I could get a much more powerful performance from these real people, in the way that you do in a documentary, if you can get through to people’s emotions and experiences, [than I could get from professional actors].

Also, we pretty much re-created what it was like to be a Chinese illegal. They all actually lived in that house where we filmed. And they all got very used to being with each other all the time, and they would provide their own food, and Mr. Yu [the gangmaster] would drive them around in that van. That was their transport. So they were pretty much actors within that environment. That was their environment. So when we filmed in the house, I think they felt very secure, because that’s where they were, it’s where they lived. It would be very different if the house were seen as a set. So I think that’s why the scenes actually feel real, because they really did have this kind of camaraderie.

And of course, you also get certain people who are very natural actors, like Mr. Yu, who was the gangmaster.

He was just wonderful.

He was very good, and he was a natural actor, and he loved it. He had never really done any acting. I think maybe he had done some at school. But he loved doing it, and whenever the scene was flagging, I would push him in, and he’d always come up with something. And I think he and Ai Qin were very good together. I mean, there were other performances that, particularly with some of the British people, that I didn’t think were so good, and I cut a lot of people out.

So the British people were also non-actors, like the guy with the rings on all his fingers?

That guy — he was such a natural guy. All those rings, those were his.


Yeah. It was pretty incredible. Because I do think that reality is stranger than fiction. Most of the time. And I think that the trouble too is that, if you have a non-actor next to an actor, the actors always feel so false. You get these big performances from the actors. For example, on the next film I did, The Battle for Haditha, I had this sort of well-known American actor, and I tried to cast him as a Marine with these other real Marines, or ex-Marines, and the two just would not fit.

Like they didn’t belong on the same screen.

They didn’t! They were like, one felt totally real and the other felt like he was giving a performance.

What kind of research did you do in China?

One of the first things we did was we go and meet the families of some of the victims, and in one case, there were two children who had lost both their mother and their father at Morecambe Bay. And they were being brought up by the village, and the village would aggregate their money. And it was just terrible.

Were they being predated upon by these loan sharks?

Yes, they were. They were.

How is the relief fund doing?

We’ve raised about $200,000, which is not bad, considering that we haven’t done any charitable auctions for it. But we need to raise about $750,000 altogether. So we have a ways to go. The difference between what we’re doing and most charities is that 100% of the money goes to China. We don’t charge anything for running it, we just throw our time into it to make it work.

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