Ghosts – a film by Nick Broomfield

Channel 4 have a little cinema built underneath the steps leading up to the Horseferry Road building in which once a fortnight or so we have screenings of films we’ve either been involved with producing or that are just good and interesting.

So tonight I went to see Nick Broomfield’s Ghosts, a dramatic re-telling of the Morcombe Bay cockling tragedy where 23 illegal Chinese workers lost their lives due to the rising tide.

There was a Q&A with Nick at the end. And you’re always polite when you have house guests I was always taught, not so on here though…

First the good, I think to get the performance out of the non-professional cast that Nick did is a testament to his people skills, the lead protagonist Ai Qin Lin, through who’s eyes we see the story does herself proud. Her room mates also give credible performances. It sounds like it was an incredibly difficult film to make, given that 80% of it is in a foreign language.

Camera work, the best bits visually for me where when the camera work was loose in a documentary style. FOr example in the fight on the beach between the white fishermen and the cocklers, one character is pushed back and hits the camera, seconds later as they wrestle to the ground mud splashes up and hits the lens. It all feels very real and it’s leaving these little bits in that make the documentary sections really evocative for me.

But I had a lot of other issues with the piece.

1. Pedantic but it really annoyed me… There’s a typo in the subtitling, The gang boss character says ‘helps [sic] not coming’ sadly this is in the first 3 minutes and at a really tense moment when the water’s coming up to the top of the van and you’re on maximum taking it all mode. And all could think was, ‘doesn’t help’s have an apostrophe?’  Which sort of ruined it for me.

2. The white characters, from the skin head next door (This is in Thetford, Norfolk, I really doubt there’s many skin heads round there, racists maybe, but skin heads?) to the Landlord of the house they rent and the white farmers and other cockle pickers are really bad stereotypes.

3. They eventually die because no one notices the tide coming in. Two of the workers are sitting in the van playing cards, I wasn’t sure if they were on watch or having a break. But as the whole preceeding scene is the tension they feel as they go out in weather that the ‘ghosts’ (white people) wouldn’t go out in, you’d think they’d have their wits about them. I would have rather them see the tide coming in but simply not being able to get back due to the weather or geography or the van breaking down.

4. A googling when I got home revealed the film’s had some bad press from the native fishing community [1], [2]. All of whom are protrayed as bullies fighting with the Chinese and forcing them off the best cockling sites. The real fishermen in the area say this simply isn’t the case.  Sadly no one picked up on this in the Q&A.

5. The farm scene. At one point when they can’t get any work through the dodgy bribe taking employment agency, they get some work on a local farm for a local white farming couple picking apples. The nice old lady comes and picks them up, and drives them to the farm where she gives them tea in farmhouse country kitchen that looks like something out of a Yorkshire Tea advert.  They then amble round the farm, feed some hay to some cows, and spend a lovely afternoon picking apples and singing in an orchard. If Magners were producing one of their adverts for the Chinese market it would look like this scene. At the end they rip up all the trees as this is the last season the farmers are growing apples. (There’s a still of the orchard scene in the images section on the Ghost site.)

I asked Nick about what he was trying to achive with this section, was it indicative of the end of small time farming and the destruction of the English countryside? Was it an attempt to show the nice side of migrant working? He said he wanted to show that ‘not everyone in farming is bad’.

6. Music. There are a lot of singing in this film. The characters use songs to remind them of home, or to evoke memories. Though at one point, again during the orchard scene we stray dangerously close to Migrant Worker: The musical as their singing is accompanied by an orchestrial peice.  I hate musicals, I hate singing in films, the only musical I’ve ever been able to sit through is Dancer in the Dark. Nick went on to say that the Chinese are always singing, and so decided to leave it in as he had so much of it. Most of it works, but the orchard scene was a real problem for me.

So would I recommend seeing it? Well yes. What Nick’s trying to do is he own brand of docu-drama, when he swings to the docu side of things, it’s fantastic, when it moves to drama, it sort of feel’s stilted. His next project is called ‘The Battle for Haditha’ shot in Jordan and again features non-actors. The marine’s are played by ex-marines, and the iraqi’s played by iraqi ex-pats.

Finally here’s Nick talking on the Guardian website about Ghosts.

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These are my personal views and not those of Channel 4 or the BBC
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