Tartan Films
Nick Broomfield/United Kingdom 2007

They are invisible, but they are everywhere. They are all around us but we never really see them. They are the first to touch the food on our plates but we never truly think about what that means. After this film, all that will change.

The 2004 Morecambe Bay tragedy was front-page news in the United Kingdom. Twenty-three people, all of them illegal Chinese immigrants, drowned while digging cockles from sandbars late one evening. Unknown to them, the bay was notorious for quicksand and fast tides. They were working at night to avoid harassment by local cocklers who knew better than to go out in the dark. Many couldn’t swim. As the waters rose around them, ignorant even of how to contact emergency services, instead they called their families back home in China to say goodbye.

The deaths and resulting prosecution of the gangmasters responsible was extensively covered in the London Guardian by journalist Pai Hsiao-hung, and her articles caught Nick Broomfield’s attention. His extensive and sometimes notorious documentary career served him well in creating this film about the tragedy. As a re-enactment of the events leading up to the disaster, the film feels very much like the real thing – putting it in the same vein of storytelling common to British television or evident in Paul Greengrass’ United 93.

Before filming began, Broomfield accompanied researchers – some of whom ended up acting in the film – to work illegally in the same terrible jobs. The casting process involved stopping people on the street in Chinatowns across the country. Many of the actors are themselves illegally in the United Kingdom, and – in an unusual turn for a British film – barely anyone speaks English. Most poignantly, Ghosts is shot in a realistic handheld style, sharing the gritty, overcrowded townhouses and the drowsy morning bus rides to work with Ai Qin (Ai Qin Lin, a stunning non-professional) and her friends. The verité style serves this film well. These are real people, it says, going about real lives. Is their suffering necessary? You leave the theater asking yourself: Do those of us privileged enough to afford supermarket groceries care about how they get to us? Who really pays for our cheap prices? Is it possible to stop people striving for a better life?

We know how it’s going to end. It makes the cruelty and indifference of the ghosts (a disparaging term in Chinese for white people) almost unbearable. The neighbors spit on and swear at them. The terrifying landlord overcharges on rent, and the girls in the employment agencies require “presents” of cigarettes to find openings on the database. Fortunately, it’s not all doom and gloom. The fields and farmlands are in the prettiest countryside, cellphones provide a connection home, and the support and camaraderie the immigrants share makes it all bearable.

Bearable yes, but not sustainable. The crew of Ghosts have set up a fund to help the families of the real victims who died in Morecambe Bay. After this screening, there was a High Noon-style discussion as to whether or not donating to this fund would actually help stop the suffering and reduce human trafficking. I sat in my comfortable chair and wondered what I would do if my daily occupation meant certain danger for myself and my family.

I hope more people will see this film and wonder the same.

© 2006 Sarah Manvel. All rights reserved.

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