• Nick Broomfield
  • 2007

There are more than three million migrant workers living and working in Britain today, in key roles on which our economy depends yet with no rights or protection. Ghosts documents the harrowing experiences many of these face — forced into near-slave labour to fill our supermarket shelves for little reward. Although fictional, it is based on fact and the tragedy of Morecombe Bay when 23 Chinese workers lost their lives cockling in February 2004. Nick Broomfield’s film is a compelling and eye-opening piece of cinema that demands your attention simply for the truths it reveals about our weekly shop at Sainsbury’s, Tesco or any other major food retailer.

To shed light on this secret underworld Ghosts follows Ai Qin (Ai Qin Lin), a young Chinese girl from Fujian, China, who borrows £25,000 to be smuggled to the UK illegally so she can support the son she leaves behind. Only able to make £30 a week in a rural China job, the dream of earning enough to live well in England and send money home contrasts sharply with the reality of dismal living conditions and low pay. Forced to live with 11 other Chinese in a two-bedroom suburban house, Ai Qin works in meat factories, on farms picking spring onions and other low level jobs. The dire situation is epitomised when Ai Qin and her housemate are shopping in a supermarket and realise they cannot even afford to buy the spring onions they picked. Run ins with the police, angry neighbours and a bullish white task master, their dislike of what they call “ghosts” — white westerners — is shown to be unsurprising.

The dire situation is epitomised when Ai Qin and her housemate are shopping in a supermarket and realise they cannot even afford to buy the spring onions they picked.

Broomfield has a drive for authenticity, conducting his own research and undercover filming in China as well as casting non-actors, many with experience of the migrant lifestyle. This makes it hard not to root for the Chinese workers so unaware of the problems they will face at every turn. As they begin to question the wisdom that brought them to Britain in the first place, Ai Qin’s plight at being separated from her son tugs at the heart strings. Used and abused by the “ghosts”, there are few bright moments in their gloomy British existence.

Ghosts follows in the footsteps of Michael Winterbottom’s In This World (2002) in many ways which was a semi-documentary on the smuggling of Afghans to London. It has a similar look and feel, perhaps because of the involvement of the same cinematographer (Marcel Zyskind for the China elements) and editor (Peter Christelis). Broomfield, who in the past has thrived with his investigative and experimental style for Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer (2003) and Biggie and Tupac (2002) keeps the focus tight and believable. Praise goes to Channel Four for commissioning and funding this incisive and enlightening look at who provides us with the food we throw in our shopping trolley without a second thought. In a time when fair trade and eating organic have become such important aspects of what goes on our shelves, Ghosts suggests that we need to consider not just where we get the ingredients from, but who is putting in the hard graft. Broomfield won the Solidarity Award at the San Sebastian International Film Festival last year and deserves all the credit he gets for daring to stand up for these workers. A haunting climax will send a chill down your spine.

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