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cast: Ai Qin Lin and Zhe Wei

director: Nick Broomfield

97 minutes (15) 2006
widescreen ratio 1.85:1
Tartan DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 8/10
reviewed by Alasdair Stuart
Nick Broomfield is best known for his near-legendary documentaries, an astonishing body of work in which he blurs the line between his subject and himself and in doing so, provides a unique perspective on subjects ranging from Heidi Fleiss, and the deaths of Notorious B.I.G. and 2Pac Shakur, to Mrs Thatcher. Broomfield's style has often been criticised for being too precious, too lacking in distance but his work is never less than interesting.

It's particularly interesting here, where he abandons his previous style to tell a marginally fictionalised account of the lives of the illegal immigrant cockle pickers who died on Morecambe Bay just over two years ago. There's no narration, Broomfield makes no appearance in the story and crucially, there are no subtitles. The story is told visually and physically, and is sufficiently universal that this is never a problem.

Broomfield and co-writer Jez Davis centre the plot on Ai Qin, a Chinese woman who, with no prospect of work, comes to England to try and support her family. She slowly becomes friendly with the other people travelling with her, even her gang boss and tries to adjust to her new life. However, as time goes by it becomes clear that this is a life neither she nor her colleagues are welcome in. Local cockle pickers regularly attack the men, the police raid their house and, with the extra barrier of language, these incidents become all the more terrifying. There's an awful, horrifying mundanity to events as they're presented here, from the endless journey to England to the escalating and clumsy fight her gang boss gets into with a local cockle picker that's almost unbearable to watch. Even without the opening sequence, which sees the cockle pickers already trapped on the estuary, Broomfield creates a sense of impending doom that makes the film remarkably difficult to sit through.

This is an astonishingly adept piece of cinema, and Broomfield's years in documentaries have done nothing to weaken his eye for a good shot. Never before has a battered white van looked so majestic as it powers across Morecambe Bay and its moment like that and the switch from resigned violence to good humoured singing on the part of their gang boss that firmly establishes the alien point of view that makes Ghosts so strong. By refusing to subtitle the film, Broomfield forces us to focus on the performances, forces us to focus on the physical and to exclude the verbal and in doing so, puts us in the same situation as the 'ghosts' themselves. The end result is a startlingly powerful study of isolation, on both sides of the illegal immigration debate, and tragedy that ranks amongst Broomfield's best films. This is further helped by Ai Qin, whose open, unmannered performance helps the viewer to feel every emotion, from her cautious faltering English to her desolation at being separated from her family.

Ghosts sees Broomfield take a quantum leap as a filmmaker from an already impressive past. In the hands of anyone else, this combination of fact and fiction would have been the worst elements of both. With Broomfield, it becomes a powerful, unmannered and honest exploration of a modern tragedy and the industry that allowed it to happen. This is an important piece of cinema, in every sense of the word.

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