Nick Broomfield’s Ghosts, UK, 2006
By Martin O’Shaugnessy
On February 5th 2004, 23 Chinese cockle pickers were drowned in Morecambe Bay when they were caught by the incoming tide, most of their dead bodies being pulled from the water that same night by the emergency services who arrived too late to rescue them. The gang-master in charge of the group was subsequently convicted and jailed for his role in the smuggling and exploitation of undocumented Chinese migrants. Although the disaster helped spur the British parliament to regulate gang-masters, it did not offer to help the Chinese families of the dead to pay back the loans taken out to pay for their relatives’ clandestine passage to England. The disaster, and his sense of outrage about it, spurred Broomfield to make his film. Broomfield’s reputation was and is as a maker of documentaries. Initially, he directed observational works in a style similar to that of Fred Wiseman, the legendary documentarian. Later, and more famously, he turned to a more participatory and reflexive style, with his own on-screen presence as an apparently naive and sometimes stumbling film-maker a key element of the works. Ghosts, the film he made about the Morecambe Bay tragedy was very different. It might be labelled a docu-drama. If it still foregrounded the careful research typical of serious documentary (note the use of informative subtitles), it essentially took the form of a dramatic re-enactment, one that used amateur performers who had had similar experiences of undocumented migration and labour to the real protagonists of the disaster but were not the protagonists themselves (Bromley 2012). By focusing tightly on the experience of one particular character, Ai Qin (Ai Qin Lin), a young single-mother, the film gave itself a melodramatic dimension and invited the audience to respond emotionally as well as learning more dispassionately from the film. At the same time, by aligning the spectator with the viewpoint of Ai Qin and of the migrants more generally, it challenged dominant patterns of visibility. Perhaps it also helped force ‘modern slavery,’ a much discussed contemporary topic, into view.
Ai Qin is a young single-mother from a poor, rural family in China’s Fujian province. Unable to provide adequately for her toddler son, and unwilling to be a burden on her family, she takes out the large loan ($25,000) that will pay for her to be smuggled to the UK. On arrival in England, she is collected by a Chinese gang-master, Mr Lin (Zhan Yu), who takes her to Thetford in agricultural Norfolk. The gang-master rents her floor-space for a cost of £25 per week in a small terraced house with ten other residents. He also sells her a work permit with someone else’s name and picture on it. Along with some of the other residents in the house, Ai Qin gets work in a meat-processing plant, cutting up and packing chicken and then bacon for major British supermarket chains. She finds she is paid less than British workers on the same job. Later, she works with the others picking spring onions that will also appear on supermarket shelves. A happy interlude sees the group picking apples for an independent grower. Things take a sharp turn for the worse, however, when white British neighbours report the migrants to the police. Some are captured and arrested. When the others return, they find rubbish strewn around the house and a smell of urine in the hall from what we assume is a racist attack. The employment agency they usually frequent and which was previously happy to take gifts or money as bribes from them, no longer wants to see them. Looking further afield for work, the gang-master takes them to Morecambe to pick cockles. Faced with attacks from the local, white cockle-pickers, the Chinese decide to pick in the evening when no-one else is working. No-one is there to see or help them when they are caught by the sea. The film’s coda shows Ai Qin returning to China to be reunited with her son. Not everybody drowned.
As with any work, the film’s title invites probing. Just who are what are the ghosts who are being referred to? There are at least three answers here. Perhaps most obviously, the ghosts are the dead Chinese migrants who haunt the film. The film’s own structure draws attention to this spectral presence. Because Ghosts begins with a flashback to the time of the drowning, because the tragedy was still very present in public memory when the film was released, we know that what we are seeing is the story of the already dead, their presence, as in all ghost stories, asking what traumatic event or series of events led to their demise. Secondly, the ghosts refer to migrants in general, especially undocumented ones. These are the spectral people who perform the dirty, repetitive and unnoticed tasks which our economy requires. Tellingly, Ai Qin and her companions produce meat and vegetable for British supermarket shelves, their invisible labour ensuring the presence of the products on which British everyday life depends. In this context, the way in which Ai Qin and the others find themselves picking cockles on vast empty sands as night falls can be seen as a logical continuation of what precedes as they get pushed further and further to the edges of the country and into an invisible zone. The ghosts, thirdly, are the white British people. Gwailou, meaning ghostly-man, often with derogatory implications, is a Cantonese expression for white westerners. Because Broomfield’s takes the migrants’ point of view, and because the world of the migrants is so separate from mainstream British life, although integral to its functioning, the British characters and institutions take on a spectral presence as often unseen forces that decisively shape the migrants’ lives. As Sam Geall (2006) eloquently puts it:
The ghosts […] are the everyday demons that beset the cockle pickers when they were alive, and that continue to bedevil hundreds of thousands of migrants living in the UK. The workers shown are troubled not by nocturnal apparitions, but by the daylight world of employment agencies, of landlords and immigration inspectors. Ultimately, it is the spectres of corruption, racism and unchecked capitalism which haunt this deeply felt film.
Geall adds, “In Chinese tradition, ghosts are dissatisfied outsider spirits who may terrorise families if they are not successfully appeased.” Tellingly, in Broomfield’s film, the employment agency has to be appeased with gifts and bribes while the exploitative landlord is appeased by sex with the gang-master’s Chinese girlfriend. In their absence, some of the migrants’ white neighbours trash their house and urinate on the floor, like some unseen poltergeist from a horror film. As we know from our experience of ghost stories, some ghosts are benign or wronged while others are far more threatening.
Challenging dominant patterns of visibility
While migrants, especially migrant workers, are a usually unseen, ghostlike presence in western societies and economies, sometimes they become more visible, as for example in xenophobic political posters that link their presence to a threat of invasion. This visibility typically gives them the role of objects rather than subjects. They are not granted any interiority: the ‘truth’ about them, as with most racialised others, stops at the bodily surface. Their visual presence tells us all we need to know about them. In contrast, those looking upon them are granted full subject status, and an emotional and psychological interiority that is not visible but is assumed to be there as a condition of full personhood. It would therefore be simplistic to say that some people (Westerners) are visible while others (illegal migrants) are forced into invisibility. It is necessary to consider how visibility and invisibility connect to power relations. We should remember, after all, that some of the spectral economic, institutional and social forces that shape the migrants’ lives resist visualisation. In this context, the political power of the film does not simply derive from its capacity to draw attention to a particularly oppressive set of practices but also relates to how it challenges dominant relations of visibility. By evacuating a white, western point of view, it stops us seeing the Chinese migrants through objectifying eyes. By privileging the migrants’ viewpoint, by foregrounding their experiences and affectivity, it invites us to see the world through their eyes and to imagine their unseen emotional and psychological processes. It thus suspends, or endeavours to suspend, dominant relations of visibility and invisibility, at least for the duration of the film (Peeren 2014; Bromley 2012). This is not the same of course as granting the migrants control of the camera and the filming process.
In the context of contemporary migration, what is called modern slavery has risen to considerable prominence and become the focus of campaigns by NGOs and other organisations. Anti-Slavery International, a UK-based NGO, lists the following practices as examples of modern slavery: human trafficking; forced labour; bonded labour; child slavery; child marriage; descent-based slavery; domestic slavery. Far from simply happening far from our shores, they note, modern slavery is also thriving in the UK. Interestingly, Broomfield’s official website invites us to view his film through the same lens of slavery. In contrast and although horrified by the same practices, Julia O’Connell Davidson (2013) is deeply critical of the discourse of modern slavery and its use by a range of social and political actors. The discourse, she suggests, relies on a series of binary oppositions typical of modern, liberal societies. Human beings are seen as either free or enslaved, as autonomous subjects or chattels. The problem with this dichotomous framing is that the agency of migrants can be erased and the many constrained choices that they make can be obscured. Clear lines are drawn between, for example, people-smuggling, assumed to be voluntary, and people-trafficking assumed to be forced. The pressures of ‘freely’ contracted debt are seen as separate to debt bondage or servitude. At the same time, states are framed as responsible for solving the problem through legislation and the deployment of the law against perpetrators rather than as co-responsible for creating the problem through their immigration policies, border regimes and citizenship-dependent welfare and labour protection rights (Martins Jr 2016; O’Connell Davidson 2013). In the end, Broomfield’s film seems to fit much better within this less dichotomous account of constrained choices and co-responsibility. Who or what is responsible for Ai Qin’s predicament, we might ask when we have watched the film: the trafficker and the gang-master, the convenient suspects; the poverty in rural China that drove Ai Qin to leave; the British immigration regime which drives people into the black economy; employers and agencies who exploit cheap, docile, undocumented workers deprived of employment rights; landlords who profit from renting over-crowded, poor quality accommodation; the British public who happily consume meat, fruit and vegetables (and other goods) without ever thinking about the conditions in which they are produced; those who attack migrants and migration and drive them further underground? While the film-maker’s website stigmatizes ‘modern slavery,’ the film itself proffers a much more complex vision of interlocking processes in which we may all be complicit.
What does Ghosts teach us about hospitality apart from its failure in the contexts of Western societies and their treatment of migrants. Firstly, in its knowingly ambiguous use of the haunting metaphor (Peeren 2014, 40) it suggests that the spirits who haunt the national house and make it unhospitable may be the house’s proprietors and not the apparently unwelcome visitors whose spectral presence is actually necessary to the house’s functioning. Secondly, in and around the edges of the story, it reminds us of what a more genuine hospitality might look like: Ai Qin’s fellow migrants who make her at home in their rented house which thus becomes a place of temporary hospitality over which none of them claims ownership; the white woman worker who sits with Ai Qin in the canteen in the meat processing plant, sharing a moment of space and time with her as they look at family photographs together; the independent farmer who brings the migrants into her kitchen, makes them at home and laughs with them about different understandings of how to make tea, that international and national drink. As important as the film’s capacity to detail all the different factors and agents who produced a tragedy, these more hopeful moments remind us of our agency and capacity to produce a more genuinely hospitable world.
Anti-Slavery International, https://www.antislavery.org (consulted 19/7/2018).
Bromley, Roger (2012), ‘Undesirable and placeless: finding a political space for the displaced in a cinema of destitution,’ Intervention, 14:3, 341-360.
Broomfield, Nick: http://nickbroomfield.com/Ghosts (consulted 19/7/2018).
Geall, Sam (2006), ‘Britain’s hungry ghosts,’ Open Democracy, 27/10/2006, https://www.opendemocracy.net/arts-Film/ghosts_4036.jsp (consulted 19/7/2018).
Martins Jr, Angelo (2016), ‘Interview with Julia O’Connell Davidson on modern slavery,’ Theory, Culture and Society, 33 (7-8), 381-390.
O’Connell Davidson, Julia (2013), ‘Troubling freedom: migration, debt and modern slavery,’ Migration Studies, 1:2, 176-195.
Peeren, Esther, 2014, The Spectral Metaphor: Living Ghosts and the Agency of Invisibility.
Basingstoke, Palgrave Macmillan.