Last Saturday, I stumbled into Cinema du Parc after fighting a losing battle with some serious wind-chill. I found myself watching Lixin Fan’s documentary, Last Train Home, a jarring film that expertly chronicles the world’s largest human migration.
Every year, 130 million Chinese migrant workers attempt to make it back to their homes in rural China in time to celebrate the Chinese New Year. The last decade has seen China catapulted into a new economic reality as its GDP and infrastructure experience sustained and unprecedented growth. This has resulted in the dismantling of families in China’s poverty stricken countryside as younger members leave their homes for the city.
The film follows the lives of one family, the Zhangs, as they take part in this annual migration. The mother and father have gone to pursue jobs in Guangzhou and they have left behind their children and aging grandmother. Through the story of this family, Fan addresses the much bigger story of globalization and a country’s struggle between old values and new realities.
Last Train Home is a stunning work of cinematography that features breathtaking shots of China’s antiquated and enigmatic countryside, alongside claustrophobia-inducing scenes in Guangzhou’s train station, as never ending waves of people try to clamour onto a limited number of trains. It is in this setting that the Zhangs try to negotiate their place in modern China and their way home.
So far, the film has won awards for best feature at the International Documentary Festival Amsterdam (IDFA), best documentary at the Whistler Film Festival and best Canadian film at Rencontres International de Documentaire. It’s headed for Sundance this month.
Earlier this week, I got a chance to talk to Lixin Fan. He spoke carefully and deliberately, with the same disarming sincerity as the subjects in his film.
Before you found the Zhangs did you have an idea of what kind of subject you wanted for your film?
Yes. This internal migration is a prominent social phenomenon in China and it encompasses many issues. It concerns China’s economic development, its aging demographic and cross-cultural education. I wanted to address all of these things in the film and I was looking for someone who has experienced the entire spectrum of these issues, including the entire opening up and development process of China over the last 30 years, so they had to be of a certain age group. I was also looking for someone that had been separated from their children.
How did you find the Zhangs?
I traveled down to Guangzhou in 2006 and just wandered around the factories and randomly talked to different migrant workers. The Zhangs were one of the families I talked to. I would say that in the factory world it’s difficult to gain the worker’s trust and initially many did not show much interest; however, the Zhangs were really great and receptive and I think we had something very special from the start. The first time we talked I found them to be very genuine people and they were willing to participate. So I kept visiting them and eventually they agreed to filming.
In the film, we see some very intimate scenes with the family. How long did you spend with them to establish that level of comfort?
The first phase of filming started in 2006. At that time our relationship was not that intimate as it was constrained by time. We only had two to three months of filming in the first phase and there is very little footage of this time. We filmed for three years in total and every year I would go back two or three times. The amount of time we spent with the family was incredible. I was with them at least four months a year. I think you can tell that they really opened their lives up to us and we are truly grateful.
The film takes place in both the city and the countryside. Which did you prefer filming in?
I preferred filming in the countryside. The scenery was beautiful and I liked the romantic feeling and the lifestyle there. It was pastoral and lovely but behind that rosy picture was a reality of sheer poverty and misery. It was this hidden irony behind the beautiful scenes in the country side that I enjoyed the most.
In the factory, we were very close to the family and all the other migrant workers there. When we weren’t filming we would sit down with them and talk about their kids and the problems in their lives and the problems in my life. We communicated very openly. To be honest, I felt that I belonged to that factory world. I really enjoyed the camaraderie and I have an incredible amount of respect for the workers. The world is built on the products that they make and we don’t necessarily realize that. What we enjoy here is closely related to these workers.
Was one of your motivations for making the film to feature this interconnectedness?
Absolutely. I first conceptualized the idea of making a movie about these migrant workers in 2003. That’s when I started working for CCTV 90 as a cameraman. It gave me the chance to travel across the country to many remote areas. The Chinese urban population doesn’t appreciate the life they have and don’t think about these migrant workers. However, there are 200 million of them and it is insane to ignore this huge population.
I felt I should do something to document this particular group against the particular historical moment at the time – China had experienced 8% GDP growth over 10 years. After I moved to Canada in 2006, I developed a more global view on the migrant issue. The migrant workers are sustaining themselves by providing the rest of the world with a lifestyle that is unsustainable. I wanted to make this film to address globalization and have people think about their lives and how they connect to the lives of the migrants.
Your film captures many historical moments, how did they contribute to the film?
We were very lucky that in the three years of filming we experienced three historical events. First there was China’s 2008 Olympic games, then the greatest snow storm in 50 years hit southern China, where we were filming, and finally we experienced the global financial crisis. They all came together one after the other and added different layers of meaning to this single family migration story. It truly added more depth to the issue.
The scenes of the crowds at the train station and on the train are incredible. How did you manage to manoeuver the camera on to the train, get the crew to stay together and keep track of the family?
It was a great challenge to film in the train station, especially in 2008 when southern China was hit by the snow storm. Everyone was there — BBC, CNN, Reuters — and by coincidence, so were we.
The family needed to go back and we just got stuck in the crowd for days. The snowstorm cut the electricity so there were no trains coming in or out, however, because Guangzhou is the transportation hub, all the workers in the Guangdong province would first travel there to try to catch a train back home. These workers didn’t know there were no trains so they kept coming into that station.
It was 7 days, 600 000 stranded people and we were right in the middle of it. Of course, we also needed to keep an eye on the family. People were pushing and shoving each other and cell phones didn’t work. So, we made the parents wear a wireless microphone. I gave them a bunch of batteries and told them to speak into the microphone and tell us where they were as soon as they lost us. Somehow we managed to keep finding each other over those days.
How large was your crew during filming?
We always kept a very small group because in documentary filming the intimacy with your subject is key. It was me, a camera man, a sound man, and an assistant. At most we were 4 people.
China still has stringent restraints on foreign media. Logistically, how difficult was it to film in China?
To film a movie like ours in China there are essentially two approaches. One approach is to get the permission from the government and shoot according to the censorship and scrutiny of the authorities. The other approach is to go undercover.
For this film, we always shot under the radar. First, we were an all Chinese crew so we were not as visible, also my experience at CCTV helped me to negotiate my way on the ground when we were shooting. I could bluff and be creative and do whatever I had to to get the shot done. Sometimes people just assumed we were from some secret government agency.
You recently showed the film in Guangzhou. How was it received?
Yes, we were in competition in the Guangzhou documentary film festival. It was quite well received. The audience was primarily made up of industry professionals and university students. The industry audience perceived the film as a high quality international standard documentary film.
I was more interested in the reaction of the university students, the young urban generation. Interestingly, many of the university students came from the countryside. So they more or less shared the same experience as Qin. At the end of the showing, one male student stood up and told the audience that he had cried during half the film because he experienced exactly what Qin had but he was one of the lucky ones and got to study. We found out that his sister was a migrant worker and that she was working to provide for him to go to school.
There was another person who was emotional during the film and had to leave. An audience member followed him and it turned out that he was a cleaner who worked in the cinema and he hadn’t been back to his village to see his kids in 10 years. He was emotional and afraid that he would be caught watching the film while he was supposed to be on duty.
Many Chinese societal values are centered on the family. How do you think the dismantling of these rural families will manifest itself in China’s future? Are you optimistic about the migrants’ situation improving?
While the families may be dismantled, their family values have still largely stayed intact. These migrants are working for their family, they may have left them behind but it is strictly for their benefit. This migration is proof that Chinese society is still very family oriented. 130 million people take part in this migration every year to be with their families.
I believe the migrant’s situation is improving. The breakdown of the family unit is a common problem attached to the process of urbanization in every country. I think the government is becoming more aware of the struggles of the migrant class. They have begun implementing policies to benefit this group.
Before the system was very rigid, it was very difficult for people in the country to move to the city and enjoy the city dwellers benefits. Now the government has built schools to allow the migrant workers children to stay in the city. They have also given the migrants some medical benefits. It’s not clear how well these changes are working and whether they are resolving the problem but the government does recognize that there is a problem and they are trying to do something about it.
What was one of the greatest challenges to making this movie?
Money. It is very difficult to get a documentary financed. We managed to get some funding in China, though it was mainly through personal connections and family investments. With that money we completed the first phase of filming. Then we were able to put together a proposal and demo reel.
Luckily for us EyeSteelFilm in Montreal took it on. They have a long standing commitment to social political documentary filmmaking and their philosophy fit perfectly with where we wanted our film to go. It has been a fantastic partnership. We then pitched around the world to many festivals and got funding from different film festivals, as well as, the Canadian and Quebec governments, who were all very supportive.
I feel like the support we got speaks for the universality of the topic. By the second year we managed to raise a considerable amount of funding for a documentary and managed to pull it off.
What are you working on next?
I am thinking about doing a film about china’s green energy ambitions. They are building the world’s largest wind farm project in the western part of China. They call it Three Gorges on Land and they are planning to spend 10 years building these farms on the Gobi desert. It’s just hundreds of miles of land and wind. So they intend to build this wind giant to cope with their energy shortage and get a head on the green energy and low carbon emission industry. I will probably work on documenting this project if we get the funding.
Tags: China, Documentary, Film, Guangzhou, Migration