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The extraordinary documentary Last Train Home, playing at Rooftop Films this Friday, follows one migrant worker family, the Zhangs, over the course of three years as they persevere in the factories of Guangzhou and make their annual trips home during the Chinese New Year to visit their children in the Sichuan countryside. The parents want nothing more than daughter Qin and son Yang to study hard and rise above their lifestyle, but their participation in China’s new economy has taken a toll, and their daughter’s yearning for independence is bound to fracture the family.
Through the Zhangs, director Lixin Fan, a former journalist with the Chinese state broadcaster CCTV who now lives in Montreal, tells the story of the 130 million Chinese migrant workers who are dealing with the repercussions of globalization.
Fan talked with Rooftop Films about these economic issues, the ethical dilemmas a filmmaker faces while documenting the collapse of a family, and the practicality of making a documentary over the course of three years and thousands of miles.
Rooftop Films: Your documentary is about to open in theaters across the United States. What are you hoping Western audiences learn from watching?
Lixin Fan, director of Last Train Home I wish the Western audience can think about the relationships between themselves and their lifestyles. I want them to think that their life is somehow connected to how these migrant workers live and their sufferings. I think we consume too much here in the developed world. There’s a scene in the film where the guy who makes jeans, he was like, “Forty-inch waistline? You can fit two Chinese in it.” We live too comfortably. And we don’t bother to think why our life is like this. Things are cheap because someone else has paid, and it’s not being projected on the price tag.
Corporations find ways to make things cheaper. They outsource their production to developing countries, but the workers [don’t] have much bargaining power. And, especially for countries like China, with very little labor rights, they couldn’t fight back. I think the Chinese government, they’re in a hard choice as well. They need to have a stable society and they need to get all these people employed, their 1.3 billion people. What can they do? Raise the labor costs? The corporations will just move the factory — to Vietnam or India or Thailand. We can think [about] what we can do in this food chain of globalization.
RF: How did you settle on telling the story of a single migrant worker family?
LF: I used to work for CCTV, the Chinese state broadcaster. In those few years, I got to travel across the country. I [went to] far less-developed areas to cover news and what always struck me was, when I’d done my reporting for the day, I took a plane to go back to Beijing. There was a chauffeur driver picking the crew up from the airport and driving into the city. And it’s at night. You see all the high rises and the glittering city lights — it was just a very sharp contrast. The disparity between the rich and poor in China is getting worse and worse and it’s just astonishing. And that prompted me to think, Why is this? Maybe I should make a film about migrant workers, to see how they travel back thousands of miles back to see their family once a year in the Chinese New Year?
RF: When was this?
LF: That’s really way back, in 2003, that I first had this idea. I didn’t have the resources to do it right away. So I took my time. I figured, I need to study this topic. I think I need to educate myself with the migration and the migrants, the Chinese economy, and all this knowledge. I started to single out the elements that I wished to address. For example, when you talk about migration, you can talk about workers’ rights, you can address workers’ rights. You can address how the economic reform impacted the family structure and created social change. You can also talk about the government policies — How the government policies affected the welfare system. So many aspects you can talk about!
RF: You found an exceptional family (the Zhangs) through which you could reveal these issues. How did you go about finding them?
LF: When I had a clearer idea of what I wanted to talk about, those aspects helped me to carve out what kind of characters I’m looking for. So, in order to portray the migration I needed to find a family who travel to work, and they [had to] have kids and grandparents left behind in the village. That’s a classical pattern with migrant families. And I also wanted to find someone in their 40s — they pretty much experienced the entire opening up and reform process of the past 20 years, which is essentially what China has been through. Also they have to have kids back home, so you can see how this family structure got changed along with the economic reform. I walked around Guongzhou, a big city in Southern China. Around that city you have thousands of small towns which are filled with factories. They manufacture everything: textiles, toys, light industrial products. All for export. I sat down with the workers. I think I stayed in Guangzhou for almost a month. I got lucky that I met the Zhangs.
RF: How did you know they were the ones? You couldn’t have predicted what would eventually happen to them.
LF: I did have two, three other characters that I think may be fitting as well, but I didn’t do much shooting with them. I just focused on the Zhang family. It’s a big risk. I guess it’s a big risk in all documentary filmmaking. [Laughs]
RF: Because it’s a financial risk. Were you paying for this?
LF: I was also shooting a TV documentary for [CCTV] so they gave me a little money that I could carry out the first year of filming. Because I worked for CCTV, I just basically [said], “Can I make a small TV documentary for you?” They said yes.
RF: And that was your plan at this time, to just spend a year with the family and take that one train ride home?
LF: In the beginning, I was less ambitious. There’s no way I could have perceived what would happen in the future. I knew that the girl, (the 16-year-old daughter) Qin, may leave home at one point. But I didn’t know there was going to be a financial crisis, and I didn’t know the family [would get] shattered in the end. So I guess in the beginning, I was only going to document one year of the travel, but by the end of it, the film was not strong enough.
RF: That sounds disappointing. You have no money and no story. What were you thinking then?
LF: I needed to invest more time. I started working with Eye Steel Film (Fan recorded the sound and was one of the cameramen on Eye Steel Film’s 2007 documentary Up the Yangtze), but in the second year we were just starting to pitch international broadcasters and applying for funding. As you know, it’s never easy. [Laughs] It takes forever for the money to come. Everyone reached out to help me, and I put in a lot of my own money as well. And, we just kept following the characters… By the second year, we had a good amount of footage, and the story started to take shape.
RF: The movie follows the parallel stories of the parents and the daughter at work and at home. How were you able to be in two locations at once?
LF: It’s a big question if I should have two crews in both the countryside and the factory. Creatively, I don’t feel comfortable having a co-director on the other end. I just want to be there with my characters and with my crew to capture what’s happening. I think that’s a conscious creative decision that I would travel back and forth to follow those characters in two different locations over thousands of kilometers. I would take the train back and forth. I think it’s 1400 km (870 mi).
RF: How many times did you make that round trip?
LF: I actually don’t know. Must be a dozen.
RF: You could have traveled around the world in that many miles.
LF: Pretty much, yeah.
RF: By the end, you’d been filming the family for three years, but the parents were very open from the start of the film. How did you earn their trust?
LF: When I first popped up with a camera, asking them to participate in the documentary film, I can imagine — however nice I was — it’s kind of intimidating. They came from the countryside. Essentially, they were peasants before. Even though they spent years and years working in the city, they’re still intimidated by the environment, by the city. I think for almost two weeks, I periodically showed up, not talking about inviting them to make the film with me, just to sit down and chat with them, make friends with them. At one point I told them, I’m not making this film for me. And it’s not for you either. It’s for all the migrant workers, for your fellow workers. I felt that, in this country, nobody gives a damn about you guys, and you deserve a voice. [China]’s economy is so dependent on exporting, and behind that exporting sector are all these hundreds of millions of migrant workers. And I just don’t feel people appreciate them that much. They got the idea why I’m doing this.
RF: What did you tell the family to make the filmmaking process invisible to them?
LF: In most cases, I told them, just be yourself. You don’t have to do anything for me, for the camera. Especially to the girl, because she was playful, and she deliberately damaged our shots.
RF: She’s a teenager. That’s understandable.
LF: She thinks it’s fun to make us angry, or make us frustrated. I would tell her, Just do what you’re going to do, and we’ll just do what we gotta do. Don’t look into the lens!
RF: There’s a remarkable scene when the family has returned home from the city for Chinese New Year and the daughter lashes out at the family. What does she say to the camera? “This is the real me?”
LF: “This is the real me!”
RF: And she looks into the camera.
LF: “What do you want now!?”
RF: That was directed at you.
LF: Yeah, it was. That was after the big crowd scene at the train station (where a massive storm has canceled train service during Chinese New Year). We got on the train — [It was] three days on the train to get home — and right after we arrived at home, they broke into that fight. When they started, I was not there. I was in the next room, changing a light bulb. And then I heard the yelling. I immediately ran over and she saw me standing at the doorway. So she turned and yelled at me. That was a really tough and sad moment for me. That was all the family conflict, the family tension, between the father and the daughter.
RF: This is a classic ethical test for the documentarian. Do you roll camera or help?
LF: I’m a director, and I’m supposed to keep myself objective. But on the other hand, I feel a part of family. And then I started to debate: I want this scene, it’s a great scene. It reveals all the conflicts in the story, in society! I almost could not afford to lose it. Fortunately, my cameraman and soundman were still rolling, and they didn’t stop. But on the other hand, How can I stand there and not do anything? I actually went in. But it’s not in the film. It’s right at the cut. I went in, I separated them. Qin said the f-word again and the father was trying to hit her and throw her on the ground.
I [could] not just see them fight and selfishly keep my scene in my little film. But afterwards, I sat down with the father, because I felt it was a very awkward position for me to be in. We talked for hours. I needed to do some damage control, because it’s really messing up the dynamic between me and my subject, and also between the father and daughter.
RF: How did you navigate that line, of not entering into their lives when you were very much a part of their lives for three years?
LF: I tried my best not to influence what they think or what they want to do with their life. It’s kind of difficult if you absolutely don’t talk about anything about life with them, then they would sense that you’re being either sealed off, like you’re not being frank with them, or you don’t care. How can you not care at all? It’s self-contradicting. Mostly I just listen to what they say. And I don’t talk that much.
RF: Did you want to tell the parents what to do?
LF: I… There were occasions I do want to tell them what to do. Even if I told them — I did tell them a thing or two — but it’s not their way of doing things. They don’t understand. They didn’t have much education. So sometimes the way they treat their little girl was less subtle, let’s say. There were times I really wanted to tell them, You should try to talk to her! Talk to her about the things that she would be interested in, instead of just telling them to study hard. When I have to say something, I would find a similar situation in my own life before. I guess that’s a way to not influence them, but be frank with them.
RF: I understand the parents saw the film. What did they think?
LF: The father told me he was very sad by watching three years of their life on screen. He doesn’t say much. In the film he doesn’t say much. He just said he’s very sad. The mother said she still couldn’t understand why Qin hates them so much while they did everything for her and sacrificed.
RF: And did the daugther, Qin, watch the film?
LF: Qin didn’t watch the film.
RF: How is she doing now?
LF: I met her last month. She left her job in Shenzhen after we finishing filming. She went to another province, Hubai province. She stayed in a smaller city to work in a hotel. But now she quit her job. She seems pretty happy now living independently in the city. She told me she has a boyfriend now. Although she has very little education. That’s worrisome. But I think she’s a smart girl, she knows how to make her way.
RF: How old is she now?
LF: She’s 20. Big girl.
RF: Is she talking to her parents?
LF: She told me that she called during the spring festival. Other than that, they don’t talk. She did [go] back to see her brother.
LF: How is he doing?
RF: The brother got into a really good high school this past summer. He got into the best high school in his town. The mother quit her job to go back and take care of him.
RF: You’ve been busy traveling with this film. When that’s over, do you have a documentary project you’d like to work on next?
LF: I have two ideas. I want to keep making a migrant worker documentary about the younger generation, because we know that China’s facing a severe problem. The population is aging. It may become old before it becomes rich. The parents’ generation have been working in factories for 20, 30 years. Soon, they will have to retire and return to the countryside. And the younger generation of migrant workers, they would come out and work in the factory, but they grew up along with China’s opening up, so they are adopting a lot of new ideas and they want to be free and they are embracing individualism. There’s no way you can send all those people back when they grow old. Will China be strong enough to provide all these job opportunities and build enough cities to house all these people? It’s going to be a big challenge. I want to follow a young migrant, to see what’s happened.
I’m also thinking about a project on China’s green energy development. They’re building the world’s largest wind farm in the western (Gansu) province, on the Gobi desert. It’s a massive project. They call it “Three Gorges Dam on Land.” I haven’t started yet, but I think I would very much like to do it.
RF: And that would mean much more traveling.