Sunday, January 29, 2012

Fan Lixin, director of Last Train Home, speaks at film screening

I've been on the record plenty of times with my praise of Fan Lixin's Last Train Home (winner of the Best Documentary Film Award at Amsterdam's International Documentary Film Festival), so I won't repeat myself, even though the movie probably deserves all the repeated praise it gets. Fan was at The Hutong yesterday after the film screening for a quick Q-and-A, highlights of which are below.

Fan, who worked as a cameraman for CCTV's English channel for three years, was inspired by his many encounters in the countryside, stunned by what he described as the "disparity between rural China and the cosmopolitan life that I had in Beijing." Often, upon returning to CCTV's offices near Sanyuanqiao, surrounded by glistening high-rises, he'd ask: "Where does all this prosperity come from?"

His answer, given last night to an audience of nodding heads:

"I really believe it's built on the sacrifice and the contribution of the migrant workers in China, so I felt I wanted to make a story and dedicate this to them."

Minor spoiler alert.

An update on the family:
We always kept contact with the family after we finished filming. The girl, she quit that job at the bar and went to find a new job. She's floating around. I knew she had a job at a hotel as a bartender and she went back to the factory for a small while and she came to study in a vocational school in Beijing last year for a few months, and then she quit again. Now she's working in a small city in Hubei. She's 22 now, so a big girl. She doesn't [get back for Spring Festival]. She still resents her parents very much. She thinks she never received any love from the parents, so she'll deliberately avoid them during Chinese New Year.

The little brother is now 16 years old. He was doing really great in school, he got really good marks. He's second-year in high school [Chinese high schools go three years]. He got a few No. 1s in the past few years. His parents were really happy.

Mother, she lost her job. She [technically] quit, but it's because of the financial crisis, [which] brought down the salaries so much. The factory usually doesn't fire you, it just drops the salary to a level that makes you quit by yourself. So she went back to the village to take care of the son. So now it's the father working alone in Guangzhou in the factory. So I think it's a really sad thing to see: by the end of this documentary, you see this family has been shattered into smaller pieces. Although the daughter did "succeed" in finding her own independence in the city.

What did the family get out of this film?
When I first approached the family it was only the parents. His children were still young. At the time Qin was only... almost 16 years old. But I only spoke to the parents, but it took them a while to agree to participating in the filming because nobody knew at that time how long would it be. Of course we spend time with them first, try to make friends, there's always a process for you to start filming with a potential subject. I didn't pay them or commit to any future payment, but I think the moment when they decided to participate may be when I told them that although this film is filmed with your family, it's really not just about you. I want to tell a story of all you people, all the 130 million migrant workers. So I think your story needs to be heard by all those people in the city. All this time I thought this will only be a Chinese film, I never thought it would go international.

On family's reaction to film.
When we finished the film I gave the family a DVD. The father saw it, he felt very, very sad watching their story on the big screen. The mother never saw it because she thought she couldn't take it, so she never saw it. Qin, the daughter, never wanted to see it. I also offered for her to see it, but she never wanted to. I hope she can maybe change her mind and go see it when she grows older.

But legally we did have all the papers. I think making a documentary film is really more than that, it's really more than getting the release form signed by people, so we tried to make sure that they're okay with us showing material. For example, when the fight between the daughter and father happened, that night we sat down with both the father and the daughter. I sat down with the father, my cameraman, Xiao Guang, sat down with the daughter, and we spoke for a really long time and in the end I wanted to make sure the father thinks it's okay for us to show this, and he gave us permission.

What can viewers do to help?
I would say that's the question why I wanted to make this film in the first place because I believe everybody can do our own share. We can all make our own effort in helping with the overall situation. A lot of people asked me what did I want to say with this film? I think, Wow, this really can take hours for me to answer. If it's a Chinese audience, I'd say don't look down upon the migrant workers. They could be building your house, they could be building your home, they could be serving your meal, and you really have no right to look down upon them. We know city people do look down upon them.

When we're showing the film in Western countries or the rest of the world, I would... uh, I would urge people to think about the lifestyle that we're living. All of us are consuming made-in-China products, and in a way we're part of the game, so I always thought every one of us could do something. We could maybe change a little and see how we can help. I can't get too specific.

But if I need to get specific on this family: we are doing this release and we're doing posters, we're collecting donations and we're selling posters and t-shirts made by this father to try to collect some funds for the son's education.

Next project.
I wanted to focus on the younger generation of migrants because they're quite different than their parents' generation. They grew up in a freer society and are much more aware of their rights and their opportunities in today's China, so whether they can blend into the city life or find their own destiny within the city is a question I want to pursue.

POSTSCRIPT: The picture above was taken from this dGenerate Films' post, which features a trailer and links to this very insightful interview with Fan.

1 comment:

Abby said...

Hello, is there any way to buy one of the tshirts to support the family online? Thank you very much for this interview.