Date: 2006

Type: Film (96 minutes)

Director: Nick Broomfield

Writers: Nick Broomfield, Jez Lewis & Hsiao-Hung Pai

Availability: online trailer at YouTube; on DVD from (new from £7.05, used from £5.50) and (new from $34.94, used from $33.94).

Page Reference: Allen, H., Heaume, E., Heeley, L., Hedger, R., Johnson, S., McGregor, O. & Webber, L. (2011) Ghosts. ( last accessed <insert date here>)

Lego re-creation

Ghosts: the Morecambe Bay disaster

It starts with 'a young Chinese mother singing a farewell song via a mobile phone to her infant son'.


The Morecambe bay disaster - in which a gang of Chinese cockle-pickers found themselves trapped by the fast-moving tide - momentarily lifted the lid on the invisible immigrant workforce who toil for a pittance in the factories, warehouses and mudflats of England. Ghosts sets out to explore the workings of a clandestine economy that is supposedly illegal but tacitly condoned (Source: Brookes 2006, np link).

Ghosts ... is about what [director Nick Broomfield] calls 'Britain's slave class' (Source: Cadwalladr 2006, p.7).

[It starts with Ai Qin,] a young Chinese mother singing a farewell song via mobile phone to her infant son. Thousands of miles from home, the young mother was perched, in the cold and dark, atop a van almost submerged by an incoming tide. Within a few minutes, she would drown. ... From here, Broomfield worked backwards to show us how Ai Qin had delivered herself into tragedy (Source: Belcher 2007 p.21)

...the film begins, when a group of cocklers set off for Morecambe Bay. Minutes later, they're shown stranded on top of their minibus, surrounded by heaving tides. One of them, Ai Qin (... played by former illegal immigrant [Ai Qin] Lin ...), rings home to sing a last lullaby to her toddler son - but not before she asks her mother whether she's paid the money lenders who provided her with cash for her trip to England. The film then flashes back to the origins of Ai Qin's ordeal, from the moment she decides to leave her village in Fujian in search of a better life (for her family's sake, mostly), the horrendous journey to Britain on foot and in airless compartments on trucks, and then the exploitation and humiliation she endures in an alien environment (Source: Tsui 2007, p.2).

Ghosts starts with a vanful of cockle-pickers on the beach. Night falls, the tide comes in, and everyone knows how the story is going to end. But before it does, the film flashes back to tell how one of the cockle-pickers came to be there. Ai Qin is a single mother in rural China who cannot afford to bring up her son. So she pays $25,000 to come to England. It is like the worst kind of mortgage: she has paid to make herself an impoverished illegal immigrant with a financial millstone around her neck. Now in the gangmaster's power, she is put to work on a farm, picking spring onions, or in a factory, processing supermarket chickens, paying off her debt one miserable chicken wing at a time (Source: Kinnes 2007, np).

Ghosts is an attempt, using non-actors working from an improvised script, to make sense of the Morecambe Bay tragedy in 2004, in which 21 Chinese cockle-pickers died. Broomfield’s film (the title refers to the Chinese word for white westerners) tells its story from the point of view of single mother Ai Qin (Ai Qin Lin). She has left her baby son with her parents in China to make a new life for herself in Britain. She has also left behind a $25,000 debt. The gangsters who organise her illegal entry into the country insist she will soon be earning enough to pay it off. In fact, ensconced in the suburbs with gangmaster Mr Lin (Zhan Yu), and his other hapless workers, she finds herself toiling any and all hours for a pittance. Then, tipped off by hostile neighbours, the police raid the house and Mr Lin takes his team to try their hand at cockle-picking (Source: O’Sullivan 2007 np link).

From working in a duck-packing plant to picking spring onions and resisting working in 'massage parlours', Ai-Qin finally ends up on the quicksands of Morecambe Bay, working at night to avoid local cocklers, desperate to make more money to send home to her son. The rest we know (Source: Ramaswamy 2006, p.3).

This is film based on a true story. It is disturbing portrayal of a secret world that is all around us. Ai Qin, a young Chinese girl from Fujian, China, ... becomes another one of three million migrant workers that is the bedrock of the [UK] food supply chain, construction and hospitality industries. She lives with eleven other Chinese in a two-bedroom suburban house. With an illegally forged work permit she works in factories preparing food for British supermarkets. In their search for better paying jobs to repay their debts they end up cockling in Morecambe Bay at night. On February 5th 2004 twenty-three Chinese drowned in Morecambe, their families in China are still paying off their debts (Source: Bromfield nda np link).

Broomfield begins and ends his movie on the Morecambe beach: not a haven for holidaymakers, but a huge, empty, cruel space which looks like something from the end of the universe. It seems like Ai Qin and her wretched friends have been finally washed up on some vast shore in a netherworld of undreamt-of callousness and indifference. The ‘ghosts’ of the title refers to how Chinese refer to the Anglo-Saxons, but the word is more comparable to the illegals themselves, dead in spirit, drifting unacknowledged through the UK's service industry. The movie shows a new, alien, exotically grim England - the England that the illegals see. Ai Qin awakes in her overcrowded, rented, two-bed house in a gaunt housing estate to look on to a cheerless landscape into which globalisation has transplanted the chill of world poverty. Broomfield avoids the metropolitan cliches of neon-lit Chinatown with its seedy glamour and takes us instead to Thetford in Norfolk and then to Morecambe, places the English complacently assume to be homes of provincial decency. Instead, they look like new centres of hypocrisy, brutality and racism (Source: Bradshaw 2007 p.7).

And what a dismal life it is. Rather than grand traumas, we witness a gradual attrition of the spirit. Ai Qin and her fellow workers do the unpleasant tasks and antisocial hours that most other workers refuse to do. Like Richard Linklater's forthcoming Fast Food Nation, the film points the finger at the powerful corporations constantly driving down the cost of food production. In Ghosts, the culprits are the supermarket chains - Sainsbury's, Asda and Tesco - are named (Source: Ide 2007, p.17).

... one visit to a major supermarket, where Ai Qin happens across the spring onions we've seen her picking in the preceding scene, establishes our complicity as consumers in the workers' fate ...(Source: McCahill 2007, p.19).

Nothing, not even our prior knowledge, mitigates the awfulness of the film's ending. I won't easily forget the shot of Ai Qin, Atlantic waves about to engulf the van on whose roof she is perched, making a final call to her son (Source: Sandhu 2007, p.29 link).

Inspiration / Process / Technique / Methodology

The film is something of a departure for Broomfield, who is normally associated with documentaries in which he takes a confrontational role, often in front of the camera (Source: Stevens 2007 np link).

On the night of 5 February, 2004, 23 people were drowned at Morecambe Bay. They had been digging for cockles on the sand, a mile and a half from the shore, when they were cut off by the incoming tide. Their plight had seemed scarcely imaginable as I watched the news from my sofa in London. It was beginning to seem a good deal more concrete as I stood on those sands a year and a half later, in October 2005. The wind blew horizontal rain into my face. The gluey sand clung to my boots. Visibility was minimal. Even though it was daytime, it was hard to tell in which direction lay the shore and in which the sea. The lights of Blackpool, stuttering on the horizon perhaps 20 miles away, seemed just as near or far as the glow from the nuclear power station a few hundred yards behind me. Between me and the grumbling, sour-looking sea stood a pitiful-looking group of Chinese actors (or non-actors acting, more accurately). They were scraping at the sand with rakes, their flimsy mackintoshes flapping in the wind and their inadequate footwear filling with sand and sea water. A short distance away stood a dented Transit van. Behind me, a couple of locals were mucking about on quad bikes. Occasionally, one would skid to a stop next to me, light a cigarette and say, laconically: 'He's probably got another five minutes on this spot.' 'He' was the director Nick Broomfield, best known for his documentaries on subjects as diverse as the Hollywood Madam Heidi Fleiss, the South African white supremacist Eugene Terre Blanche, and the serial killer Aileen Wuornos. This time, Nick was directing a fact-based feature film: an account of the Chinese Cocklers who had died at Morecambe Bay. Middleton Sands, where we were filming, appear flat and featureless but are laced with channels that fill rapidly when the tide turns. What might look like an easy walk back to dry land could involve crossing a 'river', three feet deep, with crumbling banks. Our two local experts knew how long we could stay in one spot before a channel would make retreat impossible. Every moment, the sea was creeping closer. Soon it would be lapping at the ankles of cast and crew. Malcolm Hirst, the sound recordist, had already lost a Wellington boot to the quicksand. Nick always wanted to get just one more shot, but everyone knew what happened if you thought you could beat the tide. When we were told to move, we moved. What happened at Morecambe Bay in 2004 was shocking, but its background - why it had happened at all - made it a national disgrace. It was not an unfortunate accident; it was the inevitable consequence of a troubling set of circumstances, most of which remain unchanged. Why were these people out on the sands in foul weather and in the dark? Why were they all Chinese? How was it possible that nobody knew they were there? What desperate circumstances drove them to risk their lives, working in these awful conditions? In an attempt to answer some of those questions, Hsiao-Hung Pai, a reporter for a national newspaper, immersed herself in the world of illegal immigrants, gangmasters and exploitative labour (Source: Glazebrook 2006, p.9 link).

Much of Ghosts is based on a series of daring investigative reports by the Taiwanese-born journalist Hsiao-Hung Pai, but the film also incorporates the experiences of its actors, themselves former illegal migrants, to create a vivid and harrowing record of the events of 2004 (Source: Geall 2006 np link).

[Hsiao-Hung Pai:] Saddened by such attitudes and by the media's response to the Morecambe deaths, I decided to work undercover with a group of undocumented Chinese workers to gain an understanding at first hand of their working lives in Britain. It took me more than two weeks to get the work-permit photocopy and the contact number for the recruiter in Norfolk that would enable me to enter this hidden world. There, in the country town of Thetford, I witnessed almost unbelievable exploitation. Legitimate British agencies were taking advantage of the unauthorised status of workers, employing them as a half-price army of labour to run the food-processing factories that supply supermarkets. I witnessed how these men and women risked their health and safety to improve the lives of their families, how they struggled from day to day with ruthless exploitation in a first-world country. They lived in social isolation, suffering constant insecurity and anxiety. My undercover news report encouraged wider reflection on the issue. TV programme-makers and film directors began to call. Some wanted to take a snapshot of the workers' lives. Others were simply looking for sensational stories. But the proposal which interested me most was from the documentary-maker Nick Broomfield. His film about Morecambe, Ghosts, is released this coming week. It should be a timely reminder that, in many ways, the lessons of that terrible day still have not been learned (Source: Pai 2007, link).

‘Meeting and talking with the cockle pickers living in Liverpool is an eye-opener to me,’ Broomfield says. ‘What struck me most is the dignity of the people living and working in such conditions. Everyone there has a tremendous story to tell. Everyone has a family to feed and has to wait for years before they can reunite.’ When he asked what music they liked, one said: ‘No time for music.’ ‘I was really moved by the solidarity coming out of the Morecambe Bay tragedy,’ Broomfield says. ‘It really brought to light . . . the horrific conditions facing Chinese workers in Britain, and highlights the prevalent situation for so many undocumented migrant workers, who live and work under a system many thought has been abolished in this country a long time ago’ (Source: Pai 2004, p.9 link).

[Broomfield:] In 'Ghosts', I shot a lot of material undercover on a surveillance camera, and up until the last cut there were elements of that in the final film. Myself and Ai Qin (the film's lead actress, formerly an illegal immigrant who was granted legal status two years ago) went undercover, picking spring onions and working in a factory. But it was too much like a different film and I was persuaded to take that out of the finished film. [Interviewer:] You pretended to be an illegal worker? [Broomfield:] I was pretending to be a South African, an Afrikaaner out of work, which is about the only sort of white English-speaking person who does that work. Ai Qin and I were a fairly unlikely couple, but we came in through the illegal route and paid money to gangmasters to get us the work and so on. [Interviewer:] And you filmed while working? [Broomfield:] Yes, I had a camera in a pair of glasses that were on my head. The problem with shooting and working at the same time was that I was working too slow. Most of it was piecework that we were doing and I was constantly getting fired for not keeping up. [Interviewer:] It sounds like your research methods were similar to making documentaries. [Broomfield:] Very, very similar, yes. In fact, one probably does more research for this. But it was invaluable having Ai Qin, who was a real illegal immigrant, with a kid back in China. Obviously, I could learn a lot from her (Source: Calhoun 2007, p.51).

Broomfield went undercover with Ai-Qin while shooting the film, working shifts in factories and fields; an experience which left him feeling like he was ‘going to die’. ‘I remember picking spring onions for about eight hours, then getting three hours' sleep and then being hauled up to go and work in a book factory. I was always being fired because I was too slow, partly because I was filming as well. It was very, very tough.’ All of the stories in Ghosts are grounded in fact, from the actors' own experiences to that of journalist Hsaio-Hung Pai, who went undercover living and working with Chinese illegals in Norfolk and with whom Broomfield worked closely on the film. In the end, Ghosts isn't so unlike the rest of Broomfield's oeuvre. It's based on meticulous research, intimacy - he is renowned for spending months getting to know his subjects - and improvisation. As always, he worked with minimal crew, only five people (Source: Ramaswamy 2006, p.3).

Ghosts was made on a minute budget, using a single hand-held HD camera and what Broomfield calls a ‘teeny guerrilla crew’. If that was not risky enough in itself, he recruited a cast of non-actors, many former ‘illegals’ themselves, performing a script 80% of which is in Mandarin Chinese with English subtitles. The entire crew could fit in one car, and the Chinese cast drove around in their own white van, which their leader accidentally drove into a trough in Morecambe Bay where it was wrecked. Filming also took place in China's Fujian province without official authorisation (Source: Hoggart 2007 p.5).

Filmmaker Nick Broomfield, best known for his 16mm documentaries, switched to HD for his latest dramatic feature ‘Ghosts,’ which is about the fate of the Chinese cockle pickles on Morecombe Bay. Broomfield's influential documentary style has been developed with a bare bones crew of between three to five people. He found he was able to maintain this compact shooting method with HD. Shooting 35mm automatically necessitates extra people to manage the lenses and change magazines, and the whole backup of catering and transport, he said. Working in HD allows Broomfield to transmit less tension to the cast's nonactors than if the camera were rolling film. HD's ability to capture low lighting levels made it ideal to underline the dingy, realistic living conditions of the immigrants' houses. He selected a Sony 750p camera with prime lenses. Cinematographer Mark Wolf wielded the camera handheld, although he said it would need someone with an athletic build to hold the unit for such a long time. ... Some night scenes shot on a Norfolk beach required significant noise reduction using Final Touch software and a Snell & Wilcox Niagra. The HD grain was exacerbated in the transfer to 35mm for the final cinema print. Some digital noise was unavoidable, but combined with film grain on transfer, it became too noticeable and would only be negated with the arrival of D-Cinema projection equipment, he said (Source: Pennington 2007, p.28 link).

Smoke & Mirrors has completed the graphics for the on-air promotion of Nick Broomfield drama Ghosts. The camera pans along a beach at low-tide and sunk into the wet sand are numerous tombstones, signifying the 23 Chinese cockle pickers who lost their lives at Morecombe Bay in 2003. Dan Andrew completed the online in DS Nitris compositing extra CG tombstones created by Smoke's 3D department and taking out the headland and any boats in shot, and extending the skyline (Source: Anon 2007e, np).

...while filming the drowning scene at night, the white van that the actors dinged to in the water was lost -possibly forever: ‘Yes, unfortunately it's still there,’ confirms Nick. ‘When we started, there was a lot of pressure to go and film it in a water tank in Malta, but I thought it wouldn't have authenticity and I wouldn't get the same kind of performances from the actors. It seemed so important to shoot it in Morecambe Bay, which is this mix of the immensely beautiful and frightening’ (Source: Shennan 2007, p.8).

Unlike most pictures of the genre, Broomfield refrains from big confrontational scenes, with the possible exception of the sequence showing the police breaking into the flat occupied by the immigrants. The life of Ai Qin and her friends is just as unexceptional, as dreary and dismal as that of any of the other migrant workers being herded from one temporary job to another, living their daily humiliations from one pay cheque to the next and kept alive by the weekly phone call back home that they can barely afford. Sure, they have their momentary distractions and laughs, but it's far from enough relief from the daily drudgery they have to endure. Though there are a few spectacular shots along the way, such as the black waves spreading like predatory animals over the deserted beach at night, Broomfield opts most of the time for a simple, documentary-type visual approach, stressing the dreadful accumulation of miseries rather than any single momentous event (Source: Fainaru 2006, np).

To tell the story as authentically as possible, Broomfield took pains to cast real Chinese economic migrants in the lead roles: the film shows the events leading up to the tragedy and also considers the wider issue of the conditions of immigrant workers employed at the bottom end of the food supply chain. He applauds documentaries such as Jamie's School Dinners,which succeed in changing behaviour, and has hopes that this film will, too. ‘I want there to be recognition on the part of the consumer that they benefit enormously from [illegal immigrants] and should take responsibility for what they buy, or they're joining in exploiting the situation’ (Source: Bashford 2006, np link).

[Ai Qin Lin:] At my lowest, I joined the Chinese Christian church in King's Cross, north London. Pastor Lawrence befriended me and persuaded me to take part in Ghosts, a film about the plight of the 23 Chinese cockle pickers who died in Morecambe Bay in 2004. Although I did not pick cockles, the conditions they had lived in were similar to my own: a bedsit with mattresses on the floor and paint peeling off the walls. Like them, I used to get racial abuse and once my boss at the factory refused to pay me. I met Nick Broomfield, the film's director, who estimated that there are 3m migrant workers in the UK propping up the food service industry and agriculture. Yet there are so many restrictions and we are treated so badly. The families of the dead cockle pickers still owe snakehead gangs thousands of pounds and their lives are threatened. I had never acted before and I was very nervous. I was also a single mother and ashamed. I have a son, Sean, who is now six, but it had taken a lot of courage to tell my parents I was pregnant and only a couple of people knew I had a child. Now I have found friends and support and I am studying English three days a week at a college in Birmingham. I am also a permanent resident; but only because I got arrested at work and a lawyer helped me to claim asylum. My parents have not seen the film; they are not proud of me. They wish, and I wish, that I had stayed in China. I came here to make money for myself and my family; instead I am struggling to raise a child on my own. But now that I am settled here, I am determined that our future will be better (Source: Jolly 2007, p.7 link).

The subject finds Broomfield at his most outraged. A middle-class malcontent, he is a film-maker who highlights injustice and sometimes goes over the top. In one scene, Ai Qin and a fellow worker go shopping in Tesco and complain that they cannot afford the spring onions they have probably picked. Even if Broomfield lays it on with a trowel, there is no question it will make you feel uneasy next time you're at the checkout. ‘I wanted to do a film about modern slavery,’ Broomfield says ... ‘It's ironic that, 200 years since the abolition of slavery, there are more slaves than there ever have been, just in a different form. I also felt it was interesting that so many illegals were working in the production of food, most of which is for the supermarkets. Somehow this is able to go on in this country, which prides itself on civil rights. I was horrified by what I learnt in making this film’ (Source: Kinnes 2007, np).

I originally talked to Channel 4 and said I wanted to do a film about modern slavery and they were lukewarm, but when I said I wanted to show how many of these people are hired by firms that are used by major supermarkets they were much keener (Source: Broomfield in Hurrell 2007 link).

‘The places the Chinese immigrants work in aren’t one-off mum and dad type operations. This is British industry – mainstream,’ Ghosts director Nick Broomfield told Socialist Worker. ‘And there’s hypocrisy. When told about the situation, the supermarkets just say, ‘Oh sorry, we didn’t know. We won’t work with so and so again.’ But nothing changes. Until the supermarkets are targeted and made responsible for the way their food is produced, nothing is going to change. But who is going to take them on? They all make big contributions to both political parties. They are unbelievably powerful.’ Broomfield admits he was surprised at just how dependent the British economy is on the exploitation of illegal, and legal, immigrant workers: ‘We need them for the economy we have. And it’s so disappointing how Labour has been so mealy mouthed about the issue. Trade unionists who are trying to do work around agricultural labour, for example, are being frustrated.’ He says the decision to target the supermarkets in Ghosts made his job as a filmmaker very difficult: ‘They are so litigious. We had to prove that the spring onions we filmed being picked were definitely going to such and such supermarket. Some people are amazed that we even managed to name them in the film. People are so intimidated by these companies who think nothing of spending £2 million on fighting a lawsuit’ (Source: Anon 2007b np link).

Discussion / Responses

For me at least, there are some films where the subject is so huge, so challenging, so moving, that it kind of takes over how you feel about the film. Everything else is relegated to the irrelevant. ‘Schindler’s List’ is a good example. You didn’t come out of the cinema saying, ‘Wow, so and so’s characterisation was good’ or ‘their acting was great’. Instead you were just kind of dumbstruck by the enormity of what had been portrayed. ‘Ghosts’ is a bit like that… As it ends, you’re struck by the strange experience of seeing something that you haven’t really seen before – this underworld of migrant workers that actually numbers millions – and its connection to you and your life (Source: Curtis 2007 np link).

I’m not easily moved to tears, but Nick Broomfield’s Ghosts did that trick. They were tears of shame. It’s a film that shows that imperialism is alive and well and that the relatively luxurious lifestyles we enjoy come at a high price to be paid by those born into foreign poverty. (Source: Newton 2007 np link)

[Ghosts] shows the dark side of globalisation, and a certain kind of English smugness that imagines that life-cheapening poverty and cruelty happen only in the developing world (Source: Bradshaw 2006, link).

The catalogue of horrors is so stark that anti-immigration factions could almost use Ghosts as propaganda to deter anyone from ever coming here again: this island comes across as hostile, heartless, squalidly grubby, quite apart from the lousy weather (Source: Romney 2007, p.8).

At every angle the film connects you to this truly sad affair and provokes us to ask what is the real cost of the food and products we buy? (Source: Seen nd np link).

Ultimately, it is the spectres of corruption, racism and unchecked capitalism which haunt this deeply felt film (Source: Geall 2006 np link).

At Morecambe Bay, Chinese workers lost their lives selling their cheap labour to the big corporations, producing products to be consumed in Britain and abroad. British society can no longer say, ‘It’s none of our business.’ ... The question is how we fight the big corporations. I believe that the real solution is organising workers. We cannot rely on the supermarkets and their suppliers to change their ways. Workers need to be organised in order to fight their exploitation’ (Source: Pai in Anon 2007b np link).

Who would have imagined that Nick Broomfield - the British filmmaker best known for quirky documentaries which are as much about him making the documentary as the subject matter - would (or could) deliver a feature film both evocative and solemn? (Source: Tsui 2007 p.2).

Broomfield … produces a piece of dramatic cinema which captures the essence of his documentaries, but involves the audience much more intimately with the subjects than has been possible in his previous work. From the use of a non-professional Chinese cast, through the purposely shaky camera work and even to the slightly poorly acted role of the English landlord whose property is crammed with 15 ‘illegals’, this film just seems real (Source: Cashmore 2006 np link).

The film is made with a cast from Fujian province in China, and shot so sparely, and with agonisingly aesthetic dexterity. I am awed by the accomplishment (Source: Burrows 2006, p.12).

As a study in exploitation it could hardly be more straightforward, and Broomfield's script (with Jez Lewis) doesn't really add much to what's written all over Ai Qin Lin's eloquently suffering face: show me the way to go home. Her untutored performance, and the knowledge that she herself suffered much as her character did eight years ago, lend an overwhelming pathos, while the horror leaks out of almost every frame (there's an extraordinary shot of the tide coming in at Morecambe) (Source: Quinn 2007 p.6).

It is an incredibly moving piece of work, cast by non-professionals, who I thought did a great job. The movie at times has a documentary feel about it because it is very natural, no special effects of fancy lighting, and the ordinariness of the household and factory scenes convey the grimness of the workers’ existence (Source: 2007 np link).

This movie, realistic and depressing, will leave you affected. The harsh transient plight of the migrant worker comes up to you like an unforgiving tide (Source: Keak 2007 np).

Would Ghosts have functioned just as successfully as a straight documentary? One can easily imagine Broomfield interviewing the Morecambe bay survivors and door-stepping the corrupt enforcers (Chinese and English) at their suburban homes. But perhaps that would have lacked the claustrophobic intensity of this fact-based fiction; the sense of being inside looking out, as opposed to the other way around (Source: Brooks 2006 np link).

This DVD had been resting on my shelf for some months - I kept putting off viewing it because I feared it would be a depressing watch. On the contrary, I found it to be hugely involving and, at times, extremely funny. It is incredibly moving (you will have to have a pretty hard heart not to cry at some scenes) but the eye-opening and potentially 'worthy' message is communicated with a humanity that is motivating and positive rather than simply depressing.  Nick Broomfield tells the story with subtle skill. The illusion of documentary reality is almost perfect but this does not distance the viewer from the characters - we enter into their thoughts and feelings partly through the excellent and subtle use of music and partly from utterly convincing performances (Source: Johnjoe66 2009 np link)

Unfortunately, Broomfield's approach to telling this tale was plodding, prosaic, very long indeed and - ye gods - wearyingly predictable. The facts of those 23 deaths cried out for someone - a skilled documentarist such as Broomfield, say - to go argy-bargying in with a camera and soundman to ask some pertinent questions. How can it be, for instance, that so many parties in modern Britain - employment agencies, landlords, foodprocessing factory managers, supermarket bosses - seem so easily able to turn a blind eye to iniquitous conditions of immigrant serfdom? And how long will we, as supermarket consumers, continue to sit back and ignore the fact that cheap food production exacts a hellish toll on some of those who work within the process? Get me Nick Broomfield's phone number: I want him on hand when I visit my nearest checkout to brandish aloft a jar of cockles and ask if there's blood in it (Source: Belcher 2007 p.21).

Ghosts pursues the fashionable Leftwing agenda of instructing us to empathise with illegal immigrants. Broomfield shows us the seediest possible aspects of British life, and tries to make us feel that we owe anyone attempting to cheat their way into this hopeless country not only our hospitality but also our money. Why? He loads his story, which is a fictionalised one based on the 23 unfortunate Chinese cocklepickers who perished by misjudging the tide in Morecambe Bay, by making his central character a pretty young woman (played by real-life illegal immigrant Ai Qin Lin). Even this is not enough to dispel the feeling that Broomfield doesn't want to acknowledge the illegality of her character coming here in the first place. Few of the characters make much attempt to integrate with the British culture - white people are routinely dismissed by the Chinese as insubstantial 'ghosts' - and they feel no guilt about taking British jobs. Needless to say, the indigenous cockle-pickers of Morecambe are portrayed as foulmouthed yobs. Quite possibly they are, but surely they had a legitimate economic grievance against incomers threatening their livelihood. One problem with Broomfield's sympathy for the working class is that it is so selective. The early shots have a certain poetry - rarely has the rising of a tide looked more sinister but his attempts at gritty realism often look like melodrama, and repetitive, derivative melodrama at that (Source: Tookey 2007, p.55).

I found this boring. I have seen a documentary on this terrible tragedy which had far more insight and impact than this film. I didn't learn anything from this , it didn't answer any questions. Why travel 6mths to get to England? where were the English gang masters? How did they end up on the beach? Who gave them the jobs? Who was supposed to be looking after them? One minute they are working in a meat factory, the next on a farm, the next on a beach without any real story. I feel sorry for the people who have died and my heart goes out to the children involved. But this is a poor film, watch the documentary on this for the real story and answers. I can't understand the 5 star reviews? (Source: Wharton 2007 np link).

This year officially marks the 200th anniversary of the abolition of slavery, yet there are currently three million illegal migrant workers in this country who can be classified as modern-day slaves. The government’s attitude towards these people is hypocritical. They pretend they don’t exist and refuse to recognise them. At the same time the UK economy would collapse without this pool of cheap labour (Source: Broomfield 2007 np link).

Capitalism depends on the ready supply of cheap labour – it isn’t just this government that refuses to recognise illegal workers, but other sovereigns who have the interests of big corporations to consider. The slavery that [Nick Broomfield] speaks of is an economic one, a slavery which is a byproduct of a global malaise. If people want to rid the UK of illegal migrants then they must be willing to pay higher costs for products and services. (Source: MdmMao 2007 np link)

Nick Broomfield ... says the [UK] Government will do anything to avoid targeting industries which benefit from migrant workers. ... ‘It's consistent that the Government will do anything possible to avoid targeting industries benefiting from migrant labour in areas such as construction, housing and catering. Until the industries are targeted by legislation which makes them responsible for people working in these conditions, then the situation will continue. We all benefit from the employment of migrant workers who are paid nothing and work under appalling conditions. It's not in anyone's interest to change these conditions. We would end up paying for it and it's easier to pretend it's not happening’ (Source: Brookes 2006, np).

Many people involved in these industries were already aware of the problems and had been campaigning for a Gangmasters Licensing Act for some time. So the Bill was rushed through, with the hope that it would help to curb unscrupulous and illegal employment practices. But by the time we were filming more than a year had passed and nothing had changed. ... the Act's limited scope and lack of real bite raise doubts as to its power. For example, it has only just become an offence to use an unlicensed labour provider, and only in the farming and food processing sectors. It is hard to see how the real power holders, the super-markets, could be directly affected by this as they are in retail and, as they are quick to argue, several stages removed from the farms and food processors. While they tend to be strong on making sure they do things by the book with their employees, supermarkets distance themselves from abuses farther down the supply chain. At first glance this might seem fair enough, but the supermarkets do much to create the circumstances in which worker exploitation flourishes. A House of Commons' Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee report stated in 2003: ‘We are convinced that the dominant position of the supermarkets in relation to their suppliers is a significant contributory factor in creating an environment where illegal activity by gangmasters can take root.’ The supermarkets make ethical business practice pretty much impossible for their suppliers through a combination of aggressive policies on pricing and requirements that supplies can be turned on and off at a moment's notice. Continual price cuts are demanded or suppliers are threatened that the supermarkets will source elsewhere. The low prices we enjoy are achieved at great cost. Unsurprisingly, the British Retail Consortium, a body that campaigns to defend retailers' interests, doesn't see it like that. It says that its members are ‘very supportive of the new gangmaster legislation and expect all our suppliers to adhere to and operate within the law regarding workers' pay and conditions.’ In reality, what is described as a ‘highly flexible workforce’ becomes, at best, desperate people who can see no alternative to labouring long and hard for little pay and with no security of income. This, inevitably, means the people most vulnerable to exploitation by piratical middle-men and gangsters. This includes not only undocumented migrant workers, but many people encouraged to come to Britain under government temporary work schemes (Source: Lewis 2007, np).

Impacts / Outcomes

The part in Ghosts has already transformed [Ai Qin’s] life. She and the film crew went on a two-week trip to Jinfen, where she was reunited with her son and her mother. Having been separated from Ai Qin since he was a baby, her five-year-old son did not recognise her. It is a scene that is painfully played out in Broomfield's film. Ai Qin now has permanent residency in Britain, and her son has joined her. ‘Maybe Ghosts will help the British people understand us,’ she says. ‘I do hope so’ (Source: Pai 2007, np link).

They have just screened Ghosts, his drama about the events leading up to the deaths of Chinese cockle-pickers in Morecambe Bay. The screening is in support of a proposed private member's bill to extend the rights of so-called agency workers, many of whom, like the cockle-pickers, are illegal immigrants, working in conditions of virtual slavery. The government has decided not to support the bill, and during the course of the evening we learn that the Labour whips have sent emails instructing MPs not to attend the screening. Apparently at least one whip was there taking names, but then most who go, such as Diane Abbott, would probably count as lost causes anyway (Source: Hoggart 2007 p.5 link).

A growing cross-party campaign for the 500,000 long-term illegal migrants in Britain to be given an amnesty with rights to work in this country will gain pace at Westminster today as MPs call for the regularisation of ‘irregular’ migrants on humanitarian, security, and economic grounds. Jon Cruddas, a candidate for the Labour deputy leadership, is to table a cross-party Commons motion in support of the changes, which have received celebrity backing in the form of Nick Broomfield, the director of a documentary-style film based on the story of the 23 illegal Chinese immigrants who died while picking cockles for a gang master in Morecambe Bay. The scandal over the exploitation of illegal migrants has prompted an outcry, but so far the Government has refused to ease the immigration rules to allow them to work legally, fearing that it could act like a magnet for more migrants to Britain. Backing demands for action on the plight of ‘illegal’ workers who were the subject of his film Ghosts, Mr Broomfield said: ‘Our economy would collapse overnight without immigrants. Their labour enables us to have a much higher standard of living but the Government won't recognise the debt we have in this mutual relationship’ (Source: Brown 2007, np link).

... thanks to Nick Broomfield ... the appalling circumstances are now better understood. When I watched it, it was hard for me to hold back my tears. I felt ashamed and knew something had to be done. I went to see the [UK] Home Secretary, Jacqui Smith, about the plight of Chinese illegal immigrants. I asked her if the government might not at least allow those who had already been arrested to work in some limited way until they were deported; otherwise they will inevitably be driven underground and become victims of gross exploitation, just like all the other illegal immigrants. But Mrs Smith was not about to waver on the matter. While her approach might square with the interests of Britain and the EU, it doesn't demonstrate compassion or bolster human dignity (Source: Tang 2009, p.24 link).

MORECAMBE'S MP has denounced a new film documenting the Morecambe Bay cockling disaster, as inaccurate and unfair. Geraldine Smith was invited to the premiere of acclaimed film-maker Nick Broomfield's film 'Ghosts'. However, the film left a foul taste in Geraldine's mouth as local cocklers were portrayed as aggressive racists, who threatened the Chinese so much they would only go cockling at night. In fact, cocklers from Morecambe and surrounding areas tried to warn the Chinese about the dangers of the bay and held a collection when disaster struck. Chinese cocklers were, indeed, threatened, but by large rival gangs from Wales and the Dumfrieshire area. Geraldine said local cocklers had behaved in an honourable way and had contacted her as they were concerned about the safety of the Chinese people. ‘The part about going out at night because the local cocklers were so aggressive was nonsense,’ said Geraldine. ‘It spoiled the whole film for me. My understanding is that the Chinese cocklers were out all day and all night because they wanted the cockles’ (Source: Anon 2006a, np).

Jez Lewis, who worked in partnership with Nick Broomfield on his film 'Ghosts', feels that Geraldine's comments in last week's Visitor do not accurately reflect the portrayal of Morecambe cocklers. Jez said: ‘We make no suggestion in the film that cocklers local to Morecambe Bay were responsible for attacking the Chinese. In 'Shooting Ghosts', a documentary about the making of the film, there is a moving interview with a Morecambe man expressing deep sadness about the tragedy. We were helped in all sorts of ways by Morecambe locals in making the film, for which we remain extremely grateful. ... Nonetheless, if there is any doubt as to the ongoing hostility and aggression on the cockle beds around the country, Shooting Ghosts contains a live record of a group of British cocklers spontaneously and aggressively hounding the film crew and Chinese cast off the beach during the filming of a cockle-picking scene’ (Source: Kent 2006, np).

Nick Broomfield's thought-provoking drama about the Morecombe Bay cockle-pickers, Ghosts, picked up a respectable 122,000 viewers (1.15%) over two hours on More4 last night. The programme began on a high with 220,000 (1.34%) in the first 15-minutes from 10pm but saw its audience size decline over the time it was on air. It had just 81,000 viewers at the end of the two-hours. However, its share, while taking a dip in the middle, ended on a high of 1.44%. Broomfield's film, which looked at the doomed lives of the Chinese cockle-pickers that drowned in Morecombe Bay, was comfortably above the channel's slot average for the year so far of 72,000 (0.62%) (Source: Rogers 2007, np).

While immigrant issues are very much in the news, specifics unique to Britain and the gritty reality of the story might limit its theatrical potential in the U.S. But it should play very nicely on cable outlets (Source: Greenberg 2008, np).

More than 24 hours [after watching Ghosts] I still feel somewhat shaken by the experience ... Ai Qin is picking spring onions and casually asks someone where they go when they are picked. She’s informed that they are sent to Asda, Sainsburys, Tesco ... Sitting on my bus on the way home, it occurred to me I hadn’t been shopping and had nothing in for dinner. The thought of going to my local Sainsbury’s made me shudder – how can I buy my fruit and veg from there when the agricultural workers supplying this produce are so exploited? My thoughts then turned to the organic vegetable boxes I sometimes order, or the farmers markets I buy from. And I remembered the scene in the film when a local farmer picks up Ain Qin and the others for a days labour, picking apples. There’s so much focus at the moment on organic produce and ethically sourced produce, how do you really know that no one has been exploited in the process of getting that produce from a field in Norfolk to the fridge in your flat?... this was perhaps the most powerful for me, boiling it down to the lifestyle choices I make (Source: GeoBlogs 2007 np link).

At the end of the film, subtitles inform us although a few people have been convicted, the victims’ families are still in debt (Source: Lu 2007 np link)

Broomfield and his producers set up a relief fund to help the families of the victims (Source: Higson 2009 p.13).

Broomfield's request for audiences to contribute to the Morecambe Bay Victims' Fund has raised serious ethical questions. The fund aims to raise £500,000 for the families of the Morecambe Bay victims, many of whom are still indebted to the traffickers who brought their relatives to the UK.’By paying these people off wouldn't we simply be contributing to the cycle of exploitation?’ asked an audience member at the film's première when Broomfield made his proposal. ‘Are you asking us to give money to gangsters?’ chipped in another. For a moment Broomfield, who is more accustomed to making his own interviewees squirm, looked distinctly uncomfortable. ... Broomfield hopes that the film will ‘raise awareness about the exploitation of immigrants which forms the backbone of food production in this country.’ He established the Morecambe Bay Victims' Fund with the film's producer Jez Lewis and the Guardian journalist Hsiao-Hung Pai after a research trip to China. ‘The families live in a very poor part of the country, and they are now struggling with debts of £15,000 each,’ he says. ‘There is one family in which both parents drowned, leaving a boy and a girl orphaned. They are now responsible for the debt, and in order to pay it off the girl will be forced into prostitution.’ He rejects the notion that the aims of the fund are ethically questionable. ‘It's all very well for the audience in the rarefied setting of the Odeon West End to raise this issue,’ he says. ‘But these moneylenders are not like your friendly aunt - if you don't pay them, they will kill you. This is a way in which some of the immediate victims can be helped.’ Mike Kaye, of Anti-Slavery International, says that the Morecambe Bay families are in a ‘unique’ situation, but warns that in some instances paying off such debts can be counter-productive. ‘In Sudan, for example, it is widely accepted that paying for slaves' freedom is not the solution, as it helps to fuel the civil war,’ he says. ‘But the ethics depend on the detail of each case. Governments have to take responsibility for people trafficking.’ The British-Chinese support organisation Min Quan has been lobbying the British government for compensation for the incident, so far without success. ‘It is the UK's immigration rules which create the lucrative environment in which these gangsters operate,’ says its spokesman, Jabez Lam. ‘And besides, we should give immediate assistance to these families simply on humanitarian grounds’ (Source: O’Keeffe 2006, link)

THANK YOU! We are delighted to announce that the Morecambe Victims Fund has now closed because its aim has been met. All of the crippling debts inherited by the families of the victims of the Morecambe Bay Tragedy have been paid off. It remains for us to thank you all most sincerely for your kind support in coin, in kind, and with your solidarity ... Since the tragedy, each of the families has inherited a huge amount of debt of up to £20,000. In December 2008, the 22 families' last hope of receiving any compensation from the British government was dashed when their application to the Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority was rejected. The Morecambe Victims Fund was set up in 2006 at the launch of the film Ghosts by Nick Broomfield, to raise money to relieve the burden of debts for the victims' families. Its Trustees are Nick Broomfield, director of Ghosts, and Jez Lewis, producer of Ghosts. Since then the Fund has sent over donations from the public to help pay for the families' living expenses and their debts. The families' situation was desperate: to work and support their families, 11 out of the 36 children of the 22 families had dropped out of school (Source: Anon ndb np link).

References / Further Reading

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Anon (2007c) Ghosts: Nick Broomfield Interview. 11 January, ( last accessed 30 June 2011)

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Compiled by Harriet Allen, Etienne Heaume, Lizzie Heeley, Rosie Hedger, Sam Johnson, Olivia McGregor and Lucy Webber, edited by Alice Goodbrook and Ian Cook (last updated July 2011). Page created for as part of the ‘Geographies of material culture’ module, Exeter University. Lego re-creation added in July 2013. Legoing by Ruby Cook and Ian Cook.