JEFFREY BROWN: And to another in our Economist Film Project series highlighting the art of filmmaking.
Every year during the Chinese New Year, 130 million workers return from their jobs in industrial cities for visits to their homes and families in the countryside.
That’s the subject of the documentary “Last Train Home.”
I sat down with the filmmaker recently. Here’s our conversation.
The film captures the scale of this epic journey in the chaos and confusion of train stations, but it also narrows the focus to the human toll on one particular family, a husband and wife working for years in a sewing factory in Guangzhou, far from their increasingly estranged children.
The filmmaker, Lixin Fan, grew up in central China. He studied English at university and was a cameraman for Chinese TV before beginning to work on documentaries. “Last Train Home” is his first as a director.
Welcome to you.
LIXIN FAN, “Last Train Home”: Thank you, Jeff. Thanks for having me.
JEFFREY BROWN: Now, at the beginning of this film, you refer to this as the largest migration in the world. So, tell me what drew you to the story, and what were you trying to say?
LIXIN FAN: In fact, it is the largest human — annual human migration in the world. So it means it happens every year before the Chinese New Year.
When I was working for CCTV, the Chinese state broadcaster, I had a lot of chance to travel to remote areas in China. And I see for myself the poverty that are still existing all over the country. And I sort of felt — whenever I travel back to Beijing, sort of back to my little comfortable life, I really feel the disparity between the rich and the poor that are just heartbreaking for me.
So I decided that I wanted to make a film about the Chinese migrant workers. And there are 200 millions of them. I think they deserve a story of their own.
JEFFREY BROWN: So you — and, as I said, you tell it through one particular family who gave you remarkable access over a long period of time, right? How did you find these people? And what did they allow you to do?
LIXIN FAN: I — I went to the city of Guangzhou, where — in southern China, in the — where most of the factories are. I walked around those factories and talked to many migrants.
I had done some research. And so I wanted to find a particular kind of family in which I was hoping that they were migrating for decades, and maybe there is children and elderly in their family, so that their story can sort of help me portray many aspects of this migration, internal migration.
And so I bumped into the Zhangs after I talked to 50, 60 migrant workers. And their story really struck me when the mother told me that — how she was — how heartbroken she was when she first had to leave her village and her baby, the daughter, who was only eight months old back then.
And she told me that: “I cried and cried. My sisters were accompanying us to walk to the — to the — to outside of the village. And they all told me to leave. But I know that I could not. I have to leave with my husband, go find work, so that my baby can grow up, have a better life.” It just gripped me.
JEFFREY BROWN: So, when we join the film here, it is about — they have been working there for 15 years. This young child is now a young girl, a teenage girl, right? And there’s another younger brother that she has.
Let’s look at a clip that — we have a couple of excerpts here. One is when the parents are calling home, and we see a little bit of the frustration there. And then another is from this scene I mentioned at the train station, where millions of people are trying to get a train at the same time, right?
Let’s watch that clip.
WOMAN (through translator): Did you get your report card? Did you do well, huh? So-so? You have to keep studying hard. We didn’t get the tickets yet. It will take a few more days. I call you when we get the tickets. Are you there?
We will have to try and buy expensive tickets now. Yes, it’s difficult to buy tickets anywhere. I will be so happy to see my kids. I have been away for far too long.
MAN (through translator): When we are at home, we don’t even know what to say to the kids.
JEFFREY BROWN: You know, I have seen that scene on the big screen, and it’s remarkable, the sweep there, so many people. How did you shoot it? How long did it take to shoot it? How many — how did you get — how did you get all that?
LIXIN FAN: That shot, that scene you saw where you see a lot of the chaos at the train station was in the year 2008, where — when southern China was hit by a snowstorm, a record snowstorm in 50 years, and putting entire — well, putting half of the country’s railway system out of order.
So, hundreds of millions of migrants got stuck in Guangzhou, in the province of Guangzhou, and we were with this family in the train station in Guangzhou for three days and three nights. In one hand, we need to keep our eye on them and keep following them. And, also, we were trying to also get the big picture of what this migration, what is really the magnitude of this migration.
I worked with a wonderful crew and they — and there was no complaining, and the condition, you can see from the film.
JEFFREY BROWN: You could see, yes, because you had to get right in there with all these people. And you must have lost each other and lost your subjects along the way, right?
LIXIN FAN: Yes, we have to get right in. And when there is a chance, even the slightest chance, we need to get ourselves out to get the panorama shots of the crowd.
So, we lost them at times, especially at night. And cell phone doesn’t work there, because there was too many people, and the network were all were — were all jammed. So my soundman came up with this idea that — because the characters, the parents were always wearing wireless mikes, so my soundman give them a whole bunch of batteries and teach them how to change the battery every five hours before it drains.
And we told them that, whenever you don’t see us around, please talk to your mike, let us know where you are, and we would go across the crowd, through the crowd to find them. So, by doing this, we lost each other and we found each other, and we trudged in the train station for three days.
JEFFREY BROWN: How much of telling this story is personal for you, having grown up in China yourself, and, as you say, sort of seeing it in part in your television work, and then wanting to tell a story?
I mean, we hear constantly of this changing China, right? What is it for you?
LIXIN FAN: When I started to work for television, as I see all the different aspects of this changing China, I more and more felt that the migrant workers are really the backbone of this country. They — I mean, we all know that China is so heavily dependent on its export. The Chinese economy is so heavily dependent on its export.
And behind the — all the made-in-China goods that every one of us consume here in the world are really the migrant workers. And you see how they sacrifice in all those different ways. They are — they have to leave their homeland and they have to leave behind their loved ones to toil in a factory that it’s probably of the worst condition, and get very low wage and no benefit, no welfare.
And they — they — they don’t get much payback. And that’s, to me, just not right. So, I think that’s essentially what — why I wanted to make this film.
JEFFREY BROWN: All right, the film is “Last Train Home.”
Lixin Fan, thank you very much.
LIXIN FAN: Thank you.
JEFFREY BROWN: There’s more of our interview with Lixin Fan on our website. “Last Train Home” airs on the PBS series “POV” next Tuesday, Sept. 27.
And you can learn about The Economist Film Project or submit your own film at film.economist.com.