As Lixin Fan's understated doc depicts the chaos surrounding the annual migration of 130 million workers in China, it also tells the devastating story of one family’s choices and their hope for the future. Watch the film on POV September 27.
Note: This interview originally ran last September. We are rerunning it, as Last Train Home will be shown on the PBS series POV on Tuesday, September 27. Check your local listings. The film will also be available online via POV from September 28 through October 27, 2011.
People who see movies for a living, especially documentaries, are subjected to a rollercoaster of stories on a weekly basis—heartwarming, infuriating, uplifting, and grim. For this moviegoer, the new doc from Lixin Fan, Last Train Home, was one of, if not the most, saddening. At the same time, it’s an incredibly powerful story that should be seen and discussed around the world.
It’s a little-known fact, even in China itself, that there are 130 million migrant workers in that country who spend most of the year away from home, away from their families, in order to make money. They work brutal hours in massive factories and live in deplorable conditions—basically barracks with curtains around each cot. They wash their clothes by hand on cement floors and make frantic phone calls home to their children, who are being cared for by their grandparents in countryside villages, where the young and old work side-by-side farming the land. In most cases, the parents make these sacrifices in the hopes that their children will study hard and attend university, to break the cycle of poverty within the family.
Once a year, these migrant workers exit the cities en masse, heading home for a brief respite in their respective villages to celebrate the Chinese New Year. You may have seen some of these images on television before—130 million people all trying to travel at once, on an often-antiquated train system. In 2008, a massive snowstorm halted rail service for days, stranding travelers on platforms, desperate to get home for their one annual visit with their families.
Chinese documentarian Lixin Fan was, at that point, two years into making Last Train Home, his documentary about the Zhang family: parents Changhua and Suqin and their two teenage children Qin and Yang. Despite her parents’ plaintive protests, their daughter Qin had quit school and followed her parents into the factory life, and the three of them were heading home for the holiday. The scene Fan caught on film is hard to comprehend—such a mass of humanity (600,000 travelers at one station alone) with virtually no place to go.
Last Train Home is an important film: a personal story about a national—even global—issue. As China has developed into a manufacturing superpower over the last 30+ years, it has done so on the backs of the workers, who are neither justly compensated nor fairly treated. Fan spent three years with this family, whose future is no less bleak now than it was when their children were born. As he explained to us last week, he hopes this film will bring awareness to the rest of the world about the exorbitant personal cost exacted in the name of inexpensive goods.
Tribeca: When I visited China, I was struck by how the Chinese government takes what it wants from communism and what it wants from capitalism, and forges governmental systems that are not exactly the best of both worlds for the people. Can you explain a bit about why so many workers migrate from the countryside to the cities, leaving their children behind?
Lixin Fan: The household registration system policy has been in effect since the start of the People’s Republic of China, which basically divides the population into urban residents and rural residents. If you are a farmer, your kids can only be admitted to public schools in the countryside. If you choose to migrate and work in the city, you don’t have a permit for your children to enjoy the social benefits in the city, including the schools. That’s why they all leave their children back in the village—their kids would not be admitted to schools in the city.
The policy is changing now, but very slowly, because the country has to deal with such a huge population, and it takes time to build infrastructure and facilities.
Tribeca: Changhua and Suqin have two children—how is that possible with the one-child policy? Were they able to pay the substantial fine to have a second child?
Lixin Fan: Yes, they did. It was very hard for them, but families, especially in the countryside, really struggle and stretch to pay the fine to have a second child… First of all, the family always wants to have a boy, because the boy carries on the family name to descendants. So that’s the first cultural reason. And second is the practical reason—they need boys to farm. So families especially stretch if their first child is not a boy.
Tribeca: What made you want to tell this story? How did you find the family?
Lixin Fan: It was a long process. When I first wanted to make a film about migrant workers, I did a lot of research to educate myself. Because the migration is such a big issue, you can talk about it in many ways: how the economy affects the family on a personal level, and broader workers’ rights, insurance, and social welfare policies. I wanted to find a family that could help me explore all these frames or aspects.
I went down to Guangzhou and talked to 40-50 factory workers, to get their stories. When I met the Zhangs, I was struck by their story immediately. The mother told me they left their village to work in the factories 16 years ago, and they only got to spend less than one year with their daughter. That just blew me away, and I figured they would be a perfect subject for the film.
Tribeca: Is it typical for both parents to leave the children behind with their grandparents?
Lixin Fan: Yes, it is typical. Sometimes, the mother will come for a few years, and then stay behind. But this was not typical—[the fact] that she had left when the children were so young.
I [asked] if they wanted to help me make this film. In the beginning, they were a little hesitant, but I told them I wasn’t making the film for myself or for them; I was making it for all the migrant workers. I mean, there are 130 million migrant workers, and I don’t think they have a voice for themselves—[no one tells] their story. The sacrifices they make are pretty much unknown to the world, or even to the urban citizens in China.
We had screenings in Sundance in January, and at one of the screenings there was an exchange student group from Beijing. Afterwards, one middle school boy came up on the stage and told the audience that he grew up in Beijing, and until seeing this film, he never knew this kind of life still existed in our country. He said, “Now I know why our teachers and parents tell us to study hard. We have to help these people.”
Tribeca: When did you become aware?
Lixin Fan: I always had an interest in looking into the lives of the poor or disadvantaged people around me, in my neighborhood. But I got to see more real people in their real lives when I was a journalist, a cameraman—especially at CCT [the Chinese state broadcaster], I got to travel around the country.
Tribeca: Does national television cover the migration each year?
Lixin Fan: Yes, they do, but it’s always a news piece about how good a job the authorities have done. They report some problems, but I don’t think those programs hit the core of the issue: society is not being fair to these people. They are not being provided with enough opportunities and care. They contribute so much, but they are being left out of the country’s economic development. So I felt I had to make a film to address that.
Tribeca: Are you able to show the film in China?
Lixin Fan: We played in two film festivals in China, one of them being Shanghai, the biggest festival in China. In a way, I think that shows that the authorities are okay with the film. At least we get shown, and we were a finalist in the documentary catalogue. Right now we are trying to push the film into theaters, but it’s slow going.
Tribeca: Did Changhua and Suqin see the film? What did they say?
Lixin Fan: The father told me it’s extremely sad for him to watch his family’s story on the screen. The mother told me she was sad too. She always says the same thing: “I don’t understand why we sacrifice so much, and Qin [the daughter] doesn’t appreciate it. She doesn’t change.”
Tribeca: There’s a scene that shows some real conflict—even physical—between the father and daughter. Were they upset about that scene being in the film?
Lixin Fan: No, I should really thank them for their openness. It’s a very intense scene. In the end, I went in and separated them, because I was being put in a very difficult spot. On the one hand is the ethics—you are trying to be objective and not interfere in their lives—but on the other hand, we were like a big family, and I can’t just watch them fight and not intervene.
Afterwards, I sat down with the father, and I tried to comfort him, and also ask if it’s okay to show it in the film. He said, “It happened. It happened in my family.” We had already filmed them for two years [at that point], so we respected each other.
I think he was just trying to prove to me at the time that he was doing the right thing—hitting the daughter. His understanding is that it’s his job to educate her, and she was not doing the right thing. But that scene does reveal a lot of conflict—both in the family, and in the migrating culture in general.
Tribeca: The scenes in the train station—logistically, how did you film them? How many hours were they waiting in line, especially the year when they were with the daughter?
Lixin Fan: We were stuck in the crowd for three days and three nights. Some even waited for seven days. There were no trains coming in or out because the snowstorm had cut off the electric grid. 600,000 people were there. It’s like a war zone—police, soldiers, militia.
Travelers generally brought 2-3 days’ worth of food, because they imagined they would eat it on the train. After that, the government actually came in with trucks of food and water, and they put mobile toilets around the platform. But still, it was a horrible environment to be in. At one point, when one of the gates suddenly opened, the crowd just flooded the gate. And we were literally being lifted and carried away. Some people were being trampled, but the police were helping.
People were stuck there for days, and that [time period is] the only chance for them to get to see their families. If they don’t get on a train, they don’t see their families for two years. So everyone is agitated and angry and anxious to board. When they see a camera crew, they would come to us and complain. It’s tough, because no one had a solution.
We were being carried away in different directions, and we were connected by cables; I had to throw the boom pole to my soundman, and he had to catch it over his head.
Tribeca: Were there just two of you?
Lixin Fan: No, there were 4 of us. I had a great DP, a soundman (my brother), and an assistant. So 4 of us, with all our luggage and equipment, trying to focus on the subject. All in all, we shot 300 hours for the whole film, but we had 3 days and 3 nights at the train station alone.
Logistically, it was very challenging. You are going into the crowd, and you don’t know when you will get out—a couple of hours, a day. We brought many batteries with us, and sometimes we’d just make a small space on the ground and try to protect it and try to dump the footage onto a mobile hard drive. I had a great crew.
Tribeca: Do people ever consider going home another time of year to avoid the crowd?
Lixin Fan: Some of them do. In the summer, when they need a helping hand in the farming fields, some of them take off a couple of weeks to see the family and help with the harvest. But in general, they tend to stay in the factory, because they work very hard, and for very long hours, to make enough money to send back to the village. It’s also like a prison—they are paid so little, they cannot afford to take a vacation. Essentially, the Chinese New Year becomes the only good time for them to go—it’s THE important holiday.
Tribeca: What’s happening with the family now?
Lixin Fan: We finished filming in March of 2009, after the financial crisis hit, and 20 million people lost their jobs in those few months, the mother being one of them. So she went back and took care of the boy. This summer, the boy took the exam and got into a very good middle school in his hometown, so the mother is staying home to take care of him.
Qin worked in the hotel for a few months, and then she moved to a city near my hometown. We met last month when I was in China. She doesn’t have a job now, but she has a boyfriend.
I see a coming-of-age for peasant kids like Qin—her dream had always been to leave the countryside, to find her own life and freedom in the city. And I do see her achieving it, but in a different way than what her parents wanted for her. So far, I think she’s happy, though she’s still looking for a job.