Nick Broomfield, best known for his documentaries including Aileen Wuormos, The Life and Death of a Serial Killer, has made a feature film based on the tragic deaths of 23 Chinese illegal immigrants at Morecombe Bay in 2004. The Chinese workers were trapped by the rapidly rising tide while picking cockles; though three Chinese gangmasters were imprisoned, none of their British clients were prosecuted, a shameful episode indeed.
Broomfield dramatises the incident through the story of Ai Qin (Lin), a single mother from Fujian province. In a desperate attempt to create a better life for her son, Ai Qin’s family borrow $25,000 in order to pay for her journey to the west. The journey, though gruelling, is swiftly over, and Ai Qin is soon on her way to Norfolk, where she works twelve hour days in meat packing plants or picking fruit and vegetables for ‘Asda, Tesco, Sainsbury’, sleeps four to a room in a filthy, overcrowded two bedroom house on a dodgy housing estate where the residents spray obscenities on the front door, and soon realises that the streets of Thetford are far from being paved with gold. In one telling scene, Ai Qin and a fellow worker are shopping and find that they cannot afford to buy the spring onions that only that morning they were picking.
The immigrants are ripped off at every turn. Their landlord charges them £25 a week to sleep on greasy mattresses; they must bribe the workers at the employment agency to turn a blind eye to the forged papers they have have to buy; they are charged extortionate rates of tax. And once they move to Morecombe, things are even worse. No seaside idyll, this. Their house is disgusting, and the local cockle pickers openly hostile. After they have been beaten up, they decide to pick cockles at night, to avoid further unpleasantness.
Broomfield has cast real illegals in all the key roles and has largely based his script on their testimonies. Their experiences are almost unrelentingly grim and yet they cling to their humanity with a courage that’s almost heart-breaking. They have a barbecue in their grim little back yard; they sing to each other almost constantly; occasionally they get nicer work, picking apples on an old-fashioned storybook farm where they can stroke the cows. But for the most part England’s green and pleasant land is anything but; our provincial towns are shown as conservative and racist in a way that the big cities, cultural and racial melting pots, are not.
The exploitation of the Chinese workers is only possible because of our appetite for cheap, convenient and processed foods and it is a chilling indictment of modern market forces – everyone is complicit until they start to ask more questions about where their cheap food comes from. The system is just as hard on British workers – the cockle pickers are aggressive because their livelihood is threatened; we see a farmer digging up and burning his apple orchard because its no longer economically viable to grow apples in England.
Broomfield has made a powerful film that takes a hard look at modern slavery. If there are some flaws: the inexperience of the actors sometimes shows, and the coda at the end, though real, was a step too far. But the scenes at Morecombe: the bleak sands stretching for miles, the menacing black sea advancing like fingers – these linger in your mind long after the lights go up. As do the statistics: its 200 years since slavery was abolished in Britain, yet the UN estimates that there are 13 million slaves (indentured labourers etc) alive today.
Last modified on