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5 February, 2007

Close to home

Well.  That was poignant.

I've just returned from the cinema, having seen Nick Broomfield's 'Ghosts'.  It's the story of Chinese illegal immigrants coming to the UK and struggling to subsist whilst paying-off their debts to people-smugglers and support their families in China.  I'm not spoiling the plot by revealing that it culminates in their deaths – that's the whole point.

The striking point is that the film was directly based on real deaths which occurred within half an hour (by bicycle) from here, exactly three years ago tonight. Though it took weeks to establish the precise number, 23 illegal immigrants drowned whilst picking cockles in Morecambe Bay in poor weather.

Having overheard a conversation with an usher, I discovered that at least one group of tonight's audience members, who appeared to be Chinese, had limited command of English. It'd be tempting to draw the obvious conclusion, but I have no way of knowing.

Broomfield is famous for his documentaries, in which he appears on-screen as an active participant, but unlike 'Fetishes', 'Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer', et al., 'Ghosts' is a feature film (Broomfield's second). It's nominally fictional, though based on the facts of the Morecambe Bay tragedy and Hsiao-Hung Pai's undercover reporting for The Guardian, and unscripted performances by non-professional actors recorded on hand-held cameras* had a realistic feel.

Though the film was about the overall experience of immigrant workers, initially in Norfolk then Morecambe for the key sequence, rather than focusing on the tragedy itself, it was that section (actually filmed in the Bay) which affected me most.
Though the film did feature a couple of time-lapse sequences earlier, I'm almost certain that the speed of the incoming tide wasn't artificially accelerated. Having lived at the edge of Morecambe Bay for approaching 14 years, and having grown up a similar distance from the Dee Estuary, I've seen for myself that the wave front can move that quickly. At the mouth of the River Lune, high tide can be 10 metres above the low water mark. Imagine that: the water surface can rise 33' vertically within six hours. On almost entirely level mudflats, picture how much more land is immersed by even 1 cm rise in water level, and the actual rise averages almost 3 cm vertically per minute. Think you could outrun that, whilst avoiding invisible patches of quicksand and deep, fast-flowing gullies? Terrifying.

Leaving the cinema, I was briefly tempted to cycle out to Hest Bank, the point where the bodies were brought ashore, but soon dismissed the idea as it's a bitterly cold night. Says it all, really.


*: One sequence in a supermarket seemed to have been filmed covertly, which could have been for effect, but I can certainly imagine the company declining authorisation – a reminder that the supermarket chains are (no doubt inadvertently) secondary employers of underground immigrant labour wasn't exactly a marketing opportunity.

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