First Person with Filmmaker Lixin Fan
Lixin Fan (right) with Freedom Riders filmmaker Stanley Nelson and Winter's Bone Line Producer Kathryn Dean during the Film Forward visit to China. Photo by Meredith Lavitt.
Canada-based Chinese filmmaker Lixin Fan is one of the 10 filmmakers participating in the Sundance Institute's Film Forward initiative. Fan's documentary Last Train Home tells the story of China's 130 million migrant workers who visit their rural homes and families en masse once a year for Chinese New Year celebrations. We spoke with Fan when he was in Washington, DC for a Film Forward event this past May. In this interview excerpt, Fan talks about the inherent challenges of documentary filmmaking.
I think making a documentary film always takes a long time, and we always try to embed ourselves into the subjects? life. I believe only with a complete honesty you can sort of really grab the truth out of life....
We spent a lot of time with the family in order to make them comfortable with the camera, with the crew?s presence. We filmed for three years. We have footage that?s over 300 hours, and I would always ask my crew, even if we?re not filming, I would always ask my crew to hang out with the subjects just to make friends with them. And they?re really gorgeous people, the family, the father and the mother?they are honest.
Once we opened up ourselves to them, they really took us in. And I mean there was a process of gaining the mutual trust between us. First of all, in the migrant world, people move around a lot because their jobs are so unstable so trust is really difficult to establish because a worker may disappear at any date because they have lost their job and go find jobs at other places. So for us, I always thought I need to first open up myself. I told the couple on the first day we met who I am, where I am from, what I had been doing before, and why I?m making this film. I told them that I?m not making this film just for you; I just want to tell the story of all the migrants?
...[T]he father and daughter got into this big family fight before one of the reunion dinners. That was just such a sad moment to witness. But I guess that?s also what a documentary film is about, you know. It?s about facing the reality, no matter [if] it?s happy or sad or cruel reality. You have to have the courage to face it.
The moment just happened after we took a train ride for three days and two nights from the city where [the parents] work to go back to their countryside for the only reunion time out of the year?. I was changing the light bulbs in another room when I heard them yelling at each other, and I went over? and my cameraman and the soundman, they were filming. Good thing that they didn?t stop the camera, but I felt very awkward and, in a way, guilty. I?m witnessing this family tragedy taking place right in front of my eyes while we have spent so much time together. It feels like I?m watching my own family fight and what should I do? I mean, on an ethical level, it?s really hard for me to ask my cameramen to keep filming, but professionally as a filmmaker I have to. I mean it?s really the outburst of all the conflicts in not just the family [but] also in the society, and I think it reflects on many levels. So as a director I cannot afford to lose this [moment].
But then afterwards the daughter saw me in the doorway, and she turned and yelled at me, ?This is the real me. What else do you want???. When I think of that moment, it?s a very complicated feeling. I guess I can?t just simply judge if I did right or wrong because it?s much more complex than that.
Film Forward: Advancing Cultural Dialogue is an Initiative of Sundance Institute and The President?s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities, in partnership with the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Institute of Museum and Library Services. Visit the Film Forward website to learn more about the project and participating filmmakers.