Last Train Home

PBS Premiere: Sept. 27, 2011Check the broadcast schedule »

Filmmaker Interview

POV: In your own words, what is Last Train Home about?

Lixin Fan: Last Train Home is a family story about Chinese migrant workers. It's a story about hundreds of millions, who work day and night in the production lines that make consumer goods for the rest of the world, coming home for New Year celebrations. It's also about the world's largest human migration.

POV: How did you find the Zhang family?

Fan: It took me a couple years to get myself familiarized with the topic of the film. I started my first research trip in 2006. I went down to the city of Guangzhou, a big factory city in the south, along the coastal areas. That's where all the factories are. I traveled by myself and went to many factories. I sat down on the benches and talked to many workers. I spent almost a month there. The mother (Chen Suqin) told me about the moment when she first left her village. She said, "I held my daughter and she was only eight months old. My sisters were crying. I was crying and my sisters all told me that I should not leave — that I should wait at least till my daughter grew a little older. But I knew I had to leave. I hardened my heart and I gave my baby to my sister and left with my husband." It was a heartbreaking moment that she described. I felt then that they had a very strong story.

POV: How did you convince them to step in front of the cameras and talk about their lives?

Fan: I was not making this film just for them. I wanted to make a film for all the migrant workers. In China, we don't see a lot of their stories although they are such a huge group. Now, there's almost 200 million of them. That's what I told the family, and I asked for their cooperation. They are really fabulous people. They're down to earth and they work hard with their own hands. They also don't complain. I think they have all the merits that a Chinese worker would have. We spent a lot of time together, filming and not filming. I would ask my crew to go hang out with them, to build this relationship. On the other hand, as a filmmaker I also needed to keep a certain degree of distance from them, as I didn't want to intervene with their lives. There is a very fine balance in it. There were times that the daughter, Qin, would talk to us, and she would specifically tell us not to tell her parents what she is thinking. The parents desperately wanted to know what their daughter was thinking as they were trying their best to put her back in school. It put us in a very awkward position.

POV: And yet she was saying this to you as the cameras were rolling?

Fan: When she thought she said something that she didn't want anyone to know, she would just look at the camera because she knew how to ruin our shots. So, she would do that deliberately. My cameraman had some difficult times filming her because of that. There are some challenges to working with a 16 year-old.

POV: Talk a little bit about what it is we're seeing in the stations. These are grand scenes where there are a lot of people, all trying to get on the very small train. What was the experience like filming those scenes?

Fan: The most dramatic train station scene we experienced was in 2008 with the family in Guangzhou. That year, there was a, a big snow storm which struck southern China, putting almost half of the country's railway system out of order. In Guangzhou station alone, there were 600,000 people who got stuck. Some people had been there for 10 days. There were no trains coming or going. It was like a battlefield. I can't help but think that the frustration at the stations is shared by most of the migrant families. That kind of sadness, if you multiply it by 600,000, or if you multiply it by 200 million, is really something incredibly immense. I think it's unbearable for me to even think about.

POV: Can you talk about the choices that these migrant workers have? Are there alternatives? Are their lives truly better because of the choices they've made?

Fan: All the parents in the world want their children to have a better life. But, when you can't make enough money to even keep your children in school, you have to figure out other ways to give a brighter future to your children. That's why most peasants choose to leave the countryside — to leave farm work behind and find work in the factories. I don't think they have many choices when it comes down to it.

POV: It has significant impact on the families themselves. There's one scene in particular in the film where the daughter, Qin, is having a conflict with her father. Can you talk a little bit about that and what that signifies for you?

Fan: It's a breakdown of this family tie. After that, the family fragmented into even smaller pieces. To me it's a metaphor of how this society is being derailed by fast economic development. The traditional values were lost. The traditional family dynamics were drastically changed. The fight happened unexpectedly. We traveled for three days on the train and we had just arrived at their home. It was supposed to be a happy reunion time before New Year's eve. I was in another room changing the light bulbs while the father and the daughter got into a fight. I heard them yelling, and came over to the doorway. I saw the daughter on the ground. My first instinct was to go in and stop them, but my cameraman and the soundman were blocking the doorway. I pushed the cameraman, but he didn't move. I thought he was helping me to make a decision not to interrupt. I still don't know what the right thing to do was. My first instinct was, "I can't see them fighting," because we spent so much time together. They really are like family to me. I can't see my family members fight each other. I think you will always face this kind of ethical challenges. As a filmmaker I know that I'm supposed to stay objective and not intervene with my subject, but I just wanted to follow my heart. I went in and I pushed my cameraman away. They already had some footage, so I went in the frame and I stopped the fight. My editor helped me to make the decision to ultimately edit that footage out of the film.

POV: Why did you choose to make a film about this topic?

Fan: : A university student asked me, because the funding of the film came from the West and the story itself is about the downside of China, why did I want to make a film that makes my own country lose face? We're all educated to be patriotic since the time we're young. I think the authorities may want us to think in a certain way so that their legitimacy of governance is not questioned. I think it's very important for every one of us to realize that loving your country is not just about loving the government. They're separate entities. It's important for all of us to face our own shortcomings. We need to face our own wrongdoings and try to improve them in order to make things better for everybody. That's more important.

POV: How did making this film affect you?

Fan: I've always asked myself what I'm trying to say in the film. Am I trying to criticize the government for not taking care of the people? Or am I trying to criticize this materialistic, consumerist culture? In the end I felt that I needed to look at it from both sides and then make the connections. If you can see the lives of the migrant workers, you will know that they are paying a dear price for work. They've been separated from their family for years and years. They only get to see their children once a year. You pay five dollars — you get a cheap product and you're happy. But after I finished making this film, I realized that there's a larger hidden cost.