Not yet 35, Lixin Fan is (pardon the pun) on the fast track, parlaying his experience as a broadcast journalist with China’s CCTV into a sky’s-the-limit career as an independent documentary filmmaker. Fan edited To Live Is Better than to Die (2003), which screened at Sundance, aired on U.S. television and won a Peabody Award, and he was the associate producer of award-winning Up the Yangtze. His debut feature as a director, Last Train Home, examines the massive exodus of rural Chinese to factory towns through one fragmented family. Zhang Changhua and Chen Suqin left 16 years ago to make more money and secure a better life for their children, leaving them in the care of grandparents and aunts. The parents make the lengthy return trip just once a year, at New Year’s, and the kids are not necessarily happy to see them. Last Train Home won the Golden Gate Award for Best Documentary at 2010’s San Francisco International, where we interviewed Lixin Fan. He lives in Beijing and Montreal.
Keyframe: How did you come to pick this family?
Lixin Fan: Migration is a complicated social phenomenon and it has many aspects. You can talk about the changing traditional family structure, you can talk about the country’s educational system, labor rights, health care policies, all that. So I wanted to find a family whose story could help me explore all these aspects and who also represents the lives of hundreds of millions. I think I was very lucky that I met the Zhangs, and after they told me their story, their past and their challenges that they have to face and put up with, they were a perfect example among these hundreds of millions. So I decided to film with them.
Keyframe: How did you gain their trust?
Fan: We followed the family for three years. None of us knew at the beginning that we would film for this long. I thought we would document one year of their life and one trip coming home, for the reunion. When I first met with the family, I immediately told them who I am, what I am doing, why I wanted to make a film about the migrants. I believe you have to open up yourself, be very frank with them, so they will in return open up their life to you. So I told them I’m not just making this film for you or for me, it’s really for all the migrant workers, your peer fellows. I really think they got it, they understood the importance of such a film to tell the story of migrants. Because nowhere else could you find a [film] that spoke for all these people.
Keyframe: What was the dynamic between you and your subjects during production?
Fan: In the process of filming. I was very conscious about how I treated the relationship between my subjects and the crew. I didn’t want to push them into doing anything. And also there were family relationships involved. The [daughter] was really rebellious, and the parents were always worried about [her]. Sometimes I find myself caught in between this relationship. There are times both parties are sort of looking at me and trying to ask me who you’re with, which side you’re with. And that put me into a very tricky position beside I could not side myself with any of them. But I cannot agitate or upset any party [either]. You see the dilemma: You have to choose a side, but you cannot. And I think that’s one of the biggest challenges I constantly faced in the filming.
Keyframe: It’s standard for documentary filmmakers to describe large social forces through a family or through a couple of individuals. What is the trick to pulling it off, without seeming contrived or stretching to make a metaphor work.
Fan: I felt lucky that I was filming with one Chinese migrant family. China, to me, is such a goldmine of stories, especially at this time that the country is experiencing so many profound changes. What this family had to put up with and had been through, together with what the country and all its people need to cope with—there’s just tons of drama and stories in there. I almost felt all I need to do is turn on the camera and film. Of course, I did my research and read a lot of materials about the Chinese society, the labor issues, globalization, all that. So when I was filming, I was always very conscious thinking what could be the metaphor for this particular thing or this particular action that they took, and what social issues or problems could it potentially address. Every action has a reason behind it. The subjects, I believe, are always making the most logical choice that they find in their life. But as a filmmaker, when I look from outside of their life, I was always trying to capture what’s the reason behind it, what’s the bigger social force which pushed them to make such decisions.
Keyframe: So does that mean you’d say to the cameraman, ‘Get a shot of this scene on the train, even if the family isn’t in the frame,’ because you’re thinking of something else.
Fan: Exactly. Yeah, yeah. First of all, I worked with a great cameraman, though I am credited as the DP. There were two if us. I think we shot like 50-50, maybe I shot a little more. I’m a cameraman myself, so I understand what one would feel if you’re in the mood of creating your own art. I don’t want to be micro-controlled. So as director, I didn’t micro-control my cameraman. I respect him as an artist. And he is truly a very experienced cameraman. So there are only [a few] occasions that I maybe sense are very important scenes or shots that I definitely need to get out of a scene, and I would tell my cameraman to stop what he has to do and maybe turn the camera and get those shots.
Keyframe: I’m curious. Do you consider yourself a political filmmaker?
Fan: Yes, absolutely, I would consider myself a social-political filmmaker.
Keyframe: Do you think all documentary filmmakers are political?
Fan: Yeah, I think documentaries are all political. We all want to make a point. I guess I can only speak for me. I always want to show the other side of the story. I made this film, first because I thought the people who live in cities in China should respect all these migrants more, and respect their contribution and sacrifices more. So that’s the starting point of why I made this film. Then three years after, all these things happening, the Beijing Olympic Games, the world financial crisis, it gave a much bigger historical background to this one single migrant family story. I then hoped that the film could also bring the Western audience another side of China, a more multidimensional message.
Keyframe: Will the film air on Chinese TV? I don’t get the impression you were hassled at all while you were filming. So could the film be shown in China or would it be seen as being critical of the government?
Fan: I cannot be 100 percent sure but I am very positive that it will get shown on Chinese television someday in the near future. We didn’t get that much hassle during the filming. Partly the reason could be I worked with CCTV, the Chinese state broadcaster, before so I know how to maneuver a production in that landscape, which is quite different than in the West, obviously. But I really don’t see China as that much of a totalitarian government anymore. It’s changing, and the changes are profound. Sometimes we simplify China as one big conglomerate that threatens the rest of the world. But if you take a deeper look into the country, there are so many social challenges and changes that are taking place. I always see the country as a fast train racing down a fast track. On this train you have all these cabins and social classes and they have their own difficulties, challenges and advantages, and it’s complicated.
Yeah, I think documentaries are all political. We all want to make a point. I guess I can only speak for me. I always want to show the other side of the story. I made this film, first because I thought the people who live in cities in China should respect all these migrants more, and respect their contribution and sacrifices more. So that’s the starting point of why I made this film. Then three years after, all these things happening, the Beijing Olympic Games, the world financial crisis, it gave a much bigger historical background to this one single migrant family story. I then hoped that the film could also bring the Western audience another side of China, a more multidimensional message.
Keyframe: One could view Last Train Home as an indictment of capitalism. Or as just the latest in a long string of mass movements by people seeking better lives, be it the pioneers moving west, or Irish or Italian or Russian or Mexican immigrants coming to this country.
Fan: I always argue with myself. What all these migrants are experiencing may be a necessary step of capitalism, which is happening in China, the largest communist country. But then again, from a very personal level, it is hard for me to rationalize why these people need to go through so much suffering for such a long time. It’s hard for me to rationalize that this country is developing, it’s growing and someone has to make the sacrifices. But why so much? Could there be a fairer approach, to have people sacrifice but not that much? Is there a balance point between the development and the welfare of its people?
Keyframe: Similarly, it’s one thing to cite large numbers like $20 million people and another to watch one family go through what it goes through. That’s what I hear you grappling with.
Fan: Yes, yes, exactly. The numbers are cold and logical, but if you look at an individual life, that’s one individual human being. You can talk about sacrifices, it’s just a concept, it’s a word, but to each individual family it’s their entire lifetime. They are making the sacrifices. It’s easy for me to sit here and talk about all these issues, but it would be hard if I had to go through all that—not see my family for years, and toil in the factory for 15 hours a day, and making very little money and not see a future for my family. So I’m just compelled to make a film like this to maybe help all of us think more how we can do our own share to change the whole thing, to make it work.
Keyframe: Have any of the responses of moviegoers in the West surprised you?
Fan: I always get asked this question, which I find very interesting: The audience would ask how they could help. Should they stop buying ‘made in China.’ That’s a difficult question to answer. It’s so complicated. I would not recommend stop buying ‘made in China.’ Then again, there’s this great trade imbalance between China and the rest of the world, particularly America. So, I don’t know. I don’t think as a filmmaker I could give the ultimate answer, the ultimate correct answer, but I was hoping that this film could maybe show another side of China. And I hope my audience in the West could take something away from this film and maybe think about our lifestyle here in the West and how every one of us could maybe change a little bit to help with the whole situation. The world is going a little crazy on this imbalance.
Keyframe: Does the success of Last Train Home this film afford you opportunities to work in the West that you did not have before. Do you see your career proceeding on two tracks?
Fan: I definitely see my career going in two tracks, both in China and the West. China’s really opening up in every sector, including media. Although we see setbacks like Google pulling out of the country, and sometimes the government is tightening its censorship. But I still believe in general they want to communicate with the rest of the world. And for me, who grew up in China and moved to live in the West, I see my role as a kind of a bridge between China and the rest of the world, and I wish to keep doing that, to use documentary filmmaking to help both sides communicate.
This article was originally published in slightly altered form September 20, 2010, in SF360.org, when the film opened theatrically.