The idea that cinema represents an escape from reality receives a necessary antidote in the form of the Human Rights Watch International Film Festival, an annual series dedicated to films with underlying themes of social justice.
This year’s program, which runs from tomorrow to March 6 at TIFF Cinematheque, features a number of strong titles, but the clear standout is opening-night presentation Last Train Home, a Canadian documentary that follows three years in the lives of a family of Chinese migrant workers struggling to remain together as the country’s infrastructure serves to pull them apart.
“It’s a sad reality of how the country is run,” says director Lixin Fan, who will be in Toronto to introduce the HRW festival screening tomorrow at 7 p.m. at the Iabel Bader Theatre.
“In China, there’s a famous saying which is difficult to translate but which means ‘Make some of the people rich first, and the rest will follow.’
“It’s trickle-down economics. So you have people working 14 hours a day at a sewing machine, sending money home to their children, who they never see, and who resent them as a result.”
This sense of resentment is embodied in the film by 17-year-old Zhang Quin, whose frustration at seeing her parents only once a year — during their annual 50-hour trek from their workplace to their rural home — boils over in a series of uncomfortably raw confrontations captured at close proximity.
“It’s not a common experience for people to have a camera following them around for three years,” says Fan. “I told them that the film wasn’t just about them, but a topic that’s larger than all of them. At the same time, I ‘don’t do anything that you don’t want to do.’”
Fan’s attempt to maintain an ethical position behind the camera is complemented by his keen directorial eye. Despite having been shot with a single camera under difficult conditions, Last Train Home is visually stunning.
The question is whether such a timely, accomplished documentary will ever screen commercially in China.
“It played at a documentary festival there last year,” says Fan. “The audience was very young, a lot of university students, many of whom had had similar experiences. One boy stood up and told me he had been crying for the entire screening. I hope we can put the film in the Chinese theatre chains, but we would be considered an ‘import’ film and they only take so many foreign films. So we would be competing with Avatar.’”
Last Train Home begins its theatrical run Friday.