Hundreds of thousands of passengers were stranded and desperate, jammed in and around the train station in Guangzhou, as Chinese-Canadian director Lixin Fan kept his camera rolling.
The teeming mass of travellers stood packed for hours, waiting for trains that weren't coming. Riot police and soldiers cordoned off the waves of people who were growing angrier and more panicked. In the crush, some were separated from their children. Others became hysterical. Fan's camera caught it all.
Incredibly, this type of incident is relatively commonplace and forms the backbone for Fan's feature documentary Last Train Home. As the film shows, the chaos in the train station has as much to do with the global economy and the Chinese-made shirt on your back, as it has to do with the annual migration of more than 130 million workers within China during the Chinese New Year holiday.
The film is already showing signs of being among this year's prominent documentaries. Last Train Home screened at Sundance where it garnered good buzz: It's seen as the next Up the Yangtze, which Montreal's Eye Steel Films also produced. On Wednesday, Last Train Home opens the Human Rights Watch Film Festival in Toronto before a wider Canadian theatrical release next month.
Last Train Home focuses on the hardships caused by China's internal mass migration. Fan distills this down to the story of one family: A middle-aged couple from Sichuan Province who leave their children to work 2,100 kilometres away in a garment sweatshop.
They implore their children, now living with their grandmother, to stay in school. But their older daughter also leaves an isolated rural life to find work sewing endless stacks of garments in a city factory.
"The internal migration is a very complicated social [phenomenon]" Fan said in Toronto last month before heading to Sundance. "Globalization has a huge impact on the lives of these migrant workers. So with all of these ideas in mind, I set out to look for one family that could represent all of these problems."
Originally from the major central Chinese city of Wuhan, Fan worked as a news cameraman for China Central Television's English language service. He also worked on independent Chinese documentaries, such as the acclaimed film To Live Is Better Than To Die, about an AIDS-devastated family in central China.
At CCTV's English service, "I had a chance to travel extensively to different parts of the country to see a totally different world than I ever imagined."
Fan's own life is just a migratory as the subjects in his film.
In 2006, Fan uprooted and moved to Canada, living in a basement apartment in Scarborough, on the edge of Toronto. Then came a lucky break. At Toronto's Hot Docs festival, he happened to meet the production team from Eye Steel who needed someone to join the Up The Yangtze crew who could speak a local dialect from the Three Gorges Dam area. Fan could, and he was in.
After filming ended, he stayed in China to work on his own documentary. A serious, unassuming young man, Fan simply walked into factories and introduced himself to workers sitting at sewing machines in Guangzhou. The family he settled on was cautious at first. And filming them was difficult. In one scene, the father hits his daughter, which raised ethical questions about the role of a documentary crew as mere observers.
But it was nothing compared to the difficulties and exhaustion of filming the frantic train-station scene.
"We did run into very dangerous occasions. Most of the time we were trying to keep the camera steady. But there was a chaotic moment when we are being lifted and carried away by the crowd. It's like a torrent. You have no control over it," Fan recalled.
"During that week, the whole country's railway transportation system broke down due to a snowstorm. ... And in that week, there were 600,000 jammed in that railway station. We spent days there and just tried to stay together."
It's part of a phenomenon that Fan says can't last. China simply can't handle a migration this size. "It's a model that cannot continue. It's not sustainable."