Programmers spend months sifting through submissions and traveling around the world to find films for their audiences - film industry types and mainstream moviegoers alike -- that watch selections for just a few days. Every so often, a few movies strike a chord. Rarely, a single film breaks through in a memorable way.
If there is just one film to watch from IDFA this year, it would likely be "Last Train Home," the first feature from Chinese-Canadian director Lixin Fan. The film is an exceptional observational documentary that charts a dramatic Chinese journey affecting just one family but representing the challenges facing a changing nation and a troubled world.
Some 130 million Chinese workers travel home from the nation's cities just once a year, to celebrate the New Year. Rural elderly care for the children of parents who work in city factories to provide for their families while creating products that are sold internationally. The only way the parents can make ends meet and attempt to help their families break a cycle of poverty is by leaving them behind.
"Last Train Home" is beyond heartbreaking. A father's face, a mother's words, a child's pain.
Babies sleep on their backs on long tables while their mothers sew at machines nearby, workers sit on a large pile of blue jeans as they make more pants, a factory man moves large cardboard boxes emblazoned with the words, "MADE IN CHINA." A literal sea of humanity try to board a limited number of Guangzhou city trains home for the holiday. Not all will make it.
"It's all for our children, our aged parents, that's our life," says one Chinese migrant worker.
"You want to film the real me? This is the real me!" an angry, abandoned teenager yells at her dad and the documentary filmmaker's boom mic drops into the top of the frame as the camera operator tries to capture a supremely intense father-daughter confrontation.
Stunningly photographed and expertly constructed, "Last Train Home" features the work of a filmmaker who has immersed himself in the lives of his subjects - the Zhangs - to explore the story of their fractured family. Many moments in this intimate movie are incredibly striking and ultimately so symbolic of a much broader situation. The drama of the Zhang's personal story - and their specific struggle to simply get back home for a few days in 2006 - is so poignant that at times the film feels like it must have been scripted for a group of incredibly talented unknown actors.
"I opened up myself and in return, the family opened up their lives to the filming," Lixin Fan explained on Tuesday at the International Documentary Festival Amsterdam in the Netherlands where the film had its international premiere in 35mm on the large Tuschinski Theater screen. It debuted earlier this month (and won an award) at the Rencontres Internationales du Documentaire Festival in Fan's new hometown, Montreal.
Fan, who worked for China's CCTV network before moving to Montreal a few years ago, quickly went back to China to work on Canadian Production company EyeSteelFilm's documentary "Up The Yangtze" before getting his own feature doc off the ground. He said his film was inspired by his curiosity at the idea of a mother who had not seen her daughter in three years. He built trust with the Zhang family, convincing them that their own story would underscore a much bigger situation.
"I would like my audience to think about the relationship between themselves and these migrant workers," Fan recently told the Montreal Gazette, prior to the fim's Canadian debut. "The whole world today is interconnected. We're all one. How we live our life in the West has a very close tie to how people live their lives in developing countries."
Praise for "Last Train Home" was immediate this week at IDFA, with rumors swirling that the film is headed for the Sundance Film Festival in January.
An American film festival programmer implored me to see the movie before leaving Amsterdam, another invited the film on the spot after watching it this weekend. In the audience at yesterday's screening, an insider heaped high praise on the movie, saying that it immediately joins, "the canon of great docs."
On stage at Amsterdam's Tuschinski, filmmaker Lixin Fan barely cracked a smile at that remark, one of his producers stood near him with a beer and folks hugged frequently during a Q & A moderated by Canadian filmmaker Peter Wintonick who consulted on the editing of the project.
He recalled Fan's failed attempts to pitch the movie at a financing forum. No one believed in the movie but the filmmaker pushed forward. "I wish they could be here now to see this," Wintonick said proudly yesterday.
Fan eventually enlisted the support of Montreal's EyeSteelFilms by approaching one of his eventual producers after a film festival panel discussion.
Despite all the talk about other festivals and his own backstory, Lixin Fan brought it all back to his main reason for making the movie.
"I'd like to thank people who toil in the factories and make everythingthat we use," Fan said yesterday, reiterating, "It's about migrants, it's about the country and it's about how the world works."
The trailer for "Last Train Home":