11/01/07 – As a propaganda medium, cinema has always limped along the power of speech or the footloose spirit of the cyberspace in terms of social impact and relevance – and with a reason. The liberating experience often enshrouded in the dark confines of a dimly lit theatre to the sounds of Brigitte Bardot and Serge Gansboroug whispering to each other is as far removed from any political nuance or activist rally as anyone wants to be. And yet, what can now loosely be called activist filmmaking has been blossoming with an unusually intense flair in recent years.

Not known as an activist filmmaker, Nick Broomfield’s second feature, Ghosts, is, despite appearing as a politically charged affair, instead, a soft-spoken elegy to the widely-reported sea catastrophe of 2004 in which 23 chinese cockle pickers tragically lost their lives during a perilous cockle picking assignment at Morecambe Bay. In its trembling premise Ghosts has all the streaks of a militant documentary of the kind you would expect to see on primetime television. The delivery, instead, respectfully handled by Broomfield and cinematographer Mark Wolf, hints at the suave tones of Winterbottom in its handling of space and tone.

Employing a cast of non-professionals, Ghosts exudes urgency and repression with as much sway as any activist filmmaker takes aim at its targets. At its heart lies a tenor of epic proportions, a cultural exemplification of racial injustice, human solidarity and the most basic of human rights. The harrowing fate of those individuals entangled in a world of repressed must-dos they had no choice but to undertake is a close reminder of a reality only too vivid for most of us.

At the outset, it’s hard to imagine a story of this kind as having an impact other than the heart-rending dolefulness it possesses, yet, for every cockle picker Broomfield’s camera idles on, we discover a different story the film could have pursued. Broomfield eschews all of this, favouring the perspective of a quiet observer over documentative posturing. Such a sensibility affords Ghosts a sense of emotional universality, with Broomfield’s considerate observationalism soon expanding beyond the tight confines of the crammed flats or Tesco Value meals these people’s lives know only too well. Both sad and tragic, the whiff of sensationalist reporting the film could have devolved into unassertively claims its space as unobtrusively as a feather landing on an autumn field.

But where the story ultimately comes together isn’t the strait-laced camera compositions or the reserved washes of emotion and hope, but the characters’ inner workings, their undisclosed lives and the families they left behind. Without so much as a mention, each of those individuals radiates a discomforting level of credibility. The dramatic beauty of those people and Wolf’s vivid capture of emotion and misty landscape is Ghost‘s coming of age, and remains touching despite the fair familiarity we might have with the facts.

While at times close to devolving into a Loachian socio-realist analysis of the squalid living conditions of illegal immigrants in smalltown England, Ghosts soon forgoes any sympathy call in favour of exposing an altogether deeper and more painful reality shrouded in repression and sacrifice. By the end, the story becomes the heartfelt affair it promised to be and advances above what papers and countless news reports may ever have said.

Ghosts is released theatrically in the UK tomorrow, 12 January.