It’s like something out of a Joseph Conrad novel: A young man goes out for a night on the town, hoping to meet a girl — perhaps a prostitute. He finds one, follows her into a room somewhere, and, without warning, is jumped by several men and knocked out cold. He awakes the next day on a bed that is moving. When he looks up, he realizes his bed is moving because he’s on a ship in the middle of the ocean. Not just any ship, but a Thai fishing boat staffed by dozens of men like him who were kidnapped on land and forced into slavery, trawling the ocean for fish and seafood until they either die or escape. He will spend the next five years of his life like that.
In Ghost Fleet, the eye-opening new documentary from directors Shannon Service and Jeffrey Waldron, we sadly learn that the story above is not only true, but that it’s just one of thousands of such stories taking place in Southeast Asia — and many other parts of the world — right now. And that it’s possible that the piece of tuna on your dinner plate, if it comes from Thailand, was caught by a man living as a slave on a boat he cannot leave, and where he could be beaten to death if he dares to disobey.
Told mainly from the viewpoint of three activists — team leader and labor organizer Patima Tungpuchayakul, former slave Tun Lin and local fixer Chutima Sidasathian — who have dedicated their lives to rescuing victims of the trade (per the end credits they have saved over 4,000 men), as well as telling the rest of the world about this horrific practice, the film follows the trio as they take off on one of their missions from Thailand to the seas around Indonesia, where they hope to save more men from oblivion.
During the voyage, they encounter a handful of escaped slaves from Thailand, Burma and Cambodia hiding out on remote islands far from home. They all have similar stories of how they were promised jobs and then wound up imprisoned at sea, working in sordid conditions where accidents could happen at any time — one man tells the gruesome tale of his friend getting decapitated by a fishing net — and where escape was the only viable option. But even if they did manage to get free, the men were often hunted down and thrown into illegal prisons run by the fishing corporation, which was in cahoots with local police.
The fearless Patima and her crew do whatever they can to locate the Thai ships that are still in operation, and which tend to sail farther and father from Thailand, both to avoid the authorities and to catch a more ample supply of fish, given that the waters off the mainland have been exhausted. Indeed, we learn early on that the current slave trade was born out of the impossibility for fishing companies to find employable men willing to voyage so far from home for so long a time, pushing them to enslave their employees instead.
The filmmakers document Patima’s mission in a highly stylized manner, with lots of close-ups, slow motion, drone imagery and TV-style reenactments that are all rather beautifully shot by Waldron, who served as cinematographer. This approach sometimes feels like overkill for a story that speaks for itself and doesn’t require so much embellishment, including the rather treacly score by Mark Degli Antoni. Also, a few more basic facts would have helped enforce the film’s argument, such as which Thai companies are practicing slavery and which U.S. companies are buying their fish.
But such drawbacks hardly take away from the underlying power of Ghost Fleet and what it reveals: that slavery still exists in certain parts of the world, with only a few people trying to fight it. Patima, who was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2017, is a genuine hero for doing everything in her power to locate and rescue men who, per the movie’s title, have become ghosts of their former selves. When she films them with her telephone in order to capture their testimonies and make videos to show their families back home, their weary, bewildered faces speak volumes.
Production company: Vulcan Productions, Seahorse Productions
With: Patima Tungpuchayakul, Tun Lin, Chutima “Oi” Sidasathian
Directors: Shannon Service, Jeffrey Waldron
Producers: Jon Bowermaster, Shannon Service
Executive producers: Paul G. Allen, Carole Tomko, Jannat Gargi, Rocky Collins, Julia Ormond, Geralyn Dreyfous, Shari Sant Plummer, Shannon Joy
Director of photography: Jeffrey Waldron
Editor: Parker Laramie
Composer: Mark Degli Antoni
Sales: Endeavor Content
Venues: Telluride Film Festival; Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF Docs)
In English, Burmese, Thai, Khmer