Buoyancy is a harrowing realist drama that lifts the lid on the appalling treatment indentured (enslaved) foreign workers endure on Thailand’s fishing boats.
Buoyancy is the debut feature film from Australian director Rodd Rathjen, whose jumping off point was a report from the Environment Justice Foundation on repatriated survivors tricked into working as captive slaves in the Thai fishing industry. Appalled by the stories of these survivors, Rathjen interviewed many of them. Their voices and experiences inform the film.
Lead character Chakra (Sarm Heng) is the 14 yo son of a Cambodian rice farmer. Disgruntled at having to work long hours in the family paddy field for little or no pay, he heeds the advice of a fellow villager (probably a paid recruiter) that good jobs are to be had in factories in Thailand. Running away at dawn with dreams of a brighter future, he finds his way to a pickup point and is transported across the border.
He is subsequently bundled into a truck with a group of other foreigners and offloaded on to a Thai fishing trawler. Far from earning good money at a factory, as promised, Chakra and the others find themselves enslaved at sea and at the mercy of a sadistic brute of a captain (played by Thai actor and director Thanawut Kasro, who actually worked on a boat himself between the ages of 11 and 13).
Thus begins a descent into a daily hell of exhausting and dirty work hauling aboard nets of tiny scrap fish (destined as pet food) and sorting them by hand. The men must survive on meagre rations of rice and water and minimal sleep cramped together below decks. They have no idea where they are, or when, if ever, their ordeal will end. But that soon proves to be the least of their troubles when one of them, too weak to work, is tossed overboard. Another, Chakra’s Cambodian friend, attacks the captain and is strung between two boats and dismembered.
With survival now the primary objective, it’s every man for himself. Chakra adapts better than most, but forfeits his own humanity in the process. His transformation from young innocent to self-serving brute is wonderfully managed by Ruthjen as writer and a credit to first-time actor Sarm Heng – the highlight of the film, for me.
Dramatically, the captain poses a dilemma. He’s a one-dimensional villain: bad, very, very, unrelentingly bad and nothing else. Thanawut Kasro is convincing in the part, but you can’t help but wonder whether anyone could be such a sadistic bastard. Is this a characterisation flaw, or are there really people like this out on the seas off Thailand, driving their captive workers to exhaustion day after day, tormenting, torturing, murdering them, sometimes for sport? Are the conditions endured by indentured labourers on the Thai fishing boats really this horrific?
Well, going by this interview, yes – authenticity of depiction was foremost in Ruthjen’s agenda. Begs the question as to whether his cause to expose the dark underbelly of the Thai fishing industry as a remedial measure might have been better served by making a documentary. Easier said than done – the chances of getting a film crew on board one of these boats is, of course, zero.
Further, Ruthjen decided on a docu-drama format in order to show the “lived experience” of the workers. It’s impossible to gauge how close he gets to realising this objective, but it all feels pretty bloody real – uncomfortably so.
Buoyancy is not an easy watch. It is a film that stays with you. And it serves notice that Rathjen is an Aussie filmmaker to watch. I don’t suppose the film is going to attract a large audience, but even if it did, Western awareness of the dirty little secret of the hugely profitable Thai fishing industry is unlikely to make any difference. The buck stops with the Thai government, and so far, they’ve been unwilling to take any meaningful action in response to half-arsed prompting from the European Union and the United States. Land of smiles? Not for everyone.
Breaking News 30 September, 2019: Buoyancy has just been announced as Australia’s official submission for Best International Feature Film at the 2020 Academy Awards®.
Movie Website: http://www.umbrellaentfilms.com.au/movie/buoyancy/
Buoyancy features: Sarm Heng, Thanawut Kasro, Mony Ros
Writer/Director: Rodd Rathjen
Runtime: 93 min
Australian release date: The Farewell screening in Perth at Luna Cinema, Leederville from Thursday, 26 September.
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