Australian Rodd Rathjen’s first film as director, “Buoyancy” is a powerful dramatization of human trafficking within Thailand’s offshore fishing fleet. Shot largely in Khmer and Thai, and selected as Australia’s foreign-language Oscar contender, it may also be a role model for cultural sensitivity and activism.

The film plays this week in competition at the International Film Festival & Awards Macao.

Having discovered the harrowing subject in an online report, Rathjen set about interviewing survivors and escapees from the fishing fleet. Then he put together a cultural consultancy draft of the screenplay, before shooting it as authentically as possible. “We always had people who had been on the boats in the film in non-speaking roles,” Rathjen told Variety. “We could always ask while we were filming – everything from understanding the fishing process, to understanding the emotional and psychological trauma.”

Because of its subject, the film would not have been granted permission to shoot in Thailand. Instead, it lensed for three weeks off the coast of Cambodia and for two weeks in port.

The result is a sun-drenched tale of poverty, desperation, deception, brutality, and ultimately murder. The efficiently-told story follows two Cambodian teenage boys who cross into Thailand in hope of getting a factory job. But they end up as indebted slaves, and sold as crew for a small ship that rarely ever returns to shore.

“My approach as a foreigner was to make this film with them, not for them,” said Rathjen, though he also says he is also sad that fishing industry trafficking has been going on for years and “these guys still don’t have a voice.”

The decision to shoot a fiction film, rather than a documentary was an important one. “You hear about these stories from survivors, but I wanted to engage an audience with the human journey. Documentaries find it hard to have access to the brutality – you can hear about it – but seeing it through a young character at a very impressionable age, watching the impact of the brutality, hopefully asks questions of an audience. A fictionalized piece allows us to take the audience into that world,” said Rathjen.

The film premiered at the Berlin festival in February and has since made the tour of festivals, picking up awards in Berlin, Mumbai, Oslo and the APSAs. It recently began a commercial release in Cambodia. Rathjen has also travelled with the film to the rural parts of the country from where people are recruited into desperate, abusive employment.

To date it has not screened in Thailand, which operates one of the largest fishing fleets in Southeast Asia. Thailand was issued with a yellow card warning about human trafficking by the European Union, and has been forced to make some cleanup efforts.

“(Thai authorities) are very protective of their industry, and knowing how effective those (cleanup) measures are, is hard to say. I’m sure it is improving, but I’m also sure (trafficking) still exists today,” said Rathjen. “There is not enough presence out on the water to stop it happening.”