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Film Review: ‘Ghost Fleet’

This impressive documentary, about the modern-day slave labor fueling the Thai fishing industry, sparks more questions than it answers.

Ghost Fleet review
Courtesy of Berlin Film Festival

The revelatory documentary “Ghost Fleet” condemns the modern-day slave labor fueling the Thai fishing industry while focusing on the work of Bangkok-based advocacy organization Labor Rights Promotion Network Foundation (LPN), a group dedicated to ending slavery at sea. Combining chilling testimony from formerly enslaved men, some wincingly arty recreations of their ordeals, and on-the-ground footage of rescue missions run by LPN, the final product, while impressive, sparks more questions than it answers. Producer/co-director Shannon Service was part of a reporting duo that broke the story of slavery on Thai fishing boats on National Public Radio’s “Morning Edition” in 2012. Cinematographer/co-director Jeffrey Waldron contributes striking visuals for the testimony and recreations that sit uneasily alongside the unadorned documentary footage of the LPN team at work.

Thailand’s seafood industry is one of the largest in the world, but decades of illegal and unregulated fishing has forced boats to travel farther from Thai shores to find fish. As local fishermen have refused to be at sea for months, some companies have taken extreme measures to solve their labor shortage, paying human traffickers for duped or kidnapped workers from rural Thailand or impoverished neighboring countries like Myanmar and Cambodia. These unfortunate men have been kept at sea in slave-like conditions, brutalized by those in charge, fed amphetamines so they could work around the clock and rarely brought near land. Instead, the catch from their boat was picked up by a mother ship that also dropped off food for the crew.

Some of the men escaped by jumping overboard in remote Indonesian waters and making their way to land. Some of the escapees were caught by the fishing companies and left to languish in squalid private prisons while others managed to hide in the forest. Eventually, some of the men formed new families, marrying and having children with Indonesian women living in poverty. This was the situation of Tun Lin until LPN helped him return to his native Myanmar and win a court settlement against the company that benefited from his forced labor. Tun now works with LPN co-founder Patima Tungpuchayakul and chief researcher Chutima “Oi” Sidasathian, accompanying the two on similar rescue missions in Indonesia.

Although the film seems to suggest that LPN at some point helped liberate men from private prisons, that type of rescue mission is never shown here. Rather, Patima and her co-workers visit Indonesian island backwaters such as Benjina and Kaimana where the fishing companies, unnamed here, are known to dock and where there are reports of private lockups. By making discreet inquiries, the rescue team locates several men who somehow freed themselves from the Thai fishing boats but are unwilling to take advantage of the offer of repatriation; they don’t want to leave their Indonesian wives and children. In such cases, Patima shoots cell-phone footage of the men, promising to get the images to families that have long mourned for them back in Myanmar.

When LPN does find men willing to return to their homelands, we see the distress this causes their Indonesian families. Questions such as how long the men — the main breadwinners of these households — will be gone, and who will pay to get him back to Indonesia, are never addressed.

Perhaps the film’s most poignant moments come as it captures the reunion of a former enslaved man, Pong, with his father. From an initial phone call where we see Pong crumple at the sound of the older man’s voice to their embrace at the airport, this is raw, powerful footage that doesn’t require the intervention of Mark Degli Antoni’s insistent score.

As the film winds down, we are told that major brands, supermarkets and restaurants around the world are still selling fish caught by slaves, as a montage of seafood branded as “Product of Thailand” whizzes by. However, we are never given information about what these brands may be or what measures, apart from being aware of provenance, concerned audiences might take. Kudos to Service and Waldron for their worthy efforts in bringing both a vile practice and an indispensable organization to public attention, but “Ghost Fleet” should not be considered the last word on either.

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Film Review: ‘Ghost Fleet’

Reviewed online, Chicago, Feb. 16, 2019. (In Berlin Film Festival, Culinary Cinema; also in Telluride, Toronto film festivals.) Running time: 90 MIN.

  • Production: A Vulcan Prods., Seahorse Prods. production. (International sales: Endeavor Content, Los Angeles.) Producers: Shannon Service, Jon Bowermaster. Executive producers: Paul G. Allen, Carole Tomko, Jannat Gargi, Rocky Collins, Shari Sant Plummer, Shannon Joy, Julia Ormond, Geralyn Dreyfous. Co-producers: Greg Kwedar, Louis Psihoyos.
  • Crew: Directors: Shannon Service, Jeffrey Waldron. Camera (color), Waldron. Editor: Parker Laramie, Elisa Bonora. Music: Mark Degli Antoni.
  • With: Patima Tungpuchayakul, Tun Lin, Chutima “Oi” Sidasathian. (English,  Burmese,  Thai,  Khmer dialogue)
  • Music By: