Sitting safely in my heated American home, it’s hard to imagine there are 40 million people still in slavery worldwide, 200,000 of them trapped on fishing vessels in Southeast Asia. The Australian feature Buoyancy effectively tells the story of one such slave.
For his full-length debut, Australian writer/director Rodd Rathjen didn’t take the easy way. After interviewing 50 slavery survivors and storyboarding his script, Rathjen set off for Cambodia, filming for three weeks at sea and two weeks on land.
Experienced from the perspective of his main character Chakra (Sarm Heng), Rathjen imbues his film with a hyperesthetic realism. The realism emerges from meticulous attention to tiny details: Chakra’s worn soccer jersey, his family’s wooden home on stilts, the rusty sides of the trawler where he ends up, the exhausting grind of sorting each day’s haul with flimsy plastic implements. The heightened sense of reality comes from the close-ups of Chakra’s eyes absorbing his alien landscape, the overhead and sidelong shots of the trawler alone in a sundrenched seascape, the Peter Weir-like synthesizer score during dialogue-free pauses in the action.
Besides the music, there was much in Rathjen’s film that reminded me of the style of fellow Aussie director Peter Weir, especially his own sea drama, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World. Both films have scenes of a dreamlike intensity (again, aided by the music). Both contain memorable long-distance shots highlighting the isolation of a ship at sea. But where the solitude of Weir’s British warship emphasizes the necessity of community and solidarity when so far from home, the isolation of Buoyancy illustrates how the slaves aboard the trawler are utterly abandoned, with no hope of deliverance.
Despite its wordless interludes, Rathjen keeps his film bobbing along briskly during its 93 minute run time. It opens with 14 year old Chakra feeling land-bound, compelled to obey his father’s bidding among the rice paddies of rural Cambodia. Enviously watching better-off peers walking home from school in their uniforms, he foresees a dead-end future, exchanging servitude to his father for servitude to his older brother.
When a soccer chum brags of the big money he earned on a construction gig in Thailand, Chakra follows his direction to a local employment broker. Transported to Bangkok illegally on a promise of work in a pineapple factory, he’s instead forced onto a trawler, tasked with dredging up little fish to be packaged ultimately as pet food.
Lorded over by a sadistic crew of three, Chakra bonds with a fellow Khmer, similarly duped by promises of higher pay across the border. The two of them quickly learn that any perceived slacking leads to beatings or murder, their labor rewarded only by a cup of rice and barely drinkable water, before literally crawling into their claustrophobic sleeping quarters for a few hours of shuteye.
As the days wear on, Chakra displays a resiliency – no doubt, the buoyancy of the film’s title – lacking in the other captives. When a big fish is trapped in their nets, he cannily takes it to the captain (Thai actor Thanawut Ketsaro) and crewmen for their dinner. The captain, a believably frightening sociopath whose violence is more implied than shown, discerns glimpses of his younger self in Chakra and begins grooming him for future leadership.
For an acting novice, Sarm Heng plays young Chakra superbly. His early optimism and drive are plausibly beaten down by his exhausting days, to be replaced a hollow gaze, dead man’s shuffle, and near-total mistrust by Buoyancy’s closing scenes.
My criticisms of Rathjen’s film are scant. I do question his choice to leave his characters unnamed until the credits. Perhaps this is to signify the nameless hundreds of thousands represented by Chakra, but I’d contend that giving names to these victims would confer dignity upon them.
More significantly, the events of the final act stretch credibility, with enough of a tonal change that it almost feels like we’re stepping into a different movie genre altogether. I hoped interviews with the director would show he based this part of his script on survivors’ narratives, but I found no such evidence.
Nonetheless, I commend Rathjen’s artistry, storytelling, and efforts to bring attention to this ongoing crime against humanity. From reading Ian Urbina’s The Outlaw Ocean last year, it’s clear this mass slavery persists openly under the nose of Thailand’s navy and port authorities, to the enrichment of the country’s leaders. Hopefully, the dual spotlights of Urbina’s journalism and Rathjen’s filmmaking will spur Thailand to aggressive action ending this practice.
(Buoyancy is available to stream on these platforms.)
(Image credit for star rating: Yasir72.multan CC BY-SA 3.0 )