For many of us, the subject of slavery is the stuff of history books — something to learn about in school, not a reality that people face today. In “Ghost Fleet,” an alarming documentary by directors Shannon Service and Jeffrey Waldron, we are shown a form of modern slavery that sounds impossible, like something out of a nightmare. Unlike the traditional issue-driven documentary, which typically unfolds like a newsreel, this one plays like a thrilling jungle adventure.
The film’s entry point is Patima Tungpuchayakul, a Thai human rights activist and, with her husband, Sompong Srakaew, co-founder of the Labour Rights Promotion Network Foundation (LPN). At first, Tungpuchayakul focused her attention on child labor. But after a while, she could no longer ignore the men who she learned were captured and forced to work on fishing boats.
“Ghost Fleet” begins with the stories of these men, many of whom were kidnapped from Thailand and Myanmar (also known as Burma) and forced to work on fishing boats for long stretches, handing over their catch to a “mother ship” in exchange for food. One of these men recalls that he did not see dry land for years. Service and Waldron dwell on their stories teasingly, just long enough to evoke the hellish reality they faced. Most of the film is a travelogue, with Tungpuchayakul and her LPN colleagues searching for fishermen on remote islands in Indonesia. The goal is rescue, but rescuing them is not so simple.
While slave-caught fish is a disturbing trend — the film explicitly states that it can be found in American grocery chains — “Ghost Fleet” is more stirring as a portrait of real-life heroism. In mainstream Hollywood entertainments, rescue missions often involve hidden fortresses or desperate escapes involving people shackled in a dungeon. In actuality, it’s more about patience: ordinary people who have the dedication to find those who have been forgotten.
As Tungpuchayakul reaches the end of her voyage, she tries to persuade these former slaves to return home with her. Many of them are too afraid. Some, after being marooned in an unfamiliar place for months or years, have new lives and new families. In the film’s most poignant moments, former slaves record video messages for loved ones they have left behind, assuring them they are fine. Some of them have lost the language they spoke before their abductions.
Aside from a smattering of English dialogue, most of the film is in Thai or Indonesian (along with some indigenous languages). This raises a question: Are these Western filmmakers — separated from their subjects by a language barrier — exploiting people who have already been exploited? “Ghost Fleet” makes no attempt to answer this, instead keeping its focus on Tungpuchayakul, who at one point discovers a secret village where illegal fishing still occurs. (The people living there appear to be more alarmed by the camera crew than anything else.) At times, “Ghost Fleet” is so immersive that it’s easy to forget that we’re watching a documentary. At other times, that illusion falls apart.
Despite some unanswered questions and gaps in its storytelling, the film leaves an impression. Yes, it’s issue-driven, but in a roundabout way. More than anything, Service and Waldron want their audience to identify with these former slaves, who have had unspeakable things happen to them. By tackling their stories — and what they’ve endured — head on, it makes its point, leaving a bad taste in your mouth about that discounted tuna at your neighborhood supermarket.
Unrated. At Landmark’s West End Cinema. Contains disturbing images of fishing accidents. In Thai, Indonesian, Myanmar and other languages with subtitles. 90 minutes