Directors Shannon Service and Jeffrey Waldron brought their feature film’s debut to Telluride earlier this month, but I was unable to make the launching of their distressing documentary, “Ghost Fleet,” due to scheduling conflicts. The pair received a standing ovation at the world premiere, and followed up by taking the film to Toronto where it was also warmly received.
I was able to catch up on the film following the festival, and I am very glad I was able to, as it is one of the better docs I will likely see this year.
“Ghost Fleet” delicately brings to light the Thailand seafood industry, and the illegal and unregulated fishing trade that has been manifesting off its shores for the past few decades. Thailand is one of the largest exporters of seafood in the world, but over-harvesting has created a need for boats to travel farther and farther off their shores to find fish. When the local fishermen started to turn down jobs that would take them out to sea for months on long expeditions, the criminally run industries took extreme measures to find men to handle this demand.
We are brought into the narrative alongside Patima Tungpuchayakul, a courageous and altruistic activist who co-founded the organization LPN (Labor Rights Promotion Network Foundation) with a focus on protecting children from the nightmare of working in sweatshops. After hearing the wild stories of men who had been abducted and cast to sea for years – sometimes decades – away from their families and loved ones, Patima decided to take action. She soon discovered that there were tens of thousands of men who have been enslaved against their will on these fishing excursions, and she began to work diligently with LPN, as well as past survivors of the trade, to find and bring these captives home. Beyond just their safe return, Patima has worked with many of the men to seek reparations for the work they provided for these companies without pay, and for the crimes that were committed against them.
“Ghost Fleet” earnestly recounts the harrowing tales of these survivors, often in their own words. We see how they were misled into thinking they were being given jobs in factories, only to have traffickers strip them of their names and provide them with falsified passports. With the police and local mafia in on the deal, the men had nowhere to turn for help. The film reveals the grueling tasks they were forced to take on for many years without ever seeing land or compensation, and the realization that many faced that they would never make it out alive. Sailing from Thailand to the many islands of Indonesia, some of the men were able to escape, while others were either recaptured or, frequently, murdered at sea when they had been worked to the bone and could no longer carry their weight. We listen to the survivors tell how they witnessed their friends being beaten to death with metal pipes, starved, stabbed, and drowned. To make matters even more heartbreaking, many of the men Patima finds have started new lives and families in Indonesia, and are unable to return to their homes in Burma for fear that they won’t be able to come back to their spouses and young children.
Patima’s determination is fearless and inspiring, much of which she credits to being a cancer survivor. Her battle with this terrible disease has allowed her to think differently to survive, and in turn, she has dedicated her life to helping others survive as well. Seeking justice and freedom for the enslaved fishermen, Patima and her crew risk their own safety while corrupt companies wipe out everything in their path: from ruining ecosystems to destroying the lives of men and the families who are left with no explanation to their sudden and mysterious disappearance. The film becomes both joyous and overwhelmingly heartbreaking as Patima helps the men become reconnected with the families they have not seen in many years.
“Ghost Fleet” is a power-packed gut-punch that is both intense and infuriating, and is wholly deserving of Academy Award consideration. Patima Tungpuchayakul is a saintwalking among men, as she and her organization are responsible for the safe return of over 4400 men who were previously captured or stranded. For her valiant efforts, Patima was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2017, and The Associated Press (who supported her efforts) won the Pulitzer for their innovative coverage of her mission.
While illegal fishing is still rampant worldwide, governments like Thailand are working to abolish slave trafficking and increase the conviction rate for these heinous offenders thanks in large part to the marvel that is Patima Tungpuchayakul.