‘Ghost Fleet’ Documentary A Chilling Look Into The Lives Of Thailand’s Trafficked Fisherman

Synopsis: Ghost Fleet, directed by Shannon Service and Jeffrey Waldron, follows a rescue operation across Southeast Asia performed by Patima Tungpuchayakul, co-founder of LPN (Labour Rights Promotion Network Foundation), and her crew. Their mission is to find and bring home those that have escaped the modern-day slavery that often goes undetected on Thai fishing vessels, wherein young men are coerced into going to sea aboard boats that can sometimes go years without docking. (4/5)

Review by FF2 Intern Anika Guttormson

Shannon Service and Jeffrey Waldron expose the human trafficking market that lies in the dark underbelly of the Thai fishing industry in their documentary Ghost Fleet. As audience members, we witness the horrors of illegal fishing as we follow activist Patima Tungpuchayakul across Indonesia. Her and her crew are seeking out those that have been left stranded in foreign countries after escaping their abusive fishing captains. Tungpuchayakul started her organization, LPN (Labour Rights Promotion Network Foundation), with the desire to help kidnapped and trafficked children. As time went on and she began to learn more and more about the exploitative fishing industry, she decided that locating these men and helping them return home was a calling that could not be ignored. 

Ghost Fleet doesn’t shy from sharing detailed and harrowing stories from the survivors of Thailand’s illegal fishing industry. Voiceover interviews with these survivors, from Thailand and Myanmar, are played over slow-motion shots of their faces as they share their accounts of being coerced into vessels that never make port, sustaining life-threatening injuries, and sometimes witnessing the deaths of their friends. Reenactments, including the staging of “found footage” shots in which boys who look young enough to be in middle school are shown sorting fish on ships are used, taking the viewer through the life of a fisherman and giving the viewer details of their abuse without becoming graphic. Oftentimes these men are forced to leap into the ocean and swim to shore in order to  escape. Many of the ones who do escape end up in Indonesia, where Tungpuchayakul goes to retrieve them and bring them home.

Tungpuchayakul is the star of the documentary, alongside her husband and her organization’s co-founder, Sompong Srakaew. Service and Waldron track Tungpuchayakul as she walks her small group of volunteers through Indonesian villages, asking locals to help her in her search for men who have been abused by the illegal fishing industry. Tungpuchayakul’s strength and desire to help these stranded men shines through onscreen. She tackles her job with an incredible amount of patience, continually combing back through the same routes she’s already traveled to see what else there is to be uncovered, and tracking down the more elusive men who seem to have previously missed her visits. Her constant desire to help those in need is incredible to witness—it’s no wonder that she has won many awards for her tireless work.

When the LPN volunteers find men who have managed to flee their boats and make homes in Indonesia, they offer them a chance to return to their home countries with LPN, or to record video messages for their families back home. In Ghost Fleet, many of these men choose to stay in Indonesia, having already learned the language and started new families. Some of the most heartbreaking testimonials come from moments in which survivors and volunteers alike are confronted with the reality that for many of these men, their past lives have been violently ripped away from them. Some refuse to return home out of fear of not being able to make it back to their new families, some refuse because they’ve forgotten their native language, and others hesitate out of fear of disappointing their families back home. 

Ghost Fleet’s testimonials ask the audience to empathize with the victims of illegal fishing, but the film offers few solutions. By visiting the production’s website, you can see some information on how to help, including what fish to avoid if you want to avoid potentially unethically caught fish (tuna and shrimp), and a push to contact lawmakers and industry officials. Unfortunately, this advice feels underdeveloped in the context of the documentary and many questions are left unanswered. Which Western companies are trading for these illegally caught fish? Are they aware of the humanitarian violations committed by these companies? If so, what can we do as consumers to push these Western companies to source ethically caught fish? Asking viewers to do their own research is not a sufficient alternative for providing well-researched information, and to go through the time and effort it takes to craft a portrait of an incredible activist only to fail to include a substantial call to action feels dismissive of her work. 

Despite these problems, Ghost Fleet highlights the little-known truth of Thailand’s illegal fishing industry with an incredible activist in the spotlight. 

© Anika Guttormson (6/25/18) FF2 Media

Photo Credits: IMDB

Q: Does Ghost Fleet pass the Bechdel-Wallace Test?

Yes, Patima Tungpuchayakul often speaks about her life and her calling to be a helpful force for those around her. 

Tags: anika guttormson, documentary, FF2 Media, Indonesia, Thailand

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Anika Guttormson is a film student studying at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, NY.
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