Ghost Fleet is a documentary about slavery in the Thai fishing industry; a film that grew out of a smaller piece that Shannon Service – the documentary´s co-director – did for NPR back in 2012.
Ghost Fleet tells the tale of modern-day sea slavery by focusing on the Bangkok-based abolitionist Patima Tungpuchayakul, who has devoted her life to fighting sea slavery and rescuing fishermen from the clutches of unscrupulous businessmen.
Together with her team and her assistant Tun Lin, Tungpuchayakul visits remote islands in Southeast Asia to free men who are being held captive by the illegal fishing operations. For Lin, understanding the plight of these sea slaves is easy. At age 14, Lin himself was kidnapped and this would be the start of 11 years of forced fishing without pay.
For the viewer, it becomes very clear that this is an issue that encompasses both food, human rights and environmental issues.
At film festivals around the world, interest in the documentary has been strong, and it has also received quite a lot of reactions from the food industry.
”We didn’t do a name-and-shame film where we point out one company, because it’s a systemic issue; if that particular company were to shift, people would think the problem was solved when it’s not,” says Service in an interview. ”So it’s really opened doors in seafood circles in a reflective way, rather than in a bad-PR way.
A story that needs to be told
For Shannon Service, the film is the result of seven years of investigating the Thai fishing industry.
”I’ve been on this story for seven years. I started with another reporter, Becky Palstrom, and together we spent six months looking into slavery in the Thai fishing industry,” Service explains.
Service started out with a radio documentary and working on that piece convinced her to do a documentary film as well.
Obtaining financing for the film project was neither easy nor straight forward.
”You go shoot a little bit, raise money, shoot more, raise more money,” Service explains. ”Luckily, there were ocean-focused groups who really saw what we saw: That slavery is the Achilles’ heel of overfishing — these boats went further and further from shore and they needed a labour force. So human traffickers stepped into the gap and started selling people. If you have to adhere to good labour standards, decent pay, and get men home to their families, you can’t send these boats around the world skirting international and national laws to catch fish.”
Eventually, Service manged to convince several heavy-hitters to support the documentary film project, including the director of The Cove and the production company Vulcan Productions.
Enough for a multitude of movies
While working on the radio documentary, Service listened to a multitude of stories from people harmed by the illegal fishing industry.
”While we were doing this reporting, it also became obvious that the underbelly of the fishing industry was a crazy, fascinating world. Each one of the men we interviewed could have had a Hollywood film scripted about him,” she says. ”These men left home with the best of intentions to support their family; they were convinced to go into Thailand, or they just walked into a bar and were drugged and woke up on board. (…) Some of them had never seen the ocean before or swam, and suddenly they’re on a boat for many years. ”
Naturally, many try to escape from slavery, but it is difficult, and even if they succeed, getting back to their families can prove impossible without the help of people like Patima Tungpuchayakul.
”If they do see land, they’ll grab something that floats, jump into the water to escape, land on an island, and then sleep in trees to avoid snakes,” says Service. ”Or they’ll marry into an indigenous community, but their actual family thinks they’re dead. And they have no hope of getting home.”
Turning the typical Hollywood narrative on its head
Service says that one of the reasons why her film project was so difficult to find funding for was the lack of a traditional narrative.
”This is about a woman of colour saving men — so it turns the typical Hollywood narrative on its head. We actually had a lot of opportunities to get fully funded if we could “find a character that the audience can relate to.” , Service explains. ”And that’s code for white, straight men. (…) We heard things like, “OK, we’ll give you the funding as soon as you find the Western hero that speaks English.” And the message is, these issues are only solved by Western heroes, which is rarely the case. But we stood our ground. I’m very proud of the film for that and proud of our team, but it’s definitely been much harder.”