“Ghost Fleet” sounds like it could be the latest release from Blumhouse Productions, but the documentary from filmmakers Shannon Service and Jeffrey Waldron is more frightening than any fabricated specter. Next time you head to the supermarket to pick up the catch of the day you may want to consider whether human trafficking played a role in the acquisition of your evening meal.
Thailand is one of the world’s largest seafood exporters with the United States being its top destination. That means much of the seafood we consume, from sushi to frozen fish and shrimp, is brought in from the Southeast Asian country. Due to overfishing, the Gulf of Thailand has become one of the most barren parts of the ocean, so captains and their crews are forced to travel thousands of miles to find fish.
Journalist Shannon Service spent six months investigating Thailand’s fishing industry and she discovered that many of the men on the fishing boats are slaves brought in from impoverished nations that include Myanmar, Laos, and Cambodia. After being sold for a few hundred dollars by human traffickers, the men are forced to work around the clock for little or no pay. Also, many of the laborers can’t swim and so they are held hostage at sea on ships that rarely come close to land. The fish caught is transferred to a larger vessel and then transported back to the mainland.
Service broke the story in 2012 on NPR’s “Morning Edition.” For the documentary, she teams up with cinematographer Jeffrey Waldron (“Rising from Ashes”) to highlight the efforts by the Thai NGO known as the Labour Rights Promotion Network Foundation (LPN) founded by social worker Sompong Srakaew and his wife Patima Tungpuchayakul after witnessing the injustices in Thailand’s seafood industry.
With a backdrop that resembles supplementary footage from “Apocalypse Now” the documentary focuses on the rescue efforts by Patima as she travels the waterways looking for slaves who may have escaped by jumping off the boat and swimming to the first sight of land they encounter. While some are caught and imprisoned, others make it to Indonesia and start families with the local women. One rescued slave, Tun Lin, now works with the LPN to help liberate other captives. As the film points out to this day over 4000 men have been rescued by Patima, Tun, and reporter Chutima Sidasathian.
Thailand’s sex industry plays a role in the story as some of the slaves are kidnapped men who are abducted after having an encounter with a sex worker. They wake up and find themselves on a ship where they are given drugs to keep them awake and working long hours. Each of the victims interviewed for the film has a different harrowing story to share. Their time imprisoned ranges from a year to over 20 years. As Patima and her crew rescue some of these men, they are reunited with their families via cell phone like Pong who in an emotional scene, reconnects with his grieving father.
“Ghost Fleet” is an eye-opening film that sheds light on the dark underbelly of global seafood powerhouse Thailand. To this day the work of the LPN continues to liberate men from their captors. Next time you order sushi or buy fish from the supermarket you may want to consider where that food came from and how it was caught.
Now showing at Landmark's Magnolia Theatre in Dallas.