Do you know where your seafood comes from? The fact that I don’t was made disconcertingly clear when I watched Ghost Fleet immediately after eating some kind of pasta/seafood concoction, the origin of which I could only trace to the freezer section at Trader Joe’s. The new documentary focuses on the men who are kidnapped and enslaved on fishing boats to meet our significant appetite for seafood, and the fact that it made me wonder about my own habits is a sign that Ghost Fleet is dealing with compelling subject matter. That’s an important foundation for a documentary, and in this case, the strength of the topic along with the raw reactions of some of the enslaved men interviewed are just enough to rescue the film from the directors’ inclination to get in their own way.
Ghost Fleet’s narrative is driven by Patima Tungpuchayakul, who co-founded the Thailand-based Labor Rights Promotion Network Foundation, an organization that works to rescue the thousands of men who have been enslaved and forced into labor on fishing boats. The men are occasionally able to escape by swimming to one of the thousands of Indonesian islands they get within swimming distance of, and it’s those islands to which Tungpuchayakul and her team go to attempt their rescue.
The film follows a seven-day trip to Indonesia to find escapees, and the moments in which Tungpuchayakul and her team approach the men and offer to take them home are the film’s most compelling. The interviews with the men soon reveal that after years in captivity, many of them have also been on the islands for years, and they’ve started new lives and in some cases, new families. Directors Shannon Service and Jeffery Waldron effectively capture the emotional reactions of these men being offered the impossible choice to stay with the lives they’ve come to know, or to return as “ghosts” to families and languages they barely remember and a home where they’re presumed dead.
Tungpuchayakul and her story are also a fascinating part of the documentary, though her drive to venture into dangerous waters to rescue the escapees is a narrative thread that doesn’t get quite enough attention. There is brief mention of a battle with cancer that “changed her paradigm,” and a moving show of frustration and anger at a mass grave for men who died or were killed after attempting escape, but a more nuanced consideration of Tungpuchayakul could have added dimension not only to her story, but to Ghost Fleet as a whole.
That kind of hesitation to work with the story they had is Service and Waldron’s most notable misstep in making this film. They were instead inclined toward a heavy-handed and overproduced approach to filling in gaps. They created hazy reenactment-style footage to replace or illustrate some of the moments they couldn’t have filmed, like men being kidnapped or violence on the ships. This overproduction is distracting at best, and at worst, it risks undermining the atrocity of the underlying events.
Those events and these people are important, and more of us should know about them. To that end, Ghost Fleet succeeds. The film will certainly have an impact on almost any viewer despite the fact that the production occasionally gets in the way of the core story, a woman who has dedicated her life to rescuing the enslaved, and the men who have to decide what “rescue” really means.