The most caustic sequence in “Ghost Fleet” comes at the end, when a montage runs chronologically backward to follow a fish from a plate back to the water. This documentary, directed by Shannon Service and Jeffrey Waldron, describes how trafficking networks trick Southeast Asian migrant workers into lives of forced labor aboard ships to satisfy the demands of Thailand’s sprawling seafood industry. (Service reported on the issue for National Public Radio in 2012.)
The movie primarily observes Patima Tungpuchayakul, a labor activist in Thailand seeking to rescue the fishermen and obtain compensation for them. She travels to Indonesia looking for men who have escaped the boats and information about the offending fishing companies. In some cases the men she encounters spent years at sea before breaking free.
We’re told that the sort of nosing around Tungpuchayakul engages in can get you killed. In the eeriest sequence, filmed at night, she and her colleagues discover a secret fishing outpost the men have told her about. The film also includes harrowing testimony from survivors. One man describes swimming to retrieve the head of a friend who was decapitated by a rope on the boat. “I thought he should have a full body even though he was dead,” he says.
Re-enactment footage acts as visual padding that dilutes the words’ power. “Ghost Fleet” hits its marks as advocacy, but editing might have put more emphasis on the individual men, added further detail about the illicit networks or tracked Tungpuchayakul’s journey in a more focused and suspenseful manner.
Not rated. In Thai, Bahasa, Khmer and English, with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour 30 minutes.
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