It's quite a feat to embed an empathetic coming of age story within a thriller about slavery practices in the international fishing industry, much less to direct your cast in languages that you don't speak. Oh, and all with your first feature film. But Rodd Rathjen and his team of Australian and South-East Asian collaborators pull it off in the shocking and affecting Buoyancy.
A young Cambodian boy, Chakra (Sarm Heng), works in the rice fields with his family, clashes constantly with his stern father, pines for an unattainable rich girl, and agitates to improve his lot in life, quickly. A meeting with a broker leads to the 14 year-old doing a midnight flit, lured by the vague promise of steady work and big money across the border in Thailand. It speaks to the power of his imagination that Chakra maintains a degree of optimism even after realising that he's been conned. After being channeled through several checkpoints by (and with) a variety of strangers - Chakra is loaded onto a fishing trawler, having been sold to its merciless captain as slave labour.
Over the course of months (years? The timeline is intentionally vague), we witness Chakra's worldview shrink and his youthful spark diminish, as his early disillusionment gives way to dread. Chakra watches on as a series of fellow captives meet grisly ends at the whim of the mercurial captain, until willing himself to summon the smarts to avoid a similar fate, and somehow plot escape from his tiny floating prison on the expansive Thai seas.
In a claustrophobic drama such as this the casting is vital, and newcomer Sarm Heng's expressive understatement makes us understand Chakra's motives at every turn.
The feature debut of VCA graduate Rodd Rathjen, Buoyancy is intense and harrowing - how could it not be? - and grounded in realism. As Rathjen outlines in the interview below, everything that transpires on screen is drawn from the real accounts of survivors.
Buoyancy premiered internationally at the Berlin International Film Festival where it won the Prize of the Ecumenical Jury and an Amnesty International nomination, and was in the critics top ten for Screen International and Sight & Sound. It had its Australian premiere at the Melbourne International Film Festival and a limited cinema run in Australia in 2019, before capping off the year with wins at the Asia Pacific Screen Awards (Best Youth Feature Film) and the Macao Film Festival (Audience Choice Award and a Best Actor award for Sarm Heng). In January it screens at the Screen Wave International Film Festival, on the mid-north coast of New South Wales, before making its FTA television debut on SBS World Movies later in 2020.
How did you come to make a film about modern slavery on Thai fishing ships?
Well, the first time I read about the issue I was quite shocked, and I started to do a lot of research it. I felt this immense empathy for these guys, being exploited and subjected to this crazy brutality. And so, after a period I thought that a film would be a great way to try and bring their voice to the world because the issue's been going on for decades, and they really haven't had a voice. I mean there's been some reporting on the issue, obviously, but really nothing was changing over such a long period.
I interviewed a lot of guys, all survivors, and they've just inspired me to want to make a film with them about what they'd experienced.
How did you find survivors who were willing to share their experiences with you?
I just looked for them. A lot of them were in the process of being repatriated back into Cambodia and Myanmar and they were dealing with immense PTSD from their experiences. It's not what you’d think of as a ‘happy ending’ for them just because they survived; they've got to live with that experience for the rest of their lives, and reintegrating back into the community, and with their families, was just another huge challenge for them. I suppose that some of those I interviewed were closer to assimilating, but with others, you could tell that the challenge was going to continue for the rest of their lives.
Your lead character, I don't think we find out his name in the film, but is he a composite of a few of the stories?
Yeah, yeah. I wanted to try and create a collective experience, but mainly I didn't want to make an “issue based” film. I just wanted to create a human portrait of being exposed to this world. Some people have commented on the fact that he's only 14, and questioned that. Actually there are stories of 10 and 11 year olds going over there and being subjected to this as well. It's a collective experience and we had to be really careful not to base it on one particular person or survivor because there's potential for retribution within their families and communities if it got out that we were showing one particular person's story. All of the things that happen in the film have happened to someone that we interviewed.
Tell us about how you balanced showing the terror of the experience, with make an engaging and thought-provoking film?
It's a fine balance. I mean, it's got to be watchable for an audience. If we actually showed what it is really like on the boats, it wouldn't be watchable. It'd be too intense. It's about that balance, making it as authentic as you can without deterring an audience from going to watch it. It's such a balancing act.
And add the extra degree of difficulty in making your film in languages that you don’t speak, in locations you had little experience with...
Well, the key to making this film was to not think about it too much about the obstacles before we went over and did it. Because if we did, we may never have made it. But, obviously the key was the casting. We had the most amazing casting director, Non Jungmeier, who's Thai and she's been working in Southeast Asia for the last 30 years. I actually met her on one of the early trips that I did and we stayed in touch and when we were finally financed, she had the benefit of time, and knew exactly what the film was, and the sensibility of what we were trying to do. Because of that we managed to cast it quite quickly. The language was less of an issue because the casting was really good.
In terms of locations and all those fun logistical challenges about shooting on water, that was just a bit of a learning process for myself and Sam (Jennings), who was the producer on the ground over there. It was a constant problem-solving conversation about how we were going to do it and because we didn't have a huge budget to make it. We just worked through them and shot at an island, just off Sihanoukville called Sok San Long in Cambodia for the most part of the shoot. I think it was 26 days. So we had to try and line up the locations between Phnom Penh and seeing Sihanoukville so that we didn't have to travel too much in between.
Sarm Heng is a revelation as Chakra. How did your casting director find him?
He's a former street kid who was adopted into an NGO in San Marie, called Green Geckos, when he was two years old. He was adopted off the streets and Green Geckos adopted around 100 kids from really impoverished circumstances. They've raised them and given them an education and they're just amazing kids. They're full of confidence and they're really bright. They were doing the auditions and he just really stood out, he's really just a great kid, and he's so strong for a 14 year old. I thought I was going to have to cast someone a lot older, who had more life experience in that role, but he's kind of already had that in spades.
He's got real presence, and a great face.
It's going to be interesting to see what he does now. He's really interested in music, and so we'll see where he goes.
And speaking of great faces, there's Thanawut “Dam” Karo as the captain and the smiling assassin (pictured, above)
Oh yeah. He's an actor, but he hasn't done much that's like this. He would always say to me, 'I've been waiting for this role my whole life'. Because I think the roles he gets maybe aren't as dimensional, or with this aesthetic and sensibility. He does a bit of work in China as well as in Thailand and he's actually directed some stuff too, but he worked on a trawler as a kid from 11 to 13 years old. He brought so much to the role: in working through scenes and with the translation from English to Thai, he'd say, 'Nah, it's not like that, they'd say it like this', or 'he's more crude than that'. So he was really good to lean on for a lot of stuff.
So with the film now complete and out there, and traveling the world, have you encountered any pushback from the fishing industry?
I don't think we're that big yet! Yeah, I mean, I don't know. I'm not really sure what the response is going to be like from Thailand. I mean when they got issued with the yellow card from the European union a few years ago, they've had to implement measures with the fishing industry to prevent this. I think those measures are working on some level, but I'm not sure how much, I'm not sure. I don't think, but wait and see I suppose. [Editor's note: the yellow card was lifted in January 2019]
So what's next for you off the back of this? Where do you go from here?
Yeah. Well I'm working on another project, but I can't talk too much about it cause it's quite early on, it's, God, how do I talk about it without talking about it?! It's a very different in terms of budget and scale, but there's a lot of similarities with Buoyancy in terms of the research and the authenticity and other things that are really important to get right.
And that's how you talk about it without talking about it!
Ha, yes, sorry about that.
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Tuesday 4 May, 7:50pm on SBS World Movies / Streaming after at SBS On Demand
Wednesday 5 May, 11:45pm on SBS World Movies
Australia, Cambodia, Thailand, 2019
Genre: Drama, Crime
Language: Cambodian, Thai
Director: Rodd Rathjen
Starring: Sarm Heng, Thanawut Kasro, Mony Ros, Saichia Wongwirot, Yothin Udomsanti