BUOYANCY, Australia, 2019. Starring Sarm Heng, Thanawut Kasro. Directed by Rodd Rathjen. 93 minutes, Rated M (Mature themes, violence and coarse language)
This is an issues film. And, it is a very strong issues film: contemporary slavery and exploitation in Southeast Asia. In fact, the audience watching experience some rather grim sequences which will need some buoyancy to keep watching and reflecting.
While the dialogue of the film is in the languages of Cambodia and Thailand, it is an Australian production, the director growing up in Victoria and making a number of short films, here making his feature debut. Buoyancy has won a number of awards, including the Ecumenical Award at the 2019 Berlin Film Festival.
While the film is a narrative, its attention to detail in the lives of families in Cambodia, the people smugglers, the harsh regime on the fishing trawlers off the Thai coast, it could also serve as something of a documentary expose of its situations.
The narrative becomes more personal as the audience is introduced to a 14-year-old Cambodian boy, Chakra (Sarm Heng in his only acting role so far) carrying a sack of fertiliser which he then throws out on to the rice fields. He works with his family in the fields, going to their meagre home, angry with his father for having so many children, unwilling to work for his brother, yet going out to play football with his friends. But, he decides to leave, expecting to get a better job and some pay working in a factory.
We know that this will not happen. There is an ugly picture of how the people smugglers work, lining up their customers, demanding money, cruel when the money is lacking, cramming people head to toe in trucks under tarpaulins, delivering them to the wharves in Thailand, their immediately having to empty the barrels of fish from the local trawlers. And, no factory. Slave labour incessantly on the trawler, sorting the fish, picking out a large one to offer to the captain, swirling the decks to clean them, cramped sleeping quarters, having to get the rice out of a container with a mug. Day after day, day after day.
So, we see Chakra and we see through his eyes, dismay, disappointment, some anger, some underlying rage, especially with the way that a friend he met on the way who is looking for money for his family is treated by the captain and his assistant, his mental state disturbed – leading to his death, although he had proclaimed a number of times that on the trawler, they were already dead.
The captain is often all smiles even as he is cruel, as is his assistant. The captain explains to Chakra that his young life was similar to his, though harder, and he takes a shine to Chakra, expecting him to follow in his footsteps.
There is quite some violence in what is to follow, Chakra both angry and shrewd.
So, the audience spends most of the film at sea, observing the workers, a feeling of dread were we to find ourselves in such circumstances – and, what would we do, how would we react, are there limits?
Information is given at the end of the film, statistics are offered, the reality of this kind of slavery and exploitation in Southeast Asia.
Umbrella Films Released September 26th
Peter Malone MSC is an Associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting.