By Rhiana Davies-Cotter

In the last few years, there has been an increase in media coverage of slavery in Thai fishing fleets. Seafood is the world’s most traded food commodity, and this fuels a devastating billion-dollar industry of human rights abuse, forced labour and imprisonment.

In Australia, two-thirds of the seafood we consume is imported. Unless you actively ensure that the seafood you consume is ethically-sourced, it’s quite likely that the crumbed fish you enjoyed on Friday night was caught by slaves who are forced to spend months, years and even decades as prisoners aboard fishing trawlers. The true stories of these slaves are what inspired Rodd Rathjen’s debut feature film, Buoyancy.

“I didn’t know anything about this slavery until I read a report about it a few years ago,” Rodd remarks. “I started to research the subject and was shocked by the scale of the problem – and by the fact that there was so little awareness about it. I read lots of accounts from survivors and was blown away by their stories of capture, slavery and resilience. I realised that a film would be a great way to raise awareness of this issue, and to tell the stories of survivors. There are documentaries about this subject, but I wanted to engage audiences with a human story – something they could connect with.”

To get Buoyancy off the ground, Rodd approached Samantha Jennings (the co-founder of Causeway Films, known for producing The Babadook, Cargo and The Nightingale), who had previously expressed a desire to work with him.

Samantha Jennings and Rodd Rathjen (far left) and star Sarm Heng (centre) at the Melbourne International Film Festival premiere of Buoyancy

“We had a couple of meetings with Rodd about this project,” Samantha says. “We learned all about the stories he was uncovering. Rodd sent us the first draft of the script, and we absolutely loved it. It was so beautifully told, and it had Rodd’s unique cinematic style and voice. We knew that the film had to be made, and decided to develop it with him.”

Rodd and Samantha wanted the film to be as authentic as possible, so they spent years researching the subject. “We took trips to Cambodia and Thailand, and spoke to hundreds of survivors about their stories,” Rodd says. “I learned all about how they became slaves, what it was like, and how they survived. Their stories were devastating in every way. Even though these people survived this horrible, unimaginable cruelty, they are all still dealing with PTSD and struggling to reintegrate back into their communities – and even their families.”

To Rodd and Samantha’s relief, these survivors were supportive of the film, and longed for someone to tell their story. “Everyone we interviewed begged us to tell this story,” Samantha remarks. “There was a very strong sense that these people felt unheard and unseen, and we felt a really strong responsibility to put their stories out there.”

Rodd’s vision for the film was to show audiences exactly how this slavery occurs, and to give the ordeal a human face. “I wanted the audience to engage with the human story at the centre of the film,” Rodd says, “so that they really feel the emotional and psychological impact of this issue.”

The film centres around a 14-year-old Cambodian boy, Chakra – played by first-time actor Sarm Heng – who secretly leaves his home in search of a better life. Chakra is unknowingly sold to a Thai slave broker, and is enslaved on a fishing trawler. As fellow slaves are tortured and murdered around him – in increasingly brutal ways – Chakra realises that his only hope of freedom is to become as violent as his captors. “I think portraying the story through the perspective of an impressionable 14-year-old kid allows the audience to empathise with the story more,” Rodd remarks.

“I also wanted to explore the cycle of violence – I didn’t want to portray the captors as typical ‘bad guys’. I wanted to show how they got to that point – and how anyone, even a young boy, can be driven to violence through the right circumstances.”

To add to the authenticity of the film, the cast is made up of Thai, Cambodian and Burmese first-time actors. “Most of the cast had never acted before,” Samantha says. “There’s something wonderful about working with new actors – it brings a sense of realism, and a lack of self-consciousness, to the film. Rodd was adamant that the labour on the trawler was as realistic as possible, so lots of the cast members had actually worked on fishing trawlers.”

Young Cambodian actor Sarm Heng also had his own experience with fishing trawler slavery. “One of the main reasons Sarm wanted to be part of this film,” Samantha remarks, “was because his dad’s best friend was enslaved and killed on a fishing trawler. Sarm wanted to tell this story for his father.”

Buoyancy was shot in Cambodia, over a five-week period. Four of these weeks were spent shooting on the ocean, which was incredibly challenging for everyone involved. “We were in the middle of the ocean, on a small fishing trawler,” Samantha says. “It was boiling hot. There was no internet, no phone reception. There was stinking fish on board. Everyone got sick. We really gained a sense of what life would be like on these trawlers. Thankfully, everyone was incredibly committed to the film. It was hands down the most challenging thing I’ve ever done – but also the most amazing.”

The challenging shoot created a strong bond between all of the cast and crew members, who still keep in touch today. “We’re all very close, and very much in contact,” Samantha says. “A couple of the Thai cast members are wanting to go back to the island where we shot for a few days, to hang out. We all sort of miss it. There’s a very strong bond between all of us.”

Buoyancy is not intended to be a film that you watch and then forget. There is an impact campaign surrounding the film that aims to spread awareness, create positive change and educate vulnerable communities. “We want viewers to take positive action,” Samantha says. “We want to inform them about ethical supply chains and give them the resources they need to make better choices about the ethics and provenance of their food.”

“We plan to use the film as an educational tool,” Rodd adds. “We will show it to people in villages and communities that are particularly vulnerable to this slavery. We have also connected with a huge network of anti-slavery organisations and partners who are doing great work to combat this slavery.”

“There are hundreds of thousands of these men and boys out there right now, living as slaves,” Samantha says. “And we all have the power to stop it.”

To keep up to date with the impact campaign surrounding the film, visit

Buoyancy is in cinemas September 26, 2019


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