Shot in Cambodia during a heady 5 weeks, with a cast of mostly non-professional actors, Rodd Rathjen’s Buoyancy, based on his own interviews with survivors of the South-East Asian slave trade, centres on Chakra, played by impressive first-time actor Sarm Heng. An impressionable 14-year-old Cambodian boy in search of a factory job in Bangkok, Chakra is taken hostage and enslaved on a fishing trawler run by a sadistic captain who himself was sold into trafficking.
We spoke to Rathjen about what motivated an Australian to make Buoyancy, which won the Panorama prize at the prestigious Berlin Film Festival this year.
How did this project begin?
I first read about this in an environmental justice report many years ago and couldn’t believe the level of human rights abuse and exploitation that was going on in the fishing industry in Southeast Asia. It started from there. I did a lot more research about the fishing trade in Southeast Asia. I thought a film would be a great way to bring that voice to the world.
You were inspired by the accounts of the survivors that you interviewed?
It’s based on the stories of so many survivors that I interviewed. Kind of a combination of their stories and what happened to them. I’ve framed the narrative around the desperation of wanting to leave Cambodia and the process of being trafficked into Thailand, being exposed out on the water; the emotional and psychological impact of trying to live and survive in that world.
How did the details that you picked up inform the filmmaking?
The research was one side of it, we also had three actors from Myanmar who actually worked in the fishing industry. They were in our cast in the film. And Thanawut Kasro, who plays the captain, he worked on a trawler as a kid from 11 to 13 years old. We tried to make the film as authentic as possible. We were constantly listening and working with those guys to make it as real as possible.
Did you instantly feel that this was a universal story, a film that needed to be made?
The most important thing for us was to try and engage an audience with the human cost of being exposed to this world. That was why we wanted to make a film about it. For me, it was important for the audience to see how we could possibly end up on the other side of that violence and becoming the inflictor. We wanted to make the characters as rich as possible and as human as possible, and also to understand how someone can become inhumane as well, being caught in that world.
The film visually feels like a hybrid of a narrative and a documentary. What was behind the aesthetic?
It’s a fictional piece, but it’s based on the variations of experiences of so many different boys and men that have been trafficked and exploited in Southeast Asia. The whole approach was to take the audience into this world and allow them to experience it. It’s important to expose the audience to this world. Try and keep that young, impressionable adolescent point of view and allow the audience to go on his journey and through this world and through his eyes. This world is so unique. You just don’t see it very often, a fishing trawler with a group of men. It’s like a floating prison.
Did you have a discussion with your producers on the film’s depiction of violence?
A lot of confronting things happen in the film. It’s a balance between trying to make it authentic, but also not too explicit so that people can’t watch it. We tried to imply a lot of the violence and what was going on, and I still think it has a really powerful impact.
How prepared were you prior to the shoot?
We had to be pretty organised. We only had a five week shoot. I storyboarded the film before we went to Thailand. We had a lot of references, and we had to be really conscious of how much time there was to cover scenes, and working with different locations and how they fit in with the production schedule. We had a really strong outline before going into shooting. Yes, it changed and shifted when we were filming because things came up. But it was really important to have that be organised because we didn’t have time to fluff around.
Did filming on the water present any logistical challenges?
Filming on water was hard. Seasickness for cast and crew was a huge thing. We tried to shoot in an area that was protected, and which wasn’t too rocky or wavy, and wasn’t exposed to wind. But we had to shoot some scenes far from land. That was unavoidable. No phone or data coverage was a huge challenge, because people go a bit stir crazy in today’s age with no internet. And shooting on a boat, it’s a really confined space. So, we also had a supply boat that we could use, and people could come on and off.
Did you encounter any budgetary limitations during the filmmaking?
It was a constant challenge. Just trying to be efficient in as many ways as possible. We had the drone for one day, and we had the underwater shots on the same day. We had three units going on one day, which was pretty hectic. So, a drone underwater, and also a main unit with a camera. But you just try to do everything that you can, and you make compromises along the way, because you don’t have the money. But we were really well supported.
Buoyancy opens in cinemas on September 26, 2019