This indie doc about modern slave labor in the East Asian fishing industry is well-intentioned but pulls its punches when they’re most needed.
There’s quite the focus on mortality in Shannon Service & Jeffrey Waldon’s directorial debut. Granted, it’s about as much as one would expect from a documentary called Ghost Fleet, but those ghosts are more than just spirits: they’re throngs of people, both lost and found, whose brushes into anonymity renders them victims of corporatization.
In the past several years, thousands of unemployed men throughout East Asia applied for jobs in factories and farms only to be forced into slave labor by fishing companies. Some were held for a year, some for 20 or more. Many found themselves uprooted from their home countries of Myanmar, Indonesia, Thailand, and more, as culturally stranded as they were mentally and physically. Enter Patima Tungpuchayakul, founder of the Labor Rights Promotion Network.
Her group saved thousands of men in the last few years and, despite earning a Nobel Peace Prize nomination in 2017, her work has gone largely unrecognized. One has to wonder why; her iconoclastic efforts are more than an upheaval of corporate greed. They’re of human rights and spirituality as well. “It felt like the spirits helped us,” Tungpuchayakul even says as she watches over a graveyard. But while Ghost Fleet brings a massive issue to the forefront, it does a lackluster job at establishing and blending its economic, cultural, and social implications.
The movie putts along rather quickly in its first half as it introduces a plethora of men. Some are fathers and husbands; some live more solitary lives. The most consistent attribute, though, is their all-too-understandable need to some sort of social connection, which is where the film works on what may be its most consistent level.
Ghost Fleet is more focused on the harm we do see, not the evil we don’t.
Whereas most films would unintentionally rob these men of their identity, Service & Waldon make the keen decision of framing them as shadows of their former lives. The camera stays on them as they recount their friends, families, and co-workers, and the editing veers into dissociation as they unspool their worst experiences. It could have fallen into exploitation, but it plays as sympathetic here, truncating trauma with Tungpuchayakul’s humanism.
It’s when Ghost Fleet looks at these consequences that it works the best. It’s aggravating, on the other hand, for it to rarely connect its own dots economically or politically. Service & Waldron take the easy route of opening the film with expository title cards, and what do they end it all with? An anti-establishment call to action, which, while playing as earnest, highlights the film’s shortcomings. The idea of international greed overpowering the most intimate parts of life is a provocative idea. It’s too bad that it’s stuck in a pretty myopic film.
There are some parts, such as the aforementioned scene of Tungpuchayakul in the graveyard, that quietly reprieve the sadness. There are also hairline discussions of the workers’ religion that imply more than show. One fisherman talks about how Eastern philosophy helped him get through his years of captivity. Says another, “I became a monk for myself and for my friends who had died.” In between these moments is plenty of potential, but Ghost Fleet is more focused on the harm we do see, not the evil we don’t.
After all, avarice is what forced these men into these positions. What about its wider implications? What about the bait-and-switch fascism that crushes one’s sense of self? What about the clash between public and personal—the sort of amorality that threatens the core of one’s culture? Instead, the documentary seems to land in the box of “money is the root of all evil,” and while that cliché is certainly true, it’s also at times just that—a cliché. There’s a decent amount in Ghost Fleet. There’s even more that’s left untouched.
Ghost Fleet is currently playing in select theaters, including the Landmark Century Cinema in Chicago, Illinois. Get tickets here.