Sarm Heng, Thanawut Kasro, and Mony Ros in "Buoyancy" (2019)

Sarm Heng, Thanawut Kasro, and Mony Ros in Buoyancy (2019)

Shot in Cambodia, with dialogue in Khmer and Thai, Australian director Rodd Rathjen’s debut feature is an intense drama about immigrants desperate for a better life. The story focuses on Chakra (played by impressive first-time actor Sarm Heng), a Cambodian 14-year-old boy trading his unhappy upbringing for an even tougher future. Chakra works in a rural rice field with his family and longs for a better, less difficult life. Without telling his family, Chakra travels to Thailand, joined by his older pal Kea (Mony Ros), with the idea of working in a Bangkok factory. Soon enough the pair discovers that they have been sold as slaves on a shipping vessel ruled over by the cruel captain Rom Ran (actor-director and stuntman Thanawut Kasro). Like the rest of the imprisoned crew of Cambodians and Burmese men, they are forced to work up to 22 hours a day and thrown overboard if they refuse. Chakra tries not to draw attention to himself but is soon targeted by Ran, who delights in abusing the youngster. The boy veers from quiet rebellion to stand up to Ran with mortal terror. And buoyancy.

Rathjen shot this first feature at sea, in the confines of a small trawler, with a largely untrained cast, most of whom didn’t speak English. To complicate matters further, the shoot happened in the wet tropical heat of a Cambodian summer. Despite the difficulties, the writer-director managed to make a tense thriller with an important social justice narrative. “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. I thought a film would be a great way to bring that voice to the world,” says the director who was inspired by the stories of the many survivors he interviewed. “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”, adds Rathjen.

After his acclaimed short Tau Seru, premiered in Cannes at the 52nd Semaine de la Critique in 2013, Rathjen premiered Buoyancy in the Panorama section at the past Berlin Film Festival where it won the Ecumenical Jury Award.