Bringing Light to the Darkness of Human Trafficking (Trafficking in Persons)

The hellish circumstances of Chakra’s life are unrelenting and saddening. They provide the audience with an intimate view into a personal story of social injustice. Forced labor and slavery are topics at the forefront of this gripping narrative, and now audience members have a chance to experience Rathjen’s film, which recently opened virtually via Kino Marquee.

This is Rathjen’s feature-length debut. Previously he directed the shorts Sweat, Tau Seru and The Stranger. He has quickly become a filmmaker to watch because Buoyancy was selected as Australian’s official Oscar submission, and it picked up the Ecumenical Jury Prize at the Berlinale Panorama.

Recently Hollywood Soapbox exchanged emails with Rathjen about the new movie. Questions and answers have been slightly edited for style.

Was there a particular person or story that inspired you to write this screenplay?

After reading some articles about human trafficking and slavery in the Thai fishing industry I decided to do my own research and talk to survivors. All the survivors I interviewed are the inspiration behind the film. They have been voiceless for decades. They were so courageous in pouring their hearts out about the emotional and psychological trauma of being subjected to this world. The film is testament to their resilience.

Their stories about the process of being trafficked were quite similar — going with a broker they had heard from a friend or family member, being loaded into the back of utes at the border and being tricked. Most thought they were going to work in a factory or construction, and then when being subjected to the world out on the water all had stories of unimaginable working conditions, torture and murder. There was overwhelming sadness in all their stories.

Another common thread was that survivors all faced serious challenges reintegrating back into their families and communities. The reasons for this varied but was largely due to the intense level of trauma they experienced.

Was it always your intention to also direct the project? What’s it like to direct your own script?

It was always my intention to write and direct. The research process was quite involved and took a few years, so it made sense to bring that experience into directing the film. Directing your own script means there’s nobody to hide behind if it doesn’t work. I was fortunate to be surrounded by an incredible cast and crew who really bought into the kind of film we were making. I was particularly well supported by the producers who helped me develop the script before we made the film together.

What do you feel the story of Chakra can teach viewers?

Taking the point of view of a 14-year-old boy through this extreme world expresses the innocence that’s at stake if things don’t change in the Thai fishing industry. Chakra is a character who is desperate for independence but still at a very impressionable age. The captain of the trawler has lost his humanity and grooms Chakra down a similar path to the one he has experienced as a child. For me it was important to show the cycle of violence and how you can become capable of such brutality, and hopefully their relationship provides insight on that. I didn’t want to have a one-dimensional villain. The captain in the film provided an opportunity to understand the systemic abuse, torture and dehumanisation that can filter down the generations in this world. Chakra’s story becomes an allegory for a generation of boys and men who could be lost if things don’t change. 

Do you feel there needs to be more movies and stories that expose the exploitation that occurs in the world?

Absolutely! Cinema is such a powerful medium for expressing unheard voices. Human trafficking and modern slavery is not only happening in South East Asia but all around the world. It is estimated there are currently 40 million people enslaved worldwide, a staggering figure. We need greater ethical traceability in our supply chains to ensure human rights and people’s lives are protected. We all have a responsibility to be conscientious consumers and to put pressure on those companies and industries where exploitation is taking place. 

How difficult was the production, and what was it like working with Sarm Heng?

At times I was nervous about the challenges we faced; shooting in a foreign language, working with non-actors, having a child in the lead role, filming on water. The reality of these factors wasn’t as bad as I imagined. Anytime I found myself being overwhelmed when shooting I thought of the boys and men who we were making the film about, and suddenly the challenges we faced became insignificant. 

Sarmy is a very talented kid. It’s hard to believe that he was only 14 when we made this. Initially I thought we would need to cast an older boy because life experience would be invaluable, but Sarm already had plenty of that. He has been raised in Green Gecko in Siam Reap, which gives former street children an opportunity for education, mentoring, health initiatives and social enterprises. The kids and adults that have been brought up in Green Gecko are simply amazing. He was so natural and uninhibited in front of the camera that we stopped looking as soon as we found him. We didn’t rehearse much of the film in pre-production. It was more important for us to get to know each other and for him to trust me because a lot of the scenes are emotionally challenging to say the least.

How much has COVID-19 disrupted the distribution of this movie and your overall filmmaking career?

I think we have been lucky as we have sold and distributed to a number of territories before COVID hit. For me personally all I can say is it’s a good time to be writing and in development. There’s a lot of uncertainty about how the immediate future looks for the industry.

By John Soltes / Publisher / This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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