‘Buoyancy’ is Australia’s submission for the Best International Feature Film Oscar


Writer-director Rodd Rathjen’s debut feature Buoyancy, which opens in cinemas today via Umbrella Entertainment, has been put forward as Australia’s official submission for the Best International Feature Film prize at the 2020 Academy Awards.

The recognition follows the premiere of the Khmer and Thai-language film at the Berlin International Film Festival in February, where it won the Ecumenical Jury Prize and placed third in the Panaroma audience awards.

Produced by Causeway Films’ Sam Jennings and Kristina Ceyton with Rita Walsh, Buoyancy details the story of a 14-year old Cambodian boy (Sarm Heng) who heads to Thailand search of a better life, only to find himself trafficked and enslaved on a fishing trawler.

The film was selected for submission to the Academy by a committee of Australian industry professionals convened by Screen Australia.

Screen Australia CEO Graeme Mason said: “Buoyancy is a thought-provoking and moving story about human trafficking, but also a universal story of how poverty dehumanises people. The creative team from Causeway Films have a great track record of creating powerful debut feature films that resonate with audiences locally and internationally. This demonstrates how Australians are capable of telling world stories for global audiences. It’s a great privilege to submit this distinctive film to the Academy on behalf of Australia.”

The story of Buoyancy is inspired by real events and informed by more than 50 interviews Rathjen conducted with people who had been trafficked onto fishing boats, as well as interviews with local communities, former ship captains and NGOs, and other research. An estimated 200,000 men and boys are thought to be in slavery and forced labour in the fishing industry in South East Asia.

For the filmmaker, informing the project with the voices of slavery survivors was vital. “It’s not my story. It’s their story. From that point of view, I wanted to make a film with them, not for them,” he tells IF.

Jennings and Ceyton had wanted to work with Rathjen since they saw his short Tau Seru at Cannes Critics Week in 2013, and had kept in contact to see what he as developing.

“When he sent the script, we really knew nothing of the slavery in South East Asia on fishing boats, nor did we know much about the modern slavery crisis. We were completely floored. But we also fell in love with the way he told that story, which was very sparse, minimal and cinematic – very subtle, very subtextual. The power of his style of storytelling, combined with the subject, was something we instantly wanted to support,” Jennings tells IF.

A significant portion of the cast are first-time actors who have experienced forced labour on fishing trawlers. Even one of the few professional actors in the film, Thanawut “Dam” Karo, who plays the ship captain, had worked on a trawler as a kid. The crew were predominantly Cambodian, as well as from Thailand, Myanmar and Vietnam.

For the filmmakers, making sure the narrative was authentic as possible was critical in order to give a visceral understanding of life on these boats .”We’re trying to engage an audience with the human story and experience, from the desperation of wanting to leave, to the process of being trafficked and then being exposed out on the water,” Rathjen says.

Ultimately, the director regards the cast, crew and people he interviewed for the film as generous and courageous.

‘Buoyancy’ lead actor Sarm Heng and writer-director Rodd Rathjen.

“So many of the guys we talked to [said] “Can you please make this film so it doesn’t happen to somebody else?’ That was the ultimate goal with the film. They were so desperate for their voice to be heard. There’s not a lot of support, understanding or information. Although a lot of them really wanted to migrate to Thailand for work, if they had understood what was at stake, they wouldn’t have gone.”

Jennings agrees: “We had incredible goodwill from the cast and crew, because pretty much everyone in Cambodia knows or has been close to somebody who’s gone to Thailand in search of work and never come back, or been killed or died in that situation. People really wanted to make the film; the commitment level was quite incredible.”

Beyond the theatrical release, the filmmakers are running social impact campaign in partnership with organisations like Stop the Traffik and Anti-Slavery Australia.

“You leave the film feeling quite affected by it. It’s really important that people then have a sense of what they can do to be proactive and make a difference, and not just feel overwhelmed by the situation in terms of modern slavery,” Jennings says.

Headed by impact producer Jackie Turnure (Ghosthunter), the campaign is multi-pronged.

They’ve launched a campaign, calling on Minister for Foreign Affairs Marise Payne and the Federal Government to help develop a standard for Australian seafood and pet food, similar to a ‘fair trade’ sticker, so that consumers can know how it was sourced and if they want to, choose to buy slavery-free.

The Buoyancy website also links audiences to research and information on seafood supply chains and sustainable restaurants, and offers tools to act. Eventually, Turnure would like to eventually develop a pet food ‘report card’ with Stop the Traffik, similar to apps that exist for free range eggs.

“We’ve been meeting with a lot of supply chain experts and learning about how you track and audit, and help companies clean up their supply chain so that there is traceability and transparency,” Turnure says.

Another facet of the the campaign is education. The team have run screenings with the South East Asia Centre of Sydney University, as well as business and law students to drive conversations about ethical supply chains. “If we can a raise new generation of business people who are actually thinking about their business and its role in labour rights and sustainability, then that would be a really good thing.”

The final pillar of the campaign is prevention. The film will be released in Cambodia October 18, Anti-Slavery Day. “One of the campaign elements is to take this film on the road in Cambodia to inform the young men and boys in the villages that this happens, so that hopefully they won’t go. The bigger problem of course is that the reason they go is that they’re in really dire poverty; there aren’t many opportunities and they’re looking for work for their families in whatever way they can. But obviously it would help to know that there is a risk, and maybe they need to ask more questions or be more circumspect,” Turnure says.

While social impact campaigns are typically the domain of documentary, Turnure now has a track record impact producing for fictional features Ali’s Wedding and Sweet Country and TV dramas The Heights and Stateless. For Turnure, if an audience cares about the issues at the heart of a project – whether it be a ficitional work or a doco – there is a ability to reach them, drive conversations and affect change.

Since 1996, Australia has submitted 13 for Best International Feature Film (formerly Best Foreign Language Film) including the Yolngu Matha and Gunwinggu language film Ten Canoes (2006); Warlpiri language film Samson and Delilah (2009), Lao language film The Rocket (2013) and Nauvhal language film Tanna (2016), which was awarded an official nomination.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences will announce the five nominations for the international feature film Oscar on Jan. 13. The winner will be announced Oscar night in Los Angeles on February 9.

‘Buoyancy’ is in limited release from today.