Monday, September 29, 2014
Last Hijack is playing on October 3 at the New York Film Festival.
A recent wave of films about Somali pirates cleaves to the pattern one culture usually follows when incorporating stories from another into film. The first generation of features dramatizes a phenomenon from the point of view of the culture that produces the films; the second looks at it from the perspective of the culture in which the story is rooted. It usually takes years for that cycle to play out (just think how long it took mainstream American movies to explore race relations from an African-American perspective), but the Somali pirate movies emerging from the West have condensed it into just a couple of years. In 2012 and 2013, A Hijacking, Captain Phillips, Stolen Seas, and The Project adopted the perspective of white people, most of them Europeans and Americans, who were being held hostage by, negotiating with, or trying to outwit pirates. This year's Last Hijack, like another 2014 documentary, Fishing Without Nets, constructs its narrative around one of the pirates, focusing not so much on what he does as on why.
Last Hijack's Mohamed is no flashy Hollywood antihero, with his un-showy affect, slightly buck teeth, plump face, and doughy body (his little pot belly, the only one in sight, is probably a sign of his success), but the money he made in past hijackings has bought him visibility and respect in his small hometown. That respect is a big part of why he keeps returning to piracy, he says—that and the fact that it nets him far more than he could earn doing anything else, making it possible to have a nice car and several wives (at the peak of his earnings he had four, though they're all history by the time we meet him). The film's frequent animated sequences, which are used to illustrate episodes in Mohamed's imagination as well as his past, suggest a few other answers to the question of his motivation by illustrating the narrowness of his options and his nation's instability, including the flood that drove his family off their farm when he was young, the tribal wars that killed his brother and wounded his father shortly afterward, and the robberies his father then resorted to for money. When the animated Mohamed goes into pirate mode, morphing into a gigantic raptor that soars over the ocean, flapping down to grasp a big ship in his talons and carry it off, it's easy to imagine the sense of freedom, power, and control that piracy gives him.
The rest of Mohamed's life, as we see in the live action sequences, is characterized mainly by aimlessness and frustration. His work consists of brief stints of breaking up and hauling off rocks, one of the few legit jobs available in his town, alternating with planning sessions with the crew he’s assembling for what he claims will be his last hijack. He spends much of the rest of his time preparing for his marriage to a pretty young woman, Muna, who first extracts a hollow promise that he’ll stop being a pirate. He also visits his gently persistent parents, who chastise him constantly for abandoning his children, for not eating right, for chewing too much khat, and, most of all, for refusing to stop being a pirate.
We never see or hear the filmmakers, but their presence is felt in the rapport the camera establishes with its subjects, who talk comfortably and act naturally, if sometimes a bit shy, in its presence, whether we are following Mohamed or spending time with a civilian as they talk about Mohamed or the effects of piracy on their lives. Every so often, we witness a moment so perfectly timed that you wonder if it may have been reenacted, like when a radio broadcaster who speaks out against piracy and corruption stops what he’s been saying about how many journalists—including his own brother—have been murdered for doing the same. He’s been interrupted by a series of phone calls from someone who wants to intimidate him or worse.
The calls are not from Mohamed, but he’s done his share of terrorizing and killing hijacked hostages, as we see in some of the animated flashbacks. It’s hard to imagine those deeds being performed by the mild-mannered man we see in live action, getting scolded by his mother or fixing up a house for his strong-willed young bride. The distance between those two realities makes this movie intriguing, inviting us to think about the forces that can drive a seemingly ordinary guy like Mohamed to do something so desperate and cruel.
Written for Slant Magazine