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Truth, Fiction, and Somali Pirates: ‘Captain Phillips’ vs. ‘Stolen Seas’

Truth, Fiction, and Somali Pirates: 'Captain Phillips' vs. 'Stolen Seas'

One is a riveting Hollywood adventure, the other a searching and nuanced documentary, but “Captain Phillips” and “Stolen Seas” — which, taken together, comprise the year’s most engaging double bill — traverse similar narrative and thematic terrain. Both ask, in every sense one might mean the phrase, where the truth lies. They raise uncomfortable questions about truth, fiction, and the purpose of cinema that reach back to the art form’s earliest days. Where is the dividing line between realism and reality? What is the truth content of the documentary? What obligation do films “based on a true story” have to historical accuracy? When is “the truth” true, and when does “the truth” lie? “Stolen Seas” is a complex, fact-based portrait of the roots of Somali piracy, and “Captain Phillips” is an affecting, fictionalized depiction of its consequences, but one thing remains clear: non-fiction does not preclude falsity, and fiction is not the absence of truth. 

Director Thymaya Payne’s “Stolen Seas” toggles between the harrowing experience of the Danish vessel CEC Future, carrying U.S. steel from Belgium to Indonesia that was hijacked by Somali pirates in 2008, and a wide-ranging examination of the reasons behind the flourishing business of piracy around the Horn of Africa. Deftly woven from re-enactments, audio recordings of the tense negotiations over the fate of the CEC Future, and interviews with pirates, hostages, executives, and expert analysts, the film is perhaps the fullest cinematic account of modern piracy. If you have seen, or plan to see, “Captain Phillips” — or indeed if you have ever encountered a context-free segment about a pirate attack on the nightly news — “Stolen Seas” is essential viewing.

The documentary’s most intriguing figure is Ishmael Ali, a translator, negotiator, and camel herder hired by the hijackers of the CEC Future to serve as their conduit to the ship’s proprietors. Speaking in clipped, impeccable English, he strikes a far more clear-eyed note than either the heroic Robin Hoods of studio fantasies, Douglas Fairbanks and Jack Sparrow, or the panicked magnates proclaiming extortion on a grand scale. “Every man gets something out of pirates,” he says. “The sandwich place, the cab driver, the prostitute, the drug dealer.” One hijacker, sporting sunglasses and a scarf to obscure his face, holding a grenade in his hand and a pistol on his lap, denies being a pirate at all. “We are not the pirates. They are the pirates that crossed our border waters. Forcefully taking our resources, wealth, and lives.”

As “Stolen Seas” suggests, the truth of the matter is that one man’s extortion is another’s profit-taking. Just as the Somalis gloss the captive sailors’ ordeal as collateral damage in a larger struggle, the businessmen neglect to mention Western complicity in Somalia’s desperate economic condition or their own contorted efforts to avoid government regulation as they lament crime on the high seas. Ali learned English and once lived in the United States, but he and his interlocutors fail to find a common language. Nevertheless, the hijackers and their targets inhabit the same frontier: as Vanity Fair correspondent William Langewiesche says, “both sides are benefitting from operating outside the constraints of the nation-state.”

“Stolen Seas” proves so effective because it stakes a strong claim to accuracy on this shifting ground of “truth,” carefully threading the needle of what we can know around what we cannot. The CEC Future’s distress call and the subsequent negotiations reveal the scripted ploys of experienced players, the strange conventions of frequent practice, but what the speakers leave unsaid is just as compelling. Where the truth lies often remains, in the empirical sense, inaccessible.

By contrast, “Captain Phillips” renders the inaccessible immediate: Greengrass, a skillful hand when it comes to docudrama (“Bloody Sunday,” “United 93”), revels in realism’s jostle, even if it means sometimes crowding out the mundane aspects of the real. Based on the captain’s reminiscences, the film follows Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks) through the fretful hours of the Maersk Alabama’s 2009 hijacking in a near-constant state of tension — it left me wrung out like a tattered rag, weak-kneed from the excitement. It may also be something of a fabrication. (Slate’s Forrest Wickman has an extensive analysis of the film’s accuracy here.)

In the final estimation, each film deserves the other — the whole that emerges from their two halves lends “Captain Phillips” context and “Stolen Seas” texture. The experience of each is better for the other’s existence. Ishmael Ali proclaims himself a businessman and acknowledges that “piracy feeds a lot of people”; “Captain Phillips” shows young Somali men clamoring for space on the hijackers’ boat and culminates in a series of stricken cries, as profoundly emotional as anything I saw at the movies this year. I cannot exactly pinpoint the truth of the matter in either case, but that’s merely a way of saying that one man’s imprecision is another’s joy. 

“Captain Phillips” is playing in theaters nationwide. “Stolen Seas” is now available on VOD. Read TOH! contributor Bill Desowitz’s “Immersed in Movies” column on “Captain Phillips,” Dana Brunetti and Michael de Luca’s comments on the controversy surrounding the film, and Tom Hanks’ interview at the London Film Festival.

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