In 2009 there was a swarm of news reports about
piracy off the coast of Africa. I got intrigued by the subject because of the
thrilling hijack stories, but almost immediately focused on the Somali side of
it. The pictures of the tiny skiff next to the immense sea tankers simply
wouldn’t leave me.
We in the Western world always see Somali pirates
as “the enemy,” and for valid reasons. But when I started to read about them,
the picture got more nuanced. Why did all the pirates come from this particular
country, when there are many other poor countries with access to the sea? Who
are these robbers? What motivated them to risk their lives?
Somali is one of the most dangerous countries in
the world. There is a lack of education, healthcare, infrastructure – all the
hallmarks of a dependable government. After the collapse of the Somali
government in 1991, the nation’s waters were rapidly exploited through the
foreign depletion of fisheries and dumping of toxic wastes. These events
sparked the initial piracy.
A practice that began in self-defense has,
however, transformed into an immensely profitable piracy industry.
It was hard to find a pirate who was willing to
share his life with us. We collaborated with a researcher, a talented Somali
journalist. We searched for about 18 months. Most pirates dream of leaving Somalia,
moving to Kenya or the UK. They might be arrested in those countries if they openly
discussed their activities in a film.
As a female director, I became very curious when
I heard about the rise of a few women pirates in Somalia. This seemed like such
a powerful image in a pre-dominantly male world. Our researcher managed to find
and interview many of them.
But after translating the interviews carefully, it
became clear these female pirates were not the real deal. One woman said to
another just before the interview started, “I will play a pirate who just got
divorced,” and her friend added, “Then I will be the pirate who has two
children.” Jamal, our researcher, found out that many of the pirates who
had been on American TV news shows were actually fake pirates.
We realized that in a country where poverty
rules, everyone will try to make a little bit of cash, even if that means
pretending to be a pirate for camera crews.
Then our researcher found Mohamed, an independent
pirate, who has done a number of successful and failed hijacks over the years.
He told us that he has no ambition to leave Somalia, since it is his home
country. Initially, we saw Mohamed and his quest for one last hijack as the
center of the film, but the better we got to know him and his family, the more
intrigued we became about the family’s dynamics, the frustrations of his
father, the disappointments of his mother, and the relationship between Mohamed
and his fiancée Muna. I felt immediately that this was the story I wanted to
For Somali women, pirates are a possible escape
from a life afflicted by violence, poverty, and lawlessness. It’s said
that pirates marry the prettiest girls. But marrying a
pirate doesn’t provide any real security for these women. They get easily
sidelined for a younger, more attractive woman.
Mohamed told us he divorced his last wife through
text; he has been married four times already. And he has nine children with his ex-wives,
whom he all abandoned. His parents take care of his children. Muna, Mohamed’s
fiancée, doesn’t support piracy, and will not accept that Mohamed wants to
set up another hijack. She married him anyway, received the dowry, but left
after a couple of weeks.
The story I ended up telling about pirate life is
one about family, chronicled in Last
Hijack, co-directed by Tommy Pallotta. It is so far the only pirate film to
date actually shot in Somalia, and includes animated sequences to explore Mohamed’s memories, dreams and fears from his point of view.
Last Hijack made its theatrical debut
on October 3 and is currently playing in theaters. It is also available on VOD
platforms including Amazon Instant Video, Comcast,
Google Play, iTunes, Time Warner Cable, Sony PlayStation, Vimeo On Demand, Vudu
and XBOX Video.
Watch the first three minutes of Last Hijack: