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How This First-Time Filmmaker Shot a Film at Sea in Somalia… and Won at Sundance

How This First-Time Filmmaker Shot a Film at Sea in Somalia... and Won at Sundance

Cutter Hodierne is a 27-year old filmmaker born and raised in the U.S. In 2012, he flew to East Africa and made a film about Somali pirates in the Somali language using almost entirely non-actors from the region and shot almost entirely on a boat at sea. The result, “Fishing Without Nets,” is the morally complex answer to “Captain Phillips”; Hodierne’s film dares to venture inside the psyche of a single Somali pirate, delving into the desperate circumstances that prompted the hijacking and the crisis of conscience that follows. Though it’s actually a narrative film, “Fishing Without Nets” plays like an art-house documentary as tension builds with a horrific, searing authenticity.

So, how did a first-time filmmaker effectively capture one of the most harrowing circumstances imaginable at sea in a different country in a different language without professional actors or a studio budget?
It began with an obsession.”It’s just a pure fascination. A pure artistic urge to make this movie from this perspective,” Hodierne told Indiewire. An increasingly popular breakthrough tactic for first-time directors with a feature idea is to shoot a short first, and that’s exactly what Hodierne did. “Basically the idea was, ‘Let’s go over to East Africa. Let’s get to know a bunch of people, find subjects, and let’s make a short film that shows the genesis of our feature,” he said.

The beauty of this strategy is that the short film serves as a vehicle for the feature by securing confidence in the director — and, in turn, funding. But for Hodierne, it was also a chance to test out an inherently risky idea. He honed his aesthetic vision and gained confidence in his ability to find Somali subjects. “We ended up shooting so much material… we shot these side storylines that helped us explore the idea for the feature,” he said. The short film, also titled “Fishing Without Nets,” ultimately screened in competition at Sundance 2012. “It ended up like a teaser, where you wanted the story to continue,” he said.

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And continue he did. By October of that year, he had raised enough money for the feature and was back in Africa to begin shooting. Authenticity was the foremost concern for Hodierne. “We brought in everybody that mattered in order to do this realistically,” Hodierne said. As if setting out to make a documentary, Hodierne and his crew merged the casting process with the writing process. They enlisted a Somali man to serve as their portal into the community —  or “central casting,” as Hodierne joked —and began culling stories from locals with real-life piracy and hostage experiences. “We used real stories to help propel a fictional narrative. We would base stories off of the people that we were casting; we would feel out somebody, and maybe change things once we knew who was going to be speaking the words.” Hodierne offered an example: “There is this scene where the pirates convert somebody to Islam. That was a story that a hostage told us. We had a hostage with us while we shot it,” he said.

The Somali non-actors lent an unshakeable credence to the story that’s writ large in every scene. “There’s something you can’t take off someone’s face when they’ve seen or experienced these things,” Hodierne said. The crew also shot on a functioning oil rig bartered from a shipping company. Out of the 11 hostages cast in the film, two were professional actors; the rest were the oil rig’s crew. Even the main character’s central conflict is based on the lead actor’s real life. And at one point, a particularly violent hostage scene turned so realistic that an actor suffered a broken nose. 

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Working with local non-actors was also a challenge in terms of the language barrier, but Hodierne said it ultimately worked to his advantage. “[Working with a translator] gives you time to think about what you just said. It makes you refine your direction to be as specific and detailed as possible. It’s a huge challenge in that you’re not able to directly communicate, but on the other hand, you really learn a lot about what’s important in a performance just from body language and tone.”

For all his concerns about authenticity, ironically, Hodierne has had critics question his credentials to tell this particular story. He explained his point of view: “I was the right person to tell it because I was the person who bothered to do it. I don’t by any means feel like I’m a spokesman for the Somali side of the story. I think of myself much more as a collaborator with Somali actors — we were trying to say something together. I don’t think I was trying to make a political statement with the movie. I was trying to explore a grey area, and as a result have made a political statement. I think that’s the power of making [morally ambiguous movies]: you end up making a political statement by trudging through that grey.”

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