Some Thoughts To Chew On Regarding The Recent Rash Of Somali Piracy Movies...

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by Tambay A. Obenson
October 10, 2013 1:33 PM
3 Comments
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The Real Abduwali Abdukhad Muse In American Custody Courtesy of africasacountry.com

Long time reader's of S&A will be fully aware of my aversion to and criticisms of films that tackle the broadly-termed "Somali Piracy Issue" - especially those (most, if not all of them) made by westerners (specifically white filmmakers), that tend to offer limited, incomplete portrayals of the matter.

I'm sure you can guess what my concerns here would be, after reading the synopses alone for many of these films. For example, recently, it was announced that a film adaptation of Wilbur Smith’s novel Those In Peril is being developed by British production company ReelArt Media, scheduled for an eventual 2014 release. Within the novels description, is this sentence, which (amongst others), makes me cringe: "Complicated political and diplomatic considerations render the civilized major powers incapable of intervening...

Of course, civilized is in contrast to the "uncivilized" African pirates who've hijacked and horrifically tortured white Hazel Bannock's 19-year old daughter; while, in comes the story's knight in shining armor, to the rescue! And I'm sure those damned uncivilized African pirates pay dearly!

Somali pirate stories were seemingly all the rage 3 - 4 years ago, in what I thought would likely be the beginning of a deluge of pirate movies, all fashioned after the piracy stories the media fell in love with, but failed to properly vet.

Of the many films that were announced, the highest profile of the bunch to finally become a reality is Columbia Pictures' Paul Greengrass-directed adaptation of the story of Richard Phillips - the captain of one of the ships captured by Somalis (the Maersk Alabama), later rescued by the U.S. Navy, with Tom Hanks starring.

Titled Captain Phillips, the film opens wide this weekend. I haven't seen it yet, but I will. Not only am I a fan of the starring actor and the film's director, I'm also obviously very curious to see how this particular film handles the "Somali Piracy Issue." 

Not that I'm expecting anything groundbreaking in terms of depictions, but from the handful of reactions I've read/heard from those who've seen it, Greengrass does attempt to make actor Barkhad Abdi's Somali pirate leader (Abduwali Abdukhad Muse, who's currently serving 30 years in an Indiana prison), 3-dimensional and complex. But it's still ultimately the title character's story, as played by Tom Hanks. And as I noted in a previous post, it would be great, for once, to have a story like this, of this caliber, be told strictly from Muse's POV, giving the audience a well-rounded picture of his universe, his journey, his background, his family, etc, and what led him to become the man he is in the film. 

Now THAT would be interesting and revolutionary. But that's not a story Hollywood is interested in telling. So the indie filmmakers will have to!

My main interest with these Hollywood productions is that their research teams paint, for the audience, the full picture of the so-called piracy matter, giving equal weight to all sides of the story, rather than emphasizing ostensible heroics, while suppressing harsh, incriminating truths. One of my recommendations was that they start by reading this article by Johann Hari of The Independent in the UK: You Are Being Lied To About Pirates

I'd encourage you all to read it as well, if you haven't already. It's just one piece out of many like it.

Dominating narrow portrayals of Africans as either the starving, helpless, hapless victims, or as post-colonial *savages,* have grown trite and tiresome, while failing to delve into the full complexities beneath the often 2-dimensional surfaces we are bombarded with.

Cutter Hodierne's Sundance 2012 award-winning short film Fishing Without Nets, is one that I'd offer as a counter argument, telling the Somali pirates story from, and only from the perspective of the Somalis themselves. Cutter is currently developing the short into a feature film. 

And there have been a few others.

All that said, in closing, what I really wanted to draw your attention to are two things: first, an interview with Barkhad Abdi, given to The Source, in which he talks, in-depth, about his being cast in Captain Phillips, working with Hanks and Greengrass, and more. 

Read that interview HERE and get to know the actor (this is his very first film).

And second, the good folks at Africa Is A Country published an insightful piece this morning, titled "Tom Hanks, Captain Phillips and the “True Story” of Somali Piracy." In it, you'll find commentary on Captain Phillips, but also a profile of Canada-based Mosotho filmmaker Kaizer Matsumunyane, who's produced a documentary titled The Smiling Pirate, in an effort to tell the Maersk Alabama story from Abduwali Abdukhad Muse’s perspective, and, as the article puts it, to pose a direct "challenge to the problematic representation of the Somali Pirates in the film Captain Phillips and aims to do something Hollywood has thus far been afraid to do: give Muse and others in Somalia a genuine voice to tell their side of the story."

Read that piece HERE.

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3 Comments

  • Kojak's Wig | October 17, 2013 1:01 AMReply

    I'd give Tambay's words more merit had he not previously predicted "Best Man 2" makes 100 mil.

  • amo | October 10, 2013 5:38 PMReply

    I'm not sure if the Hodeirne projects really escape this "problem," either. He's drawn to the stories much as other filmmakers are (adventure! danger! social ills! poverty! war!), and much like other filmmakers do, he talks about his interest in the pirate POV etc. And poses gleefully with Africans holding AKs and qat in the snapshots taken on set and posted on the Fishing's social media pages. The VICE aesthetic is just as troubling - if not more so - as anything coming out of mainstream and well-heeled Hollywood.

  • Akimbo | October 10, 2013 3:45 PMReply

    From Beejoli Shah's review at Defamer:

    "4. They're four men, and they're led by Abduwali Abdukhadir Muse, played by Somali newcomer Barkhad Abdi as a scrawny, scared boy forced into puffing himself up into something resembling a man to survive. When we first meet Muse and his "crew," they're sleeping in huts, starving, desperate for work. When Somali warlords demand they take over a freighter for ransom, it's obvious this is a doomed enterprise, and just as obvious that Muse has no choice but to do it. By the time he and his men reach the Alabama, undernourished, sustained solely by khat, they're already exhausted and defeated. But they have guns, and they're desperate: They're extremely dangerous. A series of mistakes and misunderstandings ensue, and next thing you know, [spoiler].

    5. ..... The movie, without ever underlining it, sees every angle, and while it never acts as if Phillips isn't someone worth rescuing, or as if these pirates aren't wrong, it doesn't rob them of their humanity, either. It knows why they're there, and how it was their only real option. As the movie careens toward its conclusion, it's increasingly clear that we haven't been watching an action thriller at all: We've been watching a tragedy. At the end, as everyone is destroyed, as Phillips collapses — in a raw, trembling scene for Hanks, who's as good as he's ever been — there is no triumph, no victory. Captain Phillips is about what happens in that contained space, between scared people who don't know how they got there. But it's also about how they got there. This is a great film."

    Sounds like it could be a winner. I'll be checking it out.

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