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

Photo of Matt Brennan By Matt Brennan | Thompson on Hollywood! November 19, 2013 at 4:24PM

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.
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"Stolen Seas," directed by Thymara Payne
"Stolen Seas," directed by Thymara Payne

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.

This article is related to: Reviews, Genres, Drama, Documentaries, Captain Phillips, Paul Greengrass


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Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.