Synopsis – In 2008, rookie journalist Jay Bahadur forms a half-baked plan to embed himself among the pirates of Somalia.
My Take – Compared to other African countries, we never get to see much about Somalia in films, right? From what I know, they have been portrayed as antagonists in two major studio films, 2001’s Black Hawk Down and 2013’s Captain Philips, the latter which made the world aware of the massive problems of Somalis, in particular those who turn to maritime piracy and are notoriously known for hijacking and seizing cargo ships in the African waters and the Indian Ocean for ransoms in the millions of dollars. This intriguing subject is a base line of this Bryan Buckley film, which seems to have out of nowhere with a compelling retelling of a great story, with a refreshing approach to film-making, an awesome cast, and some very memorable characters. Half expecting this to be an action thriller on the exploits of Somalian Pirates, this film somehow also turned out to be one man’s story to fulfill his dream of being a journalist and write about a country no one care about, all without being overbearing or politically driven. Sure, it has a few flaws, like almost every film, yet this one deserves a watch, especially for those who respect real journalism, as this is a heartfelt and cerebral tribute to those who want to change the world with words and not guns. Based on the New York Times bestseller, ‘The Pirates of Somalia: Inside Their Hidden World’, the story follows Jay Jay (Evan Peters), a young Canadian wannabe journalist, who has been floundering and spending his time doing market research on placement of facial tissues on shelves in local grocery stores as his only hope of getting out of Ontario is by receiving a successful admission letter in the journalism program from some top universities. However, after a chance encounter with veteran battlefield journalist Seymour Tolbin (Al Pacino), Jay is convinced that in order to make a name for himself, he must do what no one has done before, travel to Somalia, a country he has been fascinated for some time, and interview the pirates.
Naturally Jay’s parents, Kailash (Alok Tawari) and Maria (Melanie Griffith) think their boy has gone nuts and beg him to give up the fantasy, but Jay gets lucky and finds himself raising money to travel to Somalia with an official government invite. It comes with strings, including a handler named Abdi (Barkhad Abdi), a local translator who puts him in contact with his subjects, an armed protection, and a few strict rules. As Jay strolls around gathering information for his book, he befriends a number of people, from the president’s son to a beautiful young women named Maryan (Sabrina Hassan), who also happens to be one of many wives of a local warlord, all the while getting a first-hand look at the pirates, how they live and why they pirate. Obviously, Jay put himself in danger and had many brushes with death just to get all this story, but the absurdity of the tale allowed director Bryan Buckley to find a great deal of humor in the story. The film is surprisingly what I would term a comedy, even as much of the subject matter is deadly serious, but what surprised me was how it was all surprisingly heartfelt. It would have been easy to showcase how dangerous Somalia is or how evil the people are. Instead, the film offers insight into the history of the Somali people and why they resorted to piracy all those years ago. It doesn’t excuse the horrible aspects of their actions but it gives you a better understanding of the dynamics of the country. It gives the viewer a really different perspective on the story of these proud people who have a history of culture and used to settle disputes with poetry, not violence. For the Somalis it is an issue of going hungry or finding another source of income and those very valuable cargo ships on the water near home is a big temptation for them. You’d also think that the pirates, whom Jay interviews, will either kill him or hold him for ransom, but no: instead Jay learns that foreign imperialists destroyed a pirate group’s lobster fishing business, forcing them to go the illegal route, and further, these folks are considered Robin Hoods as they distribute their ransom wealth to the people. Somalia, as Jay Badahur wants the world to know, is a fledgling democracy where power changed hands without a shot being fired even though a minority person is chosen president by eighty votes. I can’t vouch for how accurate it is as I’m no expert on foreign affairs, but it made me want to learn more about the situation. The film a works best when it’s subtle, like the early scenes that take place in Jay’s home in Canada are filled with muted blues that match the coldness and blandness of his life, however, once the interviews with the pirates begin, the film takes off, and, with the help of Andrew Feltenstein and John Nau’s score, fear sets in. Jay interviews two pirates: Boyah (Mohamed Barre) and Garaad (Mohamed Osmail Ibrahim), the leader, or godfather of the pirates, and husband of Jay’s love interest Maryan. During the first Boyah interview, Jay is rightfully afraid for his life, as he is not used to the customs, but as Boyah’s interviews progress, it gets decidedly more easygoing as he becomes used more used to said customs. It is through these interviews that we learn the evolution of the motives of the pirates. They saw themselves righteous vigilantes, protecting their waters from illegal fishing. However, what they became were deadly criminals with a skewed moral compass. What director Buckley’s script does get right is the thankless task of doing freelance journalism.
He finds little support until Avril Benoit (Maria Vos), a CBC editor and subject matter expert, becomes his advocate back home. Initially finding rejection, he’s forced into a great depression, confined to a tiny jail cell-like room where he’s advised against opening the window for his own safety, and he slowly goes mad while going broke. As fate would have it, the Captain Phillips hijacking took place while Jay was in the country, and the interest in Somali pirates skyrocketed across the world, the result of which it becomes too dangerous for Jay to remain there as a visitor. While the writing is fast-paced and self-aware, visually it seems director Buckley couldn’t decide which direction he wanted to take the film. Most of the time, the camerawork is handheld and done with a boots-on-the-ground realism that matches the journalism theme. Throughout the film, there is a unique use of animation during drug-induced sequences and moments of recreating terror-laden incidents. It is also used to explain how the pirates successfully “make” their money and Jay becomes increasingly manic as he ingests Khat, the drug that has ravaged a sizable portion of the population of Somalia. It is highly addictive, as it contains the alkaloid cathinone, an amphetamine-like stimulant which causes euphoria and people to talk incessantly fast among other unwanted side-effects. It is a custom to bring Khat to every meeting with a leader of the pirates. As Jay continues to take the drug, these scenes begin to feel quite jarring and take you out of the moment, mainly for being too ultra-stylized and over-the-top, something which the film could have done without, especially to help its already long 116 minute run time. Luckily for a film primarily centered on conversations, meetings and interviews, each scene has a thumping momentum uplifted by the powerful chemistry between its leads. In a rare leading role, Evan Peters is excellent here. If you have seen his range of performance in every season of American Horror Story, and of course as Quicksilver in the latest X-Men films, you know he can carry a whole film. Here, he effortlessly plays a character with a certain level of naivety that’s both charming and relatable. The scene stealer, though, is Barkhad Abdi who plays a translator who befriends Bahadur while he’s in Somalia. The two play off each other brilliantly and their bromance is endearing to watch. Unlike the nervous, unsure-of-himself young man yearning for a better life in Captain Phillips, Abdi inhabits this character with confidence, calmness, and manages to look wise. He has a blast playing Abdi, infusing him with humor in between moments of genuine sincerity and, at times, terror from Bahadur’s point-of-view. It’s slightly difficult for audiences not to notice an unintentional breaking of the fourth wall with the Captain Phillips reference, as Abdi played the pirate who was captured in the aftermath of the hostage situation. However, Abdi is such a strong actor that the cinematic coincidence vanishes in the viewer’s mind in an instant. Al Pacino is literally playing himself in an over extended cameo, while in supporting roles, Melanie Griffith, Maria Vos, Sabrina Hassan Abdulle and Mohamed Barre are likable. On the whole, ‘The Pirates of Somalia‘ is a wild, engaging, inspirational journalism drama which despite its lack of seriousness manages to be insightful.
Directed – Bryan Buckley
Rated – R
Run Time – 116 minutes