Captain Phillips, A Hijacking, And Cinema’s Somali Pirates Moment

What do the recent spate of Somali pirate movies reveal about this complex political, trade and human rights problem?

It’s well known that movies tend to arrive in cinemas in pairs. Right now, we’re having a Somali pirate hijacking moment.

A Hijacking, currently in cinemas, is a procedural thriller focusing on the ransom negotiations between pirates and a Danish shipping company. Director Tobias Lindholm cuts tensely back and forth between CEO Peter Ludvigsen (Søren Malling) in Denmark and the brutalized, captive ship’s crew, particularly cook Mikkel Hartmann (Pilou Asbæk).

Over the weekend, Andy Wolff’s documentary The Captain and His Pirate screened in Melbourne on the Antenna Documentary Festival roadshow. It’s an intimate, retrospective profile of the two protagonists in the 2009 hijacking of the German container ship Hansa Stavangar — Somali pirate leader Ahado and the ship’s captain, Krysztof Kotiuk. Both recount events from their points of view and describe their unexpected bond.

And in cinemas from tomorrow is the inevitable gritty American actioner, Captain Phillips, also based on a true story and given a realpolitik patina by Paul Greengrass, who’s directed two Bourne movies plus the thrillers United 93 and Green Zone. Tom Hanks plays the veteran captain who finds himself at close quarters with increasingly desperate pirates as their hijacking goes pear-shaped and US Navy SEALs prepare to resolve the situation by force.

So what do these movies reveal about a complex political, trade and human rights problem that isn’t going away?

Piracy is a global trade

Commercial shipping traffic from the Middle East to Africa must run the gauntlet of Somalia’s pirate-held coastline. Piracy costs global trade an estimated $6.6 to $6.9 billion a year; the main beneficiaries are insurance companies, who’ve jacked up their premiums accordingly.

While it suits the West to think of Somali pirates as primitive fishermen turned freelance robbers in speedboats, operating spontaneously and motivated by greed and/or ideology, all three films show piracy as a global trade carried out by trained footsoldiers for organised syndicates. A Hijacking explicitly frames ransom negotiations as a business deal. Ahado explains in The Captain and His Pirate that for him this is a job, not just a random act of violence. Similarly, lead pirate Muse (Barkhad Abdi) consoles an anxious Captain Phillips, “This is just business.”

Captain Phillips illustrates the pirates’ procedural rhythms and organisational structures. The sleekly dressed big boss rocks up in his SUV, music blaring, to put Glengarry Glen Ross-style sales pressure on Muse’s boss. (“Khat is for closers!”) So Muse and his fellow pirates urgently hit the boats, using radar and radio to target their quarry, and mobile phones to request backup from their boss in his ‘mothership’.

But piracy is a unique trade because its transactions depend on putting emotional and political pressure on third parties. The pirates don’t steal cargo; they hold crews hostage and negotiate for ransom with their home companies and governments. A Hijacking underscores that Omar (Abdihakin Asgar), the pirates’ translator and negotiator, has no ideological alignment with them. He’s just a middleman doing a job for his cut.

Captain Phillips’ ordeal was resolved relatively speedily, but kidnappings can drag on for as long as it takes to successfully exert pressure on companies and governments. A Hijacking unfolds over three months; The Captain and His Pirate took four, during which time the pirates brought several German crew members ashore to Somalia, while Kotiuk pleaded for his release in an email to Chancellor Angela Merkel.

A new brand of piratical antihero

The swashbuckling antiheroism we still associate with piracy dates from its Caribbean ‘Golden Age’, which lasted from the mid-16th century to the early 18th century, and has been defined and refined by a romantic literary tradition. Lord Byron’s poetry; Sir Walter Scott’s historical romance; Rafael Sabatini’s adventure novels; Robert Louis Stevenson’s children’s adventure; JM Barrie’s play and novel.

The real-life pirates on whom these stories are based were mostly British, French and Dutch citizens. In other words, our antiheroes look like us. Somali pirates are just as brutal and perfunctory as pirates have always been, but because they’re both black and Muslim, their activities are easy to describe as an amorphous terrorist threat to Western protagonists rather than an adventure or hero’s journey. It’s been 20 years since the disastrous Battle of Mogadishu, but our image of Somalis has changed little from Black Hawk Down’s lawless, Westerner-hating guerrillas hopped up on khat.

But the recent Somali pirate movies grant increasing amounts of antiheroism to their pirate characters. I’d expected Captain Phillips to be the most American-centric, but A Hijacking actually offers the most simplistic depiction of pirates’ actions and motives. By contrast, Muse is a fully realised character.

Skinny and intense, Muse is determined to one-up his colleagues by capturing the container ship Maersk Alabama, a huge and challenging prize. He assembles a crew whose varying personalities wouldn’t be out of place in a caper movie. Elmi (Mahat M. Ali) is an expert boat pilot; Najee (Faysal Ahmed) provides the muscle, though he’s a stranger with a hair-trigger temper. Finally, Muse chooses inexperienced teenager Bilal (Barkhad Abdirahman) because he’s the little brother of the girl Muse fancies.

Cinema is beginning to romanticise contemporary Somali piracy, much as the 18th-century ‘true crime’ bestseller A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pyrates expressed bittersweet admiration for European rogues. When we portray pirates as flawed individuals, we echo the General History’s author, one Captain Charles Johnson, who wrote of the sadistic Edward ‘Blackbeard’ Teach: “Here was an end of that courageous brute, who might have passed in the world for a hero had he been employed in a good cause.”

What traumatises the victims

But our identification with pirates can only ever be temporary and ambivalent because of the deliberate trauma they inflict on their Western hostages. All three films have gun-to-head standoffs in which the pirates threaten hostages with immediate death… and occasionally follow through.

A Hijacking reduces Mikkel to an incoherent, nearly catatonic state, while The Captain and His Pirate seems to follow Kotiuk’s treatment for post-traumatic stress at a psychiatric inpatient clinic. One of the most affecting scenes in Captain Phillips occurs as a kind of coda, as Phillips breaks down during a post-rescue medical assessment.

But as Ahado explains in The Captain and His Pirate, pirates are ‘pre-traumatised’ by growing up in Somalia. Machine guns and low-flying helicopters are normal sights and sounds; you accept that you might not return alive from Mogadishu marketplace. An official Somali government list of apprehended pirates notes that 80 per cent hail from the southern conflict zones, rather than the more stable north.

The tension in pirate films arises from this emotional asymmetry of the encounter between pirate and hostage. Perhaps what makes Captain Phillips’ pirate quartet so sympathetic is their anxiety and desperation, so similar to that of their hostage, during the film’s nail-biting final act.

The emotional burden of trying to reason with a reckless pirate is itself traumatic, and often falls to the ship’s captain — although in A Hijacking it falls to the cook. One of the saddest things about The Captain and His Pirate is that Kotiuk’s crew turned on him, accusing him of colluding with the pirates. It’s ironic — but perhaps instructional for us as viewers — that the pirate befriended the captain because he felt sorry for someone so bereft and alone.

A Hijacking is screening now at the Chauvel Cinema in Sydney and Cinema Nova in Melbourne. Captain Phillips opens in cinemas nationally tomorrow.

Mel Campbell is a freelance journalist and cultural critic. She is the founding editor of online pop culture magazine The Enthusiast. Her debut book, Out of Shape: Debunking Myths about Fashion and Fit, is out now.