Dabka opens with a voiceover from its protagonist, Jay Bahadur (Evan Peters), explaining that he hates voiceover in films because it’s lazy filmmaking. This self-aware smugness unfortunately sets the tone for the entire movie, which wavers between comedy and serious drama without much clear direction or purpose. And it’s a shame, because the true story of Dabka, about an aspiring journalist who embedded himself with Somali pirates for six months, is about as exciting as you can get.
When we first meet Jay, he’s an obnoxious and entitled man-child, living in his parents’ basement in Toronto (not his fault), working marketing for a napkin manufacturer (also not his fault), and waxing eloquent about what a brilliant and misunderstood writer he is (very much his fault). He is, in other words, the worst that has ever been said about the Millennial generation, a fact which renders him unsympathetic to most viewers and, frankly, makes him into an easy caricature.
Jay runs into veteran Daily Mail journalist/creepy old man Seymour Tolbin (Al Pacino), who convinces him to chuck in all of that “training” and “education” you can get at journalism school and just plunge into the thick of it. So that’s what Jay does. Realizing that there’s a story in the rise of the Somali pirates, Jay communicates with the son of the president, representing himself as a journalist writing a book about the pirates, and convinces the country to host him.
If the opening of the film is a major turnoff, at least in the second act it actually begins to do something worthwhile. The pirates are the hook, of course, but Jay gradually comes to see the Somali people in a far more complicated light. And the film does, too, embracing the Somali sequences with an energy and immediacy that belies its earlier smugness. Jay takes the time to listen to everyone, especially his local translator Abdi (Barkhad Abdi), who introduces him to good pirates and not-so-good pirates as he comes to learn the history and the complicated background of a long-suffering and long-ignored nation. His infatuation with Maryan (Sabrina Hassan), whom he sees from the window of his residence, leads him to her husband, the “Godfather of pirates” Garaad (Mohamed Osmail Ibrahim), who would later rise to fame as the mastermind behind the Captain Phillips debacle.
There are more than a few missteps here, though. Jay has the occasional revenge fantasy against his ex-girlfriend, whose existence is primarily an excuse for him to complain about the unfairness of the world. He later begins dreaming (in animation, no less) of the people that he meets—usually casting himself as savior. Like his ex, Maryan is treated as an instigator for his behavior rather than a full human being, though I must give serious props to Sabrina Hassan, who instills what might have an “exotic dream girl” character with a depth and passion that Jay does not deserve.
This film, in fact, does not deserve its supporting cast in general. The Somali actors in particular are strong and interesting performers, far more so than their main white counterpart. The film makes much of having cast Somali refuges as actual Somalians, blithely acknowledging this during a pivotal conversation between Jay and Maryan about Black Hawk Down and then again in the credits. But the actors are far more than a hook for the film, just as the pirates were far more than a hook for the real-life Bahadur. As he did with Captain Phillips, Barkhad Abdi once again proves to be an excellent actor, stealing all of his scenes with Peters with spectacular ease. Even the smaller roles, like the single scene featuring the Somali president (Mohamed Abdi Mohamed) make a greater impression than all of Pacino’s posturing.
Pacino, by the way, is wasted in his minuscule role, as is Melanie Griffith as Jay’s concerned mother. Evan Peters turns in a serviceable performance as the lead, going full Leo DiCaprio with both beard and performance, but he’s ill-equipped to hold the camera for any length of time, and given that the entire film centers around Jay’s education and experiences, that’s a serious blow. To defend him, he’s given a thankless task of playing what amounts to a tourist with delusions of journalistic integrity.
I don’t mean to claim that Dabka has no redeeming features, but it seems to be working against itself in both tone and content. The first act appears to set up a smugly self-aware comedy of errors, while the second delves into the problems facing Somalia with a seriousness that belies its earlier flippant attitude. It’s refreshing to see Somalia treated as complex and multi-faceted, and the film cannily avoids condescending to the people. Jay also ceases to see the Somali people as a means to fame and begins to see them as human beings, an awakening that the film mirrors through the complex and humanistic depiction of the nation, and the people that inhabit it. The comedic tone often helps there – there are jokes, there’s laughter, there’s the day-to-day life of individuals stuck in distressing circumstances.
But Dabka fails to follow through on its promises, falling back on cultural clichés that we come to expect from a film about a white guy going to a foreign country and learning something. Although it wants to treat the complex of issues facing Somalia with tenderness and honesty, it still comes off as cultural tourism – humanitarian cultural tourism, but cultural tourism all the same. The Somalis are the best and most interesting characters, yet are continually relegated to the background when pressing questions about the protagonist – will Jay get his book deal? – rise up. I would have been far more interested to know more about the rise of Boyah (Mohamed Barre) from lobster fisherman to “the Somali Robin Hood” than I was in whether or not our Canadian hero ever got Maryan’s phone number.
Dabka has a better heart than most films of its type, so it’s a shame that it never quite reaches the heights that it would like to. There are scenes of excellent tension and excellent storytelling, but as a whole it never comes together. Like its well-meaning and slightly stupid protagonist, Dabka never quite overcomes its own smugness.
Despite an excellent secondary cast and an interesting story, Dabka fails in its aspirations due almost entirely to its own smugness.