For some reason, we have seen an influx of films about Somali pirates lately, from last year’s Oscar-nominated hit Captain Phillips and the slow-burn Danish thriller A Hijacking, to the recent Somali-language drama Fishing Without Nets. Before this wave settles, there is still room for another terrific title: the documentary Last Hijack, a revealing and often riveting look into the central dilemma of one pirate’s life.
The film, directed by Femke Wolting and Tommy Pallotta, is a live-action non-fiction movie buoyed by sequences of rotoscoped animation. Much of the present-day action focuses around Mohamed, whose days of ransom collecting and living the high-octane thrill of a pirate may be close to over. Hanging out in Eyl, a Somali shantytown not far from the Indian Ocean, Mohamed is in debt. After many years of pirating, he has to figure out whether to return home to get married and raise a family or continue risking his life with a band of ocean-bound criminals. Early in Last Hijack, he sits with a group of pirate wannabes on the beach with their sights on the seas. They chew khat, pass around rifles and bicker over whether to bring a first-aid kit. “If someone gets injured, he’ll sink,” one of the men says. “We’ll throw him into the sea.”
Before he can throw himself back into the sea, though, Mohamed has to deal with pressure at home. Due to his past excursions and time away from his family, Mohamed is not too surprised to see his kids call their grandfather ‘dad.’ He is a stranger to his own children. Wolting and Pallotta manage to bring their camera right into the tense family arguments, which humiliate Mohamed. Despite the embarrassment, he does not resolve to atone for his time away and still imagines living the high life.
When the directors need to set an adrenaline-fueled montage of one of Mohamed’s prior hijackings, or enter his imagination to communicate an idea the reticent Somali is holding back, they turn to animation. Pallotta was a producer on Richard Linklater’s Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly, which employed the same rotoscoping techniques, a mixture of video-game-like movement and painted, storybook-like backgrounds and sets. Here, Mohamed swims through milky water and along pastel backgrounds. The animation is impressive for such a low-budget film, but these fantasies are not as vibrant or immersive as Pallotta’s other efforts.
Often, the animated sequences fill in the gaps of Mohamed’s experience, such as flashbacks of hijackings. These scenes, which sometimes take the Somali perspective as they arrive on board and search beneath the deck, look like a first-person shooter video game. (“We captured the ship without firing one bullet,” he recounts with pride during one montage.) In some animated flights of fancy, Mohamed transforms into a giant bird, which soars through the air before its enormous talons clutch a massive vessel below. While the metaphor is clear, it is also heavy-handed.
Last Hijack also gives a context to the difficult financial climate in the Horn of Africa that pushes young boys to desire the day when they can board a British vessel and plunder a sizable booty. This situation was discussed in vague terms in Captain Phillips and A Hijacking, but is omnipresent in Wolting and Pallotta’s documentary. The animation also conjures up memories of history, a la Waltz with Bashir, depicting how famine devastated the land and civil war depleted the population. A few brutal animated sequences announce the arrival of the Somali civil war that eventually marred a land of glorious white sand into empty harbor towns with decrepit shops and houses. “The ocean turned into a pool of cash,” Mohamed’s father tells us.
To Mohamed, though, the boat and the motor are his mother and father. The directors are sensitive to his moral quandary, but much of what they capture is Mohamed’s apathy to become just another ordinary guy. He would rather be a pirate than a father. “Don’t you think it’s strange that you’re seeing your kids for the first time?” one of his relatives asks. “It’s fun being a pirate,” Mohamed replies. However, pirates get caught very easily in today’s Somalia. Even those who manage to get a ransom only return to land with a small portion. (The vast majority of Somali pirates, meanwhile, are either dead or in prison.) The romantic pirate’s life is now one foregrounded by risk, rather than reward.
At a few points, the directors veer away from Mohamed and focus on a radio station anchor, Abdifatah Omar Geedi. He broadcasts a program that advocates against piracy; however, despite the receding popularity of that life of crime, he still has to be wary of taking the same route to work. Abdifatah tells of a time when a hand grenade landed on the corrugated roof above his office but slid off, sparing his life. One of the interviews Abdifatah has with the filmmakers is interrupted by several threatening phone calls, which he conducts with a brave face despite knowing that the person on the other line likely wants him dead. “I go through this every day,” he tells the directors.
Interestingly, Last Hijack is book-ended by popular references to European cinema. In the first scene, during the first transition into animation, a blue rope flings Mohamed into the air and lets him soar above the sea, similar to a notable shot from the beginning of Fellini’s 8 1/2. Standing adrift from that moment of liberation, one of the last shots of the film is the often-repeated image of a man standing on a beach and looking out to the water, pondering where to go from there – a nod to the iconic ending of Truffaut’s The 400 Blows. With its departures into animation, its allusions to art-house classics and its gripping cinema verite aesthetic, Last Hijack is an odd mix. However, the style manages to bring substance, clarity and imagination to help us understand the pain and pleasure of a pirate’s life.
Mixing animation and documentary in evocative ways, Last Hijack is an illuminating look at the thrill and the toll of Somali piracy.